Contemplating Legal Action : Residents Want to Stop Drain Project

Times Staff Writer

Residents of a narrow side street in the Fairfax District are contemplating legal action in an effort to block construction of a massive flood drain that they say will disrupt their lives.

"Our position is change it, move it or stop it," said Richard Platkin, co-chairman of a neighborhood group representing about 500 people who live on the 300 and 400 blocks of North Orange Grove Avenue.

Their concerns focus on the first stage of an $8.7-million project in which their street will be torn up to install a double-barrelled underground conduit to carry rain water to a retention basin in Pan Pacific Park.

The residents are upset about the prospect of several months of construction work outside their apartments for 14 hours a day on weekdays and 10 hours a day on Saturdays.

They are also concerned that curb-to-curb excavation will make it difficult for emergency vehicles to pass. Many of the residents are elderly.

And they are afraid that workmen may spark a methane explosion like the one that wrecked a nearby dress store last year.

But county officials said there is no alternative to the project, which is part of a 20-year effort to reduce flooding in much of the Westside.

They said the job could be finished in less than three months, that arrangements will be made to handle emergencies and that a methane explosion is unlikely since the work will be done in the open and not in a tunnel.

Banding together to stage a two-block garage sale Sunday, the neighbors raised more than $4,400 to hire a lawyer to represent their interests in talks with city and county officials.

Representatives of the group met with County Supervisor Ed Edelman and City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky for more than two hours Tuesday.

But they emerged dissatisfied with promised concessions that were intended to mitigate the impact of the construction work slated to begin March 17.

The concessions include a fenced, lighted parking lot about a mile away, where two vans will be available around the clock to shuttle residents to their homes every 15 minutes.

Parking Lot Guards

Security guards will be posted at the parking lot and along the street, said Gary J. Hartley, project manager for the county's public works department.

He also said a private firm would drill 10 test holes to determine if there is any underground buildup of methane. If any danger is found, steps will be taken to vent the gas before work gets under way, Hartley said.

He said officials will also look into banning work on Saturdays. This would lengthen the time needed to finish the job and require changes in the contract already signed with contractor Steve Bubalo, Hartley said.

As written, the contract provides for Bubalo to be awarded a $3,000-bonus for every day he finishes the job ahead of his deadline, which falls 120 days after the work begins.

If he were limited to five days a week the deadline would have to be changed, which could throw off the timing of later phases of the project.

Timing is crucial because a segment of the conduit across the Fairfax High School campus must be built during the summer vacation. The contract also provides that the Third Street leg of the project cannot be worked on during the year-end holiday shopping season.

Suggestion Called Impossible

Residents suggested that plans be redrawn to place the conduit under Fairfax Avenue or other streets further west, but Hartley said that was impossible because those streets run downhill from the retention basin. This means water would have to flow uphill to reach Pan Pacific Park.

Additionally, the Orange Grove location is needed to tie the new conduit into existing legs of the drainage system, Hartley said.

Excavation From Curb to Curb

"This is the only street that would suffice," he said.

Hartley said only a 400-foot stretch of the total project length of 1,500 feet would be excavated from curb to curb, which would cut off three apartment houses on the east side of the street from direct access by emergency vehicles.

The houses on the west would be accessible from a rear alley, Hartley said.

Bubalo is set to meet with Fire Department officials next week to discuss the access problem, said Bobbi Forest, the contractor's office manager.

"We're doing everything we can," she said. "But every time we give them something they want something else."

Although he acknowledged that the project will have a major impact, Hartley said a few residents have fanned the fears of their neighbors.

"They are deliberately trying to stir up controversy so they can force us into stopping construction or moving the job someplace else, which is just not feasible," he said. "It just cannot be done."

He said that as many as 200,000 people in a nine-square-mile area will benefit from the iMprovEd flOod cOntrol system, which is intended to replace a 40-year-old system that is inadequate to handle large rainstorms.

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