City to Resume Work on Controversial Potrero Canyon Job in Palisades

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Times Staff Writer

Nearly four years after the project was proposed and a year after it received approval from the California Coastal Commission, Los Angeles officials say they are ready to begin filling a Pacific Palisades canyon in an effort to halt landslides.

When the controversial and ambitious Potrero Canyon project is complete, the canyon will be filled with 1 million cubic yards of dirt, 75 feet high in some places, and a new park with nature trails will be built atop the fill.

Gasoline Leak

Work on the project began in April but ran into a snag: While demolishing a portion of a motel and former gas station at the base of the canyon, contractors discovered that gasoline had leaked from underground tanks, contaminating the soil.


The contamination did not spread into the water table, according to Claire Rogger of Councilman Marvin Braude’s office.

Removing the tainted soil cost the city at least $500,000, as well as the two-month delay, said Kathleen Chan, who is managing the project for the city Department of Recreation and Parks.

“They (the tanks)were perforated and had leaked residue into the soil and all the way to the bedrock,” Chan said. “They’ve been in there for a million years, so we had to remove the contaminated soil and that was extremely costly. That has been accomplished.”

Chan said the demolition work has also been completed and that contractors expect to begin grading the canyon at the end of this month. The first phase of the project calls for putting 10 to 12 feet of fill in the canyon and installing a storm drain that will carry rainwater to Will Rogers State Beach.

On Tuesday, the City Council’s Finance and Revenue Committee approved a request to appropriate $1.13 million for the $7-million project, which the city has been financing in stages. The money, which will be used to complete the first phase and to design the second and third phases of the project, is “absolutely essential,” Rogger said.

Rogger and other city officials said they are anxious about pushing forward with the project for two reasons. First, they are concerned about meeting requirements set down by the California Coastal Commission, which stipulated in its permit that the project be completed three years after the commission’s February, 1987, vote approving it.


Design Plans

The permit also requires the city to provide the commission with design plans for the second and third phases within six months of completing the first phase.

Second, city officials are concerned that further delays will expose them to more lawsuits by owners of properties that are in danger of falling into the canyon.

Since 1933, about a dozen houses built along the cliffs have slid into Potrero Canyon, which is about 3,500 feet long, 400 feet wide and 265 feet deep. Several homes have been damaged by landslides and some have been condemned. In the past four years, the city has paid about $8 million to settle lawsuits by purchasing 22 homes along the canyon rim, according to Deputy City Atty. Leslie R. Pinchuk. Pinchuk said some of the homes have been torn down and some are being rented. The homeowners contended that city storm drains emptied water into the canyon and undercut its sides. Pinchuk said the city is still facing lawsuits that seek $3 million in damages, filed by two people who own three canyon properties. The parties are far from settling, he said.

Pinchuk has been saying for several years that the city should proceed quickly with the Potrero Canyon project to stave off future lawsuits. “In the long run it’s going to be a lot less expensive to do it this way than having a liability out there,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

Although the project had generated opposition in the past, Rogger said she believes most people in Pacific Palisades now support it because landslides are filling the canyon anyway.

Destroy Natural Canyon

“When the canyon began filling itself, nature was taking over,” Rogger said. “It became clear that it had to be done in an orderly way or a number of these properties will continue to slough off. There may be some people who regret deeply that it’s happening, but I think everyone sees the logic of it.”


However, Ron Dean, president of the Pacific Palisades Residents Assn., said many residents still oppose the project because it will destroy one of Los Angeles’ last natural canyons and will bring “a parade of trucks” through their community.

“The noise, the dirt, the trucks,” Dean sighed. “It’s terrible.”

Dean said he fears the project will take longer than the city’s three-year estimate, and said he does not believe filling the canyon is a guarantee against future landslides. If the fill does not stabilize the canyon, he said, the city will have wasted $7 million.

Chan, the project manager, agreed that because “no construction ever goes smoothly” it is possible that the project will take longer than three years to complete. As to Dean’s assertions that filling the canyon may not halt the landslides, she said: “He’s entitled to his opinion but . . . that is not based on any professional expertise. Our best professional opinion is that this project will stabilize slides in this canyon.”

Dean said he wishes the city would leave the canyon alone.

“If they would take that money and buy the houses on the cliff and admit their mistakes, they could work with nature rather than opposed to it,” he said. “We’re going to take this beautiful canyon and destroy it for what? It’s very frustrating. It’s a waste of money.”