Year After Quake : Whittier: New Rows Shake City

Times Staff Writer

Kim Perine sifted through a pile of snapshots in her lap, staring at pictures of her family’s Whittier home after it was devastated by the powerful earthquake that shook Southern California one year ago this morning.

The distinctive 32-foot turret, the wood-beamed ceilings, the spiral staircase--all of it had to be demolished. It’s a story that Perine has grown weary of discussing. She would much rather talk about her new home, the one she designed, the one being built on her old lot, finally allowing her family to move out of her mother’s home.

Yet even the future is full of distress. Across Perine’s alley, a developer has leveled another quake-ruined home and wants to replace it with a seven-unit apartment building. It is the kind of change that many residents of Whittier fear is eroding the city’s quaint, established neighborhoods.


Angry Reaction

“It’s incredible to me that we have to fight to keep these things out of our neighborhoods,” Perine said angrily. “It’s enough that we have to worry about rebuilding without fighting about that.”

For most Southern California residents, the Oct. 1, 1987, earthquake, in which 15 seconds of violent shaking resulted in the deaths of three people and caused $368 million in damage in 55 cities in Los Angeles and Orange counties, has faded to a nervous memory.

But in Whittier, the community most dramatically affected by the disaster with $60 million in damage, the quake continues to reverberate. The city is locked in a prolonged controversy over rebuilding in which many residents complain that too much is being built in historic residential neighborhoods and too little has been done to restore the devastated central business district.

‘Honeymoon Is Over’

The much-vaunted spirit of community cooperation that followed the earthquake has given way to an intense debate pitting apartment developers against homeowners and merchants anxious to rebuild against a cautious City Hall.

“The cooperation is still there,” Mayor Victor A. Lopez said, “but the honeymoon is over.”

The honeymoon ended within days after the earthquake, when developers began approaching owners of earthquake-torn homes in areas zoned for high-density construction, urging them to sell rather than take on the tiresome task of repairing thousands of dollars in damage.

That uneasiness was compounded by bad memories. As late as last spring, according to a survey taken by a sociologist, about a third of the city’s residents were still experiencing symptoms of psychological distress.

By the summer it was clear that the complexion of Whittier’s neighborhoods was changing. New apartment buildings sprung up all over town. In one 4-square-mile area dominated by single-family homes, plans to build 123 new apartments were filed with City Hall.

Homeowners complained that developers were about to consume the small-town flavor that distinguishes their city of 73,000 from other Los Angeles County suburbs. They packed public meetings to complain that city officials had been spending all their time protecting the business district from cheap post-earthquake reconstruction while allowing nearby gracious residential areas to be littered with apartments.

“It is so frustrating to watch those qualities disappear when there’s still time to do something about it,” said Helen McKenna-Rahder, a spokeswoman for homeowners fighting apartment development.

In the weeks after the earthquake, community business leaders made brave predictions about rebuilding the 18-block downtown commercial center, known as the Uptown Village, within a year. But today, after the demolition of 30 Uptown buildings and the closure or departure of 50 businesses, the recovery estimate is more like five years.

Greenleaf Avenue, the district’s main street, remains a grim sight marked by empty lots, scaffolding and a few unstable buildings still behind protective chain-link fences.

“You see that and you’re sad,” said Whittier resident Marie Zimmerman.

Although the majority of Whittier’s homes have been repaired, piles of bricks and other debris still block curbs in some neighborhoods. In the Puente Hills area above the city, many homeowners still spend weekends with hammer in hand, attempting to speed the rebuilding process.

In response to homeowners’ complaints that builders are exploiting the scores of newly vacant lots in Whittier’s residential neighborhoods, the City Council has ordered a complete study of the city’s zoning, which is likely to lead to new limitations on the density of construction in many neighborhoods.

But homeowners such as Perine believe that by the time the study is completed in several months, it may be too late. “I thought I was protected in Whittier,” she said.

Apartment developers believed they were protected, too--until research by several homeowners revealed that individual lots zoned for high-density construction were designated for a lower density in the city’s “general plan” of growth.

When there is a conflict, the city has decided, the overall plan takes precedence. That action, coupled with the city’s new, stricter construction standards for apartment buildings, has jeopardized $5 million in pending apartment projects, according to Whittier developer Richard Villa.

The consequence is that developers who bought high-density property in good faith are now learning that they will be limited to a significantly lower number of apartment units per acre or be restricted to building single-family homes, turning their investments into financial losses, Villa said.

“You don’t allow a developer to proceed and then meat-ax the process,” said Villa, who organized a Whittier chapter of the Southern California Builders Assn. to defend the rights of developers in the rebuilding process.

Whittier officials also have had to deal with a militant new group of preservationists, who have sued the city twice, and won both times, to block the demolition of older buildings. The preservationists recently joined the angry homeowners in supporting Whittier’s new anti-apartment movement.

Whittier is not the only city that remains shaken by the quake, which registered 5.9 on the Richter scale, the largest Southern California quake since the 6.5 Sylmar quake in the San Fernando Valley in 1971.

The anniversary will bring special pangs to the 30,000 people in various communities who were left temporarily homeless. More than 8,000 homeowners are now paying off $215 million in Small Business Administration earthquake disaster loans.

Throughout the San Gabriel Valley, many obvious scars remain.

In Monterey Park, a 30-unit condominium complex, valued at more than $4 million, remains uninhabitable with extensive structural damage.

In Alhambra, scattered buildings on Main Street are still boarded up because of broken windows and other damage.

In San Gabriel, patrons of the city’s badly damaged Civic Auditorium are still picking their way around scaffolding. The nearby 183-year-old San Gabriel Mission, in need of a $2.5-million restoration, is still closed. Traditionally, 400 to 500 fourth-grade children visited the mission weekly in their study of California history. Those visits are now on hold.

At Cal State Los Angeles on the Eastside, where the quake caused $21 million in damage, only about $3 million in repairs have been made because of what officials describe as the complicated bureaucratic approval needed to obtain the rest of the money from the state and federal governments. Administrators expect that it will take another year for the campus to return to normal.

But nowhere does the power of the quake remain more visible than in Whittier’s Uptown Village, the commercial area established a century ago by Whittier’s Quaker founders, where unreinforced masonry buildings toppled onto Greenleaf Avenue.

The departure of many businesses has cost the city between $500,000 and $700,000 in annual property and sales tax revenue. “We’re going to struggle for a while,” City Manager Thomas G. Mauk said.

Much of the early optimism for a quick recovery was fueled by the availability of government disaster relief loans. The city pledged to streamline the rebuilding process for the merchants and the entire $360,000 in donations to the city’s earthquake disaster relief fund went for grants to Uptown merchants.

But the bulk of SBA loans took months instead of weeks to process, and landowners were also frustrated by the myriad of city committees that had to approve each project.

“People are upset because they can’t put their buildings up,” merchant Chris Wicker said. “It’s a mess.”

How to go about rebuilding Uptown has also been a source of contention.

The city paid a consultant $90,000 for a redesign plan for Uptown, but a year after the disaster the final plan has not yet been presented to the City Council.

In the meantime, some officials worry that opportunities for a coordinated development plan are being squandered as merchants pursue independent construction plans.

The earthquake “opened doors for us that never would have been opened otherwise,” said Larry A. Haendiges, president of the Uptown Merchants Assn. and a city planning commissioner. “We don’t want to see those doors closed. We could have rebuilt the city a lot more rapidly had we not cared.”

Added Lane Langford, a board member of the Merchants Assn., “Nobody in this city has ever gone through an earthquake before. We’re making it up as we go, and we’re doing a pretty good job.”

The waiting will pay off in the next few months, Haendiges predicts, when 28 new buildings are slated to begin construction. Other signs of life include this week’s reopening of two Uptown businesses, a ribbon-cutting for a luxury senior citizen apartment complex, and several rebuilding projects already under way.

“In the last month, there’s been a fresh spirit going through here,” said Shelley Seiler, an Uptown businesswoman.

In the wake of the disaster, more than 350 families underwent earthquake counseling at Whittier’s Intercommunity Child Guidance Center. Problems included nightmares and other sleep disorders, occasional depression and a particular sensitivity to loud noises.

“For most people, the fear has subsided by now,” said Albert H. Arenowitz, the center’s director. In some cases, it took extensive therapy to resolve the trauma.

Whittier’s earthquake recovery has been the subject of intense study by scientists from across the country. Robert Bolin, a professor of sociology at New Mexico State University, received a $30,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to survey Whittier residents. Of the 200 people he interviewed, about a third reported symptoms of psychological distress.

“That’s higher than I would have expected,” Bolin said, suggesting that part of the problem was the continuous sight of damaged structures.

“The threat of recurrence can be an important element in maintaining psychological distress,” he said.

The earthquake also renewed discussion about establishing a federal quake insurance program similar to the government-backed flood insurance program. Insurance industry representatives, alarmed at the $72 million in earthquake claims filed in the last year, fear that a major quake expected along the San Andreas Fault in the next 30 years will wipe out the insurance business unless the government steps in. Only 10% to 15% of California property owners have earthquake insurance.

Legislation to establish federal earthquake insurance may be introduced after the presidential election in November, said David Cheney, an insurance industry expert for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress.

Times staff writers Bob Baker and Mike Ward contributed to this story.