Plan to Fill Potrero Canyon May Cost Extra $2.5 Million

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Times Staff Writer

An effort to halt dangerous landslides in Potrero Canyon by filling it with 1 million cubic yards of dirt and topping it off with a public park could be far more expensive--and take longer--than Los Angeles city officials predicted a year ago, according to a new report on the project.

But Councilman Marvin Braude, who represents the area, said this week that he remains committed to the controversial undertaking, which officials hope will bring an end to costly lawsuits brought against the city because of the landslides.

The city has already paid about $8 million to settle suits by nearby Pacific Palisades property owners, who claim that water from city storm drains has undermined homes, destabilized the canyon’s walls and caused landslides. When the project is completed, about 75 feet of the 150- to 250-foot-deep canyon will be filled.


“This project has to go forward,” Braude said in an interview Tuesday. “We have an obligation to protect the sides of the canyon.”

A recent report to the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners, which oversees work at the 60-acre canyon, warned that “based on current costs it can be assumed that the department is facing a major addition” to a $4.2-million contract for Phase 1 of the three-phase project.

Phase 1, which began last March, involves installing a storm-drain system to carry rainwater to Will Rogers State Beach. Cost overruns--including $500,000 to remove soil contaminated by leaking underground gasoline tanks--have forced the department to divert funds intended for the design, inspection and construction of the two other phases, the report said.

Phase 2 calls for the actual filling of the canyon, and Phase 3 involves development of a park and restoration of the Potrero Canyon stream on top of the fill.

Based on recommendations in the report, the board voted Friday to ask the City Council for $4 million for the project--raising its estimated cost from $7 million to $9.5 million, according to Kathleen Chan, the project’s manager and author of the report. The City Council has already appropriated $3.5 million for the project, and the Department of Recreation and Parks has contributed about $2 million of its own, department officials said.

“Anything that is not used will be returned,” Chan said in an interview. “I am trying to avoid having to go back to the City Council and asking for money again. Ever.”


Delay in Completion

In addition, it is likely that work will continue well past the February, 1990, deadline set by the California Coastal Commission when it approved the project in 1987. Although she was unable to predict a completion date, Chan said winter rains and everyday storm-drain runoff into the canyon have “virtually stopped construction” on the storm-drain system.

“I doubt we will be working on the storm drain until after April 15,” Chan said.

Concerned about the delays and cost overruns, a Pacific Palisades homeowners group asked the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners on Friday to put off requests for additional funds and instead ask the City Council to pay for a new geological study of the canyon. The Pacific Palisades Residents Assn., which has long opposed filling the canyon, suggested that it would be cheaper for the city to purchase homes that are in jeopardy of sliding into the canyon.

The association “fails to understand how the staff can recommend, or the board can possibly approve, additional funding for further construction when so many unresolved and unanticipated problems and costs are being encountered,” Jack Allen, the group’s president, wrote in a letter to board President William R. Robertson.

Alexander M. Man, an association member, urged the board at its meeting to stop “putting good money in after bad.”

‘Buying Property Forever’

But Assistant General Manager Joel Breitbart told the board that “our current overruns have nothing to do with the geology at the site,” and he said that without the project, the department would be forced to buy row after row of homes affected by new landslides.

“If we don’t fill this canyon, we will be buying property up there forever,” he said.

When questioned by one commissioner about the cost overruns, Breitbart responded: “Yes, this project is going to cost more than we originally estimated. We don’t believe it will be substantially more.”


Braude, who said he was skeptical about the fill idea when it was first proposed several years ago, said he now believes that it is necessary to “protect the public safety and the financial interests of the city.” He described critics of the project as “well-intentioned,” but he said they are “relatively few.”

“The public benefit will be substantial,” Braude said. “This is a mechanism whereby people will be able to get from . . . Palisades Park through the canyon all the way to the ocean. There will be a (pedestrian) bridge over the Pacific Coast Highway. It will make the ocean much more accessible.”

According to Chan’s report, work on the storm drain has been delayed by a variety of unexpected events, including a broken water main near the canyon rim that flooded about 400 feet of the construction area. In late August, a slope partially collapsed during excavation, and a small slide occurred again in early September. When construction resumed, according to the report, the Department of Building and Safety required that “a person . . . stand and watch the slope with binoculars the entire time work was proceeding.”