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Homes Cracking Up in ‘Shaky Acres’ : Torrance: The Southwood Riviera district used to be a lake. Its unusual soil expands and shrinks, causing severe damage to houses. Some residents want the city to pay for repairs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes, Rudy Lopez says, his mother’s house seems to be coming alive. The furniture begins vibrating as if it were being shaken by an invisible hand.

“You’d think it’s an earthquake,” Lopez said. “But there would be nothing on the radio.”

Then he walks into a room and finds a new crack he never noticed before.

Today, the Lopezes’ contemporary seven-room house on 234th Street in Torrance is riddled with cracks: long cracks, short cracks, hairline cracks, cracks wide enough to slip your fingers into.

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There are cracks in the foyer, the dining room, the kitchen, the bedroom. Cracks form a filigree on the wall over the living-room sofa.

One horizontal crack behind the stereo in a downstairs room is so wide that you can see daylight outside.

“When you have people come over to your house who’ve never been here before,” Lopez said, “they go, ‘Oh, my God, look at that crack!’ ”

The Lopez house is one of about 750 single-family homes, most of them built during the 1960s, in a part of southern Torrance called Southwood Riviera. One city official estimates that more than half the homes in the neighborhood have experienced some kind of damage because the soil under them swells and shrinks more than normal.

Experts classify the dark clay as “expansive soil,” with an unusual ability to expand when wet and contract when dry. That movement can cause a variety of problems, ranging from cosmetic cracks to weakened foundations requiring repairs costing thousands of dollars.

Many residents of Southwood Riviera--which, fittingly, has been nicknamed “Shaky Acres"--have found cracks in their walls, ceilings, foundations, driveways and patios. Doors no longer fit into jambs.

“We have to plane them off all the time. Front door, back door, bathroom door,” said one resident who asked not to be identified for fear of damaging the value of her Leyte Drive home.

As many as 50 to 100 neighborhood homeowners have been forced to pay for expensive repairs, said Ralph Grippo, the Torrance city building and safety director.

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Homeowners in the neighborhood say the city bears some blame. A suit brought by Lopez’s mother claims the city should have seen to it that the soil was better prepared for development.

But city officials counter that at the time the houses were built, they satisfied the building codes. And, officials add, the true expansion potential of the soil was unknown.

A new report commissioned by the city and released this month confirms that the earth under Southwood Riviera is not ordinary soil.

The average type of expansive soil has a so-called “expansion index” of 50 to 90. Ratings above 130 are considered highly to very highly expansive.

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In the Southwood Riviera, the average rating is 206.

“These values include some of the highest expansion indexes ever seen by this consultant,” said the report from American Geotechnical, the regional consulting firm that studied the area north of Pacific Coast Highway, south of Lomita Boulevard, west of Hawthorne Boulevard and east of South High School and Calle Mayor.

If water were added to a 12-inch-high block of this soil, it could grow to be 14 inches high, William E. Becker, who supervises Torrance city building inspectors, said in an interview.

Southwood Riviera occupies an area once known as Walteria Lake, so named because it filled with water during the rainy season. Once nearly a mile wide, the lake was drained 30 years ago, and the land quickly filled with stucco homes during a boom period for Torrance in the early 1960s. Even before 1970, Becker said, some of the new houses were displaying cracks.

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In 1978, after a city inspector reported problems in the area, the city Building and Safety Department began requiring soil investigation reports before residents built additions, swimming pools and other projects.

The cracking continued, and residents periodically complained to the city, said Frank G. Rizzardi, chairman of the city’s Planning Commission and himself a victim of cracking walls at his Carlow Road home. Momentum built when Rizzardi helped muster a lobbying effort in 1987 to persuade the city to pay for a major soil study to pinpoint the cause of the problems. Finally, in 1988, the city commissioned the study.

The City Council accepted the report Nov. 27 and directed city staff to study options for dealing with the problem. It is planning a meeting with residents, probably in late January.

One idea mentioned by city officials is creating an assessment district for those who wish to participate. The city would sell bonds to create a fund for repairing homes, and residents could repay the money over a 10- to 20-year period. Their payments on the principal and interest would be collected with their property tax bills, said Mary Giordano, city finance director. A similar assessment district was set up to help property owners add seismic improvements in old downtown Torrance, she said.

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Council members also say the city Building Code should be changed to include new standards for future construction and additions on Torrance soil rated higher than 130 in expansiveness.

But many people now living amid cracked plaster and stucco say the city should do more.

Rizzardi, who moved into his Southwood Riviera home in 1963, is among them.

“My personal feeling is that . . . they never should have approved the building of homes on this sort of soil,” said Rizzardi, who is treasurer of the Southwood Riviera Homeowners Assn. And if the city did decide to allow development, Rizzardi said, it should have insisted on stronger or deeper foundations.

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The new soil report is a start, Rizzardi said. But he said many homeowners think the city should extend financial aid to people spending $20,000 to $50,000 or more on structural repairs.

Angelyn Miller of Leyte Drive, for instance, is not looking forward to spending $25,000 to mudjack her home--a process that pumps a form of concrete into the soil under a house. She says the city should be responsible for the cost.

The expansive soil plaguing Southwood Riviera apparently was naturally deposited in the area when it was Walteria Lake, city officials say. According to Dick Perkins, Torrance city senior division engineer, the lake was drained around 1960 by a Los Angeles County Flood Control District project requested by the city.

A large retention basin--known to neighbors as “the sump"--was excavated west of Hawthorne Boulevard and south of Lomita Boulevard in the Southwood Riviera neighborhood. Rainwater is routed to the sump through a network of storm drains, and a pump station propels the water underground through Lomita to Los Angeles Harbor, Perkins said.

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At the time homes were built on the newly drained area in the 1960s, the city did require developers to do soil reports for subdivisions, Becker said. But the science of soil engineering was new at the time, he said, and developers were most concerned with testing the qualities of soil used for fill rather than natural soil. Little or no fill was used in Southwood Riviera, Becker noted, and tests generally emphasized density rather than expansion.

Becker said the Southwood Riviera soil reports he has seen made only passing reference to the soil’s expansive quality and offered no recommendations for dealing with it. He said he does not know if extensive expansion tests were done or if the soil engineers realized the extent of the problem.

Lopez’s mother, Socorro V. Lopez, sued the city and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District in 1986, contending that her four-bedroom house--which she bought for $137,400 in 1977--was damaged because of city and county negligence. The trial is set for March.

Before issuing building permits for the area, the lawsuit claims, Torrance officials should have required soil compacting and fill that would have stabilized the ground. The suit also argues that Lopez’s house deteriorated further when water seeped into the expansive soil from the county sump, which is directly behind the house.

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Allstate Insurance Co. has filed two suits against the city in an attempt to reclaim the thousands of dollars it paid to repair two homes, one on Kathryn Avenue and one on Leyte Drive, in the mid-1980s. The suits claim that the city allowed water to escape from its waterlines and saturate the expansive soil, which in turn damaged the homes. Allstate paid $58,866.07 to repair one home and $15,874.54 for the other, court papers state.

City officials acknowledge that waterline breaks are a problem in the neighborhood. “The same thing that breaks the houses up breaks our water mains,” said William G. Heisner, the city’s water utility director. He said the city plans to install an all-new network of lines in the area, using pipes made of a tougher iron and burying them in sand to shield them from the expansive soil. The project will cost $200,000 to $400,000.

But City Atty. Kenneth L. Nelson contends that the city bears no liability for damage to Southwood Riviera homes, saying city workers repair broken waterlines in the area promptly.

Nelson also disputes arguments that the city should not have allowed the homes to be built. The houses all met construction codes at the time, he said.

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Now that the extent of the problem is known and the study has been completed, the city is taking action with its plans to amend the city Building Code, Nelson said.

Ron A. Hays, project engineer for the city-commissioned study, says soil-testing technology has grown more sophisticated since the houses were built.

“They really didn’t know what this stuff was capable of doing,” Hays said.

If the homes were built today, the report notes, “foundation systems for these structures would be significantly different from existing foundation systems.” The report also says further damage can be expected in the area unless repairs are made.

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Those repairs can include mudjacking and a process called underpinning, which reinforces foundations.

Expansive soil has been found throughout Southern California, including areas in the Palos Verdes Peninsula, San Pedro and Inglewood and in Orange and San Diego counties, Hays said. But he said those soils are not as expansive as the soil in Southwood Riviera.

Hays and city officials say the cracked homes do not pose a threat to life. “To my knowledge, I’ve never heard of a structure failing, falling, collapsing in, because of expansive soil,” Hays said.

Nonetheless, several residents report that the cracking has grown worse in the past year or two, and they speculate that the current drought may be partly to blame.

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Hays said the drought could be exacerbating soil shrinkage. But he said much of the damage that is now visible was probably caused by stress that has been occurring since the houses were built.

“Then, suddenly, the cracks will start, and people wonder why,” Hays said.

Hays recommends maintaining a constant moisture content in soil around Southwood Riviera homes to minimize shrinkage and swelling, perhaps by light watering about three times a week. In fact, Rizzardi recently installed a sprinkler system on his property to keep the soil damp.

Richard Oksas, a resident coping with foundation cracks, is not ready to saddle the city with all the blame.

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“It’s a buyer-beware situation,” Oksas said. “You could have other problems. You could have radon. You could have asbestos.”

But other residents say they feel depressed as they watch cracks and crevices creep through their homes, undermining the value of what many hoped would be a retirement nest egg.

Thomas A. Dempsey, 52, says it would take all day to count the cracks in the Kathryn Avenue house where he has lived since 1977.

“Every time you make a payment, you’re paying on something that’s really not giving you the return in value,” Dempsey said.

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“If you wanted to sell it next week, you couldn’t.”

EXPANSIVE SOIL AREA

Residents of the Southwood Riviera neighborhood of Torrance are plagued with expansive soil, which expands dramatically when wet and shrinks when dry, a condition that has caused house cracking and other problems. A report done for the city studied the soil in this area and found soil expansion far above ground.


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