Ravine Project: Everyone’s in for Long Haul : Environment: Stabilizing Potrero Canyon has turned out to be a bigger and costlier job than expected. The dust won’t settle for several more years.

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It took the forces of nature countless millennia to carve Potrero Canyon into the Pacific Palisades bluffs. So it should not be surprising that the reverse--filling much of the canyon--would be a big job.

But what has startled the contractors trucking the dirt, disturbed Los Angeles city officials paying for the work and rattled Pacific Palisadians living with the noise and dust is just how big.

Representatives of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, who are preparing to ask the state Coastal Commission next month to let the immense project continue, now concede that it will take at least twice as long, require up to three times as much dirt and cost taxpayers $3.5 million more than originally estimated.

Since severe erosion was first detected in 1933, about a dozen houses have tumbled into Potrero Canyon. Many more have lost back yards or garages. Plans have been laid at least three times since the mid 1950s to fill the void, but they did not gain momentum until 1980. That is when 11 property owners sued Los Angeles officials, contending that mislaid city storm drains had undermined the mile-long canyon and their homes.


City officials now say the saga of Potrero Canyon will end up costing taxpayers up to $25 million, and maybe more, by the time the project is completed in 1995 or ’96. That figure includes litigation and payouts to homeowners. It does not count another pending lawsuit, in which a contractor has demanded $4 million he contends the city still owes him for the first phase of the landfill.

Despite the overruns, city officials say the project--which may take more than 213,000 truckloads of earth to complete--is the best hope for ending the landslides. They note that homes worth up to $2 million and more still stand precariously close to the edge. And they speak glowingly about the park and nature walk that will be created atop the landfill, connecting Pacific Palisades Park with Will Rogers State Beach below.

The project “is important because the taxpayers would be subject to very substantial claims against the city if it weren’t done,” said City Councilman Marvin Braude, whose district includes the slide area. “And it will eventually be a spectacular and wonderful addition to the city’s park system.”

Kathleen Chan, project manager for the Department of Recreation and Parks, said the city hopes to recover some of its expenses by reselling lots it owns along the canyon rim, once the lots have been stabilized. But she conceded the $25-million Potrero price tag is “an absolutely staggering figure.”

“That’s why this is really a project of citywide import,” Chan said. “All this money has come from the city’s general fund. And (the park) will become a regional facility.”

The Coastal Commission has grudgingly permitted destruction of the canyon’s natural habitat. It seems unlikely to change course at next month’s hearing.


“What are you going to do, stop the project when it’s half done?” muses Pam Emerson, the commission analyst who has reviewed the city’s latest plans. “Are you going to be responsible when the houses are halfway down the canyon?”

Some nearby residents fought the landfill plan for years, but most now seem resigned that the work must be completed.

“We are caught between a rock and a hard place,” said architect Harlan Hogue, a 17-year resident of the canyon’s north rim. “We know something needs to be done, but we just wish it wouldn’t take so long.”

More than 100 trucks every weekday groan up the incline from Pacific Coast Highway and into the canyon.

Once defined by a stream, thick scrub brush and thriving wildlife, the deep fissure in the coastal bluffs now resembles a barren moonscape. A swath of bare earth hugs the canyon bottom, marked only by an occasional concrete or plastic drainage pipe.

Homeowners lately have focused on lobbying the city to clean up some of the 21 properties it purchased over the last decade to settle homeowners’ lawsuits. Many of those homes were demolished, leaving only concrete foundations, trash and debris.


“This project is not going to be finished tomorrow, so they need to take care of those lots now,” said Cato Fiksdal, who lives near several empty lots on De Pauw Street. “Let’s make them look at least halfway decent.”

Braude said the city “must be a responsible landowner,” but said he is not sure what maintenance has been done on the lots.

The city acquired the properties, and demolished several homes, as part of $10 million in settlements with homeowners over the past seven years. The residents had charged the city was negligent in directing storm-drain runoff into the canyon, thus undermining the canyon walls and their homes.

Taxpayers had to shell out as much as $5 million more for legal expenses during the litigation, said Deputy City Atty. Les Pinchuk, who defended the city.

The final homeowner lawsuit is supposed to be dismissed later this year, once the city completes an earth buttress beneath two properties on the south rim of the canyon, Pinchuk said.

But the expenses don’t end there.

The total cost of filling the canyon and building trails, a stream and a conservation preserve is now projected to be $10.5 million, instead of the $7 million originally planned.


The delays and cost overruns began with the first phase of the project--digging to bedrock at the canyon floor and installing a system of drains designed to prevent further erosion.

The rock bottom of the canyon turned out to be as much as 20 feet lower than engineers had anticipated, Chan said. The job took 2 1/2 years instead of one. It cost nearly $6 million, not the estimated $4.2 million.

And A. F. R. Construction Co. Inc. of Arcadia, the company that did the work, filed a lawsuit this year contending the city still owes it $4 million. City officials have declined to comment on the claim.

In seeking a company to complete earth work in the canyon, city officials decided to emphasize economy rather than speed. They awarded the job in June, 1990, to an excavation company and trucking firm that formed a partnership and offered to do the job free of charge.

The partnership, calling itself Potrero Canyon Constructors, said its only condition was that it needed four years to complete the work instead of two.

“Some people might have said just spend the $2 million,” to complete the job sooner, Chan said. “But we just don’t have the money.”


Potrero Canyon Constructors started work in April of this year, and it has until April, 1995, to finish the job.

Gerry Gibbs, one of those who formed Potrero Canyon Constructors, projects that it will take up to 3.2 million cubic yards of earth for the job, more than three times the initial estimates. That is more than 213,000 loads from double-bed trucks.

The increase is due in large part to the additional excavation needed to reach bedrock. But it is also tied to the decision by engineers that it will take 100 feet of fill, not 75 feet, to properly buttress the walls of the canyon.

That extra dirt has been hard to come by, largely because of the slowdown in the economy. Road excavations and commercial projects on the Westside that supply most of the fill have been slowed by the recession. Only 100 to 120 trucks are currently dumping in the canyon weekdays between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., Gibbs said. That is fewer than half the 250 trucks daily permitted by city officials.

But Gibbs pledged to make his 1995 deadline--unless, he said, “We have severe weather problems or the country goes into a depression.”

Once the landfill is completed, the city will turn to the restoration of the canyon and creation of a 7.5-acre stream habitat and preserve. This final phase, estimated to cost $3.5 million and take a year, will include a stream with recirculating water and trails connecting Pacific Palisades Park to Pacific Coast Highway.


Plans for the restoration will be considered by the Coastal Commission at its mid-September meeting in Marina del Rey. Commission approval is required for the work to continue beyond Oct. 1.

Emerson, the commission analyst, would not predict the commission’s vote, but said: “It looks like a nice plan.”

Many residents agree. They say they will welcome back their stream, even if it is a man-made version that recycles water. They hope it will bring back raccoons that disappeared when the dump trucks arrived.

But some neighbors worry about the access to and from the coast that will be provided.

“We all feel it is going to bring transients in from the Coast Highway,” said Sherry Hall, who lives near the top of the canyon on Hampden Place. “We don’t have much crime up here now, but if they have an easy access to the highway they can scoot in and scoot out.”

Chan said park rangers will regularly patrol the area to prevent such problems.

When all else is completed, the city will turn its attention to recouping some of the millions it has laid out.

Officials said they are hopeful that most of the properties will be safe again when the landfill is completed. They said they have not estimated how much money the lots could bring.


Real estate agents, however, say lots in the area are going for a minimum of $500,000.

The recovery could be substantial if all 21 of the city’s lots could be sold, Chan said.

But some Palisades residents don’t like that idea, either.

“It doesn’t seem possible (the city) can get for them what (it) paid, and (engineers) said future sliding should be anticipated,” said Frances Shalant, a lawyer who lives just south of the slide. “The idea that some of these lots will be resold just strikes me as ludicrous.”