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Shaky Situation : Suit Filed by Owners of Historic Hillview Apartments Claims That Metro Rail Tunneling Damaged Hollywood Landmark

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The owners of a historic apartment building in Hollywood have filed the first lawsuit for property damages in connection with subway construction under Hollywood Boulevard.

According to the suit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Metro Rail project last August caused waterline breaks, sewage backups and other damage to the Hillview Apartments, a 64-unit residence built in 1917 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The owners claim the building is a total loss and must be demolished. The suit seeks unspecified damages and joins four lawsuits previously filed by property owners in the Wilshire corridor against MTA and its contractors.

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"(MTA contractors) have very little regard for the businesses they’re affecting” during construction, said Arnold K. Graham, attorney for the Hillview owners. “Their attitude is, ‘If we damage them, we’ll pay it back through litigation.’ ”

An MTA spokesman says that the agency was served with the suit earlier this week and has not had a chance to review it. But he noted that the Hillview was already seriously damaged in the January earthquake, and that MTA administrators last month denied the owners’ claim for alleged damages related to subway tunneling.

Preservationists and city officials, meanwhile, say that the building can be saved and is needed to provide housing for low-income seniors.

“This building is by no means in need of total demolition,” said William F. Delvac, principal of Historic Resources Group, a consulting firm that has in the past advised city and MTA officials on the preservation of old buildings.

Because of the Hillview’s historic status, a proposed demolition would be subject to a lengthy environmental review unless city officials deemed the structure an imminent threat to public safety.

The lawsuit caps a miserable year for the Hillview, a pink stucco landmark at Hollywood Boulevard and Hudson Avenue built by movie mogul Jesse Lasky to house silent stars including “Laurel and Hardy” actress Mae Busch.

The city of Los Angeles red-tagged several units on the building’s southern side after the Northridge temblor. In August, the city red-tagged additional units and about 12 tenants were evacuated to a nearby hotel following a gas service interruption. The remaining two-thirds of the building is considered safe.

The building’s owners blamed the new red tags and utility problems on Metro Rail construction, which made national headlines in August after causing portions of Hollywood Boulevard to sink by as much as 10 inches.

MTA, while not admitting responsibility for any damage to the Hillview, nevertheless agreed to pay the displaced tenants’ hotel and meal bills, which MTA spokesman Steve Chesser estimated to be $100,000. The agency also picked up relocation costs when tenants found permanent housing elsewhere, Chesser said.

According to city officials, the building currently houses 17 tenants. The tenants--most of them in their 70s and 80s--have stayed despite the building’s persistent troubles. In October, one of the owners told tenants to move within 20 days, ostensibly to prepare the way for demolition.

That move drew sharp opposition from Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who said that the city’s rent-control ordinance requires a 30-day notice and $5,000 relocation subsidies to elderly tenants in the event of demolition.

Last Friday, a city building inspector reported to Goldberg’s office that recent aftershocks may have further weakened the building and made demolition necessary. But other inspectors, upon closer examination, concluded that most of the building was still safe and required only additional bracing, according to Goldberg aide Mirta Ocana.

In the wake of the January temblor, preservationists have lost battles to save several historic buildings in Hollywood, including the Brown Derby on Vine Street and the Hastings Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard.

"(The Hillview) is one building we really want to save,” Ocana said. “Hollywood has already lost enough buildings to the earthquake.”


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