That Sinking Feeling : Club Owner Says MTA Tunneling Damage Has Closed Her Business

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A nightclub owner on Tuesday blamed subway tunneling by the Metropolitan Transit Authority for sinking her longtime business.

Isabel Lopez, who has owned El Sombrero nightclub on Lankershim Boulevard for 20 years, said nearby underground drilling has sunk the floor of her club as much as 5 inches over the past few days, causing cracks in the ceilings and walls and prompting the city to close the business for safety.

MTA officials say they are unsure what caused the damage.

But Lopez said there is evidence throughout the club--including a sunken floor and a bar counter that is suddenly curved. "It's the only logical thing I can think of . . . . There was no earthquake or anything," she said.

Los Angeles city building and safety officials ordered the business closed Monday until repairs are made. Lopez said Tuesday she did not know when she could reopen the club, which features Latino dance music and can accommodate more than 200 patrons.

MTA officials, anxious to avoid any spectacle like the embarrassing Hollywood Boulevard sinkhole, immediately ordered workers as a precautionary measure to shore up the portion of Lankershim Boulevard outside the club with a cement-like substance.

Both city and MTA officials said Tuesday it was too soon to determine what caused the damages to El Sombrero.

"We have to investigate it and make sure," said Stanley G. Phernambucq, executive officer of construction for the MTA. "We're not convinced totally that it was caused by the tunneling."

Phernambucq said he expects to have preliminary information on the cause of the damage as soon as today.

"We want to make sure before we stand up and take responsibility," he said. "If a person has been harmed by our project we'll take care of it."

Lopez said she noticed the damage last weekend and immediately sought the help of Hollywood Damage Control & Recovery Inc., an organization representing numerous other property owners seeking to recover the cost of damage in a $1-billion lawsuit against the MTA.

Lopez said her business, located on Lankershim Boulevard between King and Blix streets, attracts a predominantly Latino crowd, often reaching its capacity of 237 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

The forced closure will cost her between $7,000 and $8,000 in business each weekend, she said. "This is my livelihood. I have responsibilities like everyone. I have to reopen my club," she said.

David R. Keim, principal building inspector for the city of Los Angeles, said Lopez--like all property owners--is responsible for hiring an engineer to assess the damage and obtain city approval for repairs. The business can reopen only after a city inspection of the repairs.

Keim said the sinking inside El Sombrero could have been caused by a broken waterline or an abandoned cesspool.

"No one really has any idea at this point," Keim said. "All we know is that it is definitely slanting down."

About three miles of subway are in operation in the downtown area between Union Station and MacArthur Park. Tunneling is underway to extend the system from Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley and is expected to be ready for passengers by 2010.

Gerald Schneiderman, chairman of Hollywood Damage Control & Recovery Inc., said the group will providethe engineers to inspect the El Sombrero nightclub, as well as the properties of nearby businesses that are also complaining of new cracks.

Schneiderman said he has no doubt that the problems at El Sombrero were caused by MTA tunneling.

"I'm convinced 100%," Schneiderman said. "I know what I'm looking at already. The nature of the damage here is identical to the stuff we saw on Hollywood Boulevard."

John Walsh, a frequent critic of the MTA, agreed with Schneiderman.

"What other explanation do you have for a building that sits there for years and only starts to collapse the week after a tunnel boring machine goes by?"

Times staff writer Jon D. Markman contributed to this story.

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