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Sliding Houses to Be Razed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joan Knapp built her home with her own hands 35 years ago, intending to stay there forever, high on top of the Malibu bluffs.

Tuesday, she was wiping her eyes as she instructed Caltrans movers about which possessions she wished to keep before her home was bulldozed to keep it from tumbling onto a closed stretch of Pacific Coast Highway and homes below.

“They’re going to bulldoze it, can you believe it?” the 61-year-old widow said.

The demolition of Knapp’s home and that of her neighbor, Les Steinmetz, is expected to take place today as the stretch of highway remains indefinitely shut down--a foreboding prospect as another summer weekend looms.

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Two days ago, Caltrans told Knapp it was sending crews to pack her up and move her out within 24 hours, she said. Her home, with the self-installed travertine marble, Norman brick and panoramic views of the Pacific, was a goner.

Just hours after reopening the highway Sunday night, the state agency shut it down again Monday after new fissures emerged and sent dust, rocks and boulders tumbling down onto the roadway just south of Las Flores Canyon Road.

Efforts to permanently shore up the slope are expected to cost about $20 million, Caltrans said.

Work continued Tuesday to force down pieces of earth that would otherwise eventually fall on their own, with heavy machinery grading the areas just beneath the homes of Knapp and Steinmetz.

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Occasionally, streams of debris were interrupted by falling boulders, evoking gasps from onlookers and emergency crews as they waited to see if the giant rocks would stop short of hitting the cars and homes that line the oceanfront.

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Residents of nine homes on the ocean side of the highway, across from the slide area, were told to leave Friday night, said Vic Peterson, the head of Malibu’s department of building and safety. The owners of one home refused to vacate, Peterson said, and signed a waiver indicating that they had been warned about the risks.

Caltrans said the slide--in the same area as the worst of the slides last winter that shut down the highway--is the effect of heavy rains generated by El Nino.

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The evaporation of water from the fully saturated slopes caused the ground underneath to contract, Caltrans officials said. That loosened bits of earth and sent them hurtling to the roadway below, and also weakened the ground around the two homes.

“The slide is persisting,” a Caltrans spokeswoman said. “Tomorrow, when we can go in and start to demolish the two homes, we can start grading and hauling away materials and do erosion control.”

Caltrans is hoping that once the grading and hauling begins, it will be able to reopen at least the southbound portion of the highway, using one lane for each direction of traffic.

The closure between Las Flores and Topanga Canyon Road was reminiscent of the horrors commuters faced during last winter’s slide--an extra 50 minutes for motorists who took the highway south during the morning rush hour, Caltrans said.

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The closed section of the road usually handles 2,000 cars per hour in the peak morning period. Those motorists now have to make their way to the Ventura Freeway via two-lane mountain roads.

“The problem is, [the highway] is so isolated they don’t have a good alternative,” Caltrans Associate Engineer Nick Jones said. “Other places, you can drive four or five miles and get to another freeway. They live in a nice area, but there’s a downside.”

The downside was painfully clear at Knapp’s and Steinmetz’s homes on Sierks Way, where the two precariously perched neighbors did their best to supervise Caltrans’ moving companies.

Knapp, a general contractor and developer who once shared this home with two sons and her late husband, directed Caltrans movers to save the precious succulents that ring her lavishly landscaped patio. Someone from the moving company also gently suggested removing the beveled glass and mahogany front doors.

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The 18-foot Portland lava-rock chimney, giant picture windows, geometric skylights and teak built-ins--all lovingly installed by Knapp--would have to stay behind for the demolition crews, Knapp acknowledged.

“I just let go once in a while,” she said. “Tears. That’s what their job is.”

Steinmetz, 53, bought his home six years ago, only to watch it burn down in the 1993 wildfires. He was determined to rebuild, he said, and saw that every part of his new four-bedroom, five-bath home was created to his specifications.

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He moved back a year and a half ago. In November, he added a built-in barbecue to his wrap-around, 12-foot-deep, Mexican tile and glass deck. On Friday, Caltrans removed the deck, which had sunk 10 feet since heavy February rains.

Steinmetz was only able to save the new barbecue when the deck went, he said. He made similar preparations Tuesday, arranging to pull out the kitchen appliances, even as he prepared to part with his custom-slate floors, buff-painted beams and granite-topped island.

Steinmetz said he came to this country when he was 7, after living in a labor camp with his parents, who had survived the Holocaust.

The recollections put his current predicament into perspective, he said.

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“In the overall scheme of things, people are starving,” he said. “I at least have the ability to keep moving and doing.”

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Times staff writer Jeff Leeds contributed to this story.


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