Cracks in W. Hollywood's Face-Lift

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every construction project has its sidewalk superintendent--the onlooker who critiques the work from the sidelines.

In West Hollywood, the $35-million project to convert the city's main street into "the Champs-Elysees of the West" has Jim Gordon.

For nearly a year, Gordon has warned of problems with sidewalks being reconstructed and beautified along the three-mile stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard that passes through the heart of the city to link its Russian immigrants on the east with hip gays on the west.

Some of the new walkways looked to Gordon like they were poorly planned and were being improperly built. There would be problems with them in the future, he predicted.

The boulevard project is now about a month and a half away from its scheduled completion. And officials are grudgingly acknowledging that Gordon may have been right.

City leaders and project administrators were forced at one point to stop work and redesign a wide section of sidewalk earmarked to become a tree-shaded pedestrian plaza.

And they have already started jackhammering up and replacing months-old sections of sidewalk that are beginning to buckle or crumble.

The repairs could continue for a year after the anticipated Aug. 1 official completion of the project, which also includes a new road surface, landscaping and some new medians.

Officials are minimizing the importance of the sidewalk problems and the impact they will have on boulevard businesses anxious to see the end of a street project that has caused havoc for drivers and pedestrians for nearly two years.

City leaders say the sidewalks have a one-year warranty that goes into effect the date that the project is completed. That means West Hollywood will not be liable for the cost of concrete repairs.

That's a good thing, because the city has come up $7 million short in paying for the project. That is forcing West Hollywood leaders to dip into the city's general fund to finish it.

Even as they do that, city officials are taking the unusual step of deferring a final $525,500 payment to a company that is overseeing the construction and will have the responsibility of enforcing the sidewalk warranty.

But there's nothing to worry about, said West Hollywood City Manager Paul Arevalo.

"Overall, I'm very pleased with the way it's going. We have sufficient reserves to cover the costs of the project," Arevalo said, vowing that the sidewalk will be fixed.

That pledge brings a smile to Gordon, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist who has lived in West Hollywood for 15 years and has served as a volunteer member of a city safety committee.

"I'm not just the local curmudgeon with nothing to do but stick his nose in things," he said. "I just watched the construction and was kind of shocked. I was thinking this is going to cause some long-term problems."

Workers' Methods Looked All Wrong

Gordon was dining last August at an outdoor table at the boulevard cafe Sapori Cucina when workmen began pouring the new sidewalk a few steps away. Gordon is familiar with concrete work and was puzzled by what he saw.

The concrete was being spread over "sticks and gravel" atop what appeared to be poorly compacted dirt, he said. And instead of finishing the fresh concrete with a swiveling bull float to help mix its chemicals, the workers were simply using the tool as a scraper, he said.

When the workers finished in front of the cafe, they quickly moved on without bothering to keep the fresh concrete moistened for proper curing, according to Gordon.

"It was the hottest part of August, about 95 degrees, and it dried quickly. They needed to keep it wet to slow the curing and make the concrete stronger," he said.

Gordon contacted the Portland Cement Assn., where a concrete industry expert not involved in the West Hollywood project confirmed his suspicions that something seemed amiss. Gordon then contacted city officials.

When the sidewalk was hard enough to walk on, Gordon made another discovery: Tree-well cutouts were in the wrong place.

That meant one row of trees would be too close to storefronts. Even worse, trees were earmarked to be placed directly in front of the doorways to some cafes and nightclubs.

"It was a liability issue. Can you imagine the drunks coming out and walking right into the tree?" Gordon said last week as he stood a few steps from the door of the club Rage near a spot where a specimen-size tree was supposed to go.

City officials quickly agreed to change the landscape design. Workers were called back to cut new tree wells two feet farther from buildings and pave over the wrong ones.

But other sidewalk problems still abound, Gordon said, pointing to cracks and weblike surface spalling in some areas and slab separation and sinkage in others. Some portions of the 10-month-old sidewalk now have a rough, old-looking finish.

"Parts of this sidewalk look worse than the original 1926 sidewalk," he said, pointing to a side street's connecting walkway that still bears the imprinted date of its initial construction.

City Plays Down Extent of Problems

City officials say they never expected the project to go perfectly. All along, they said the inconvenience would be worth it for a friendlier atmosphere for pedestrians strolling the boulevard's eclectic mix of storefront groceries, boutiques, trendy clubs and restaurants.

"They have put down over six miles of sidewalk and to think they would get every piece right the first time is unfathomable," said Joan English, West Hollywood's director of transportation.

Chris Baca, project manager for Willdan Associates, an Orange County-based firm that is overseeing the boulevard construction, said his inspectors have already spotted sidewalk sections that need to be replaced.

"We're under a microscope here. We've brought that to the attention of the contractor," he said.

Baca said walkway repairs will be done in a low-key manner that will cause the least amount of additional inconvenience for merchants and pedestrians. "I feel sorry for these people. It's been a long process."

Mayor John Heilman said officials plan an Aug. 19 street party to celebrate the completion of the boulevard project even as the city takes full advantage of the year's warranty on the concrete work.

In the meantime, Heilman said, the city plans to "negotiate" with Willdan Associates over that firm's final $525,500 bill. And it intends to seek additional money from the state to help cover some of the $7-million construction shortfall.

West Hollywood officials assert that such things as a high water table and unanticipated utility installations beneath the street have added to the project's cost.

The overall cost of the project is divided roughly in thirds among the city, Los Angeles County and the state. Until the city took jurisdiction of the street at the start of the project, the boulevard had been considered a state highway.

As for Gordon, officials have words of thanks. "Jim Gordon's trying to be very helpful and we appreciate that," said City Manager Arevalo.

That kind of praise can cement a sidewalk superintendent's reputation.

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