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Driven up the wall

Times Staff Writer

“It’s monstrous.”

Enid Steckler surveyed the concrete behemoth and shook her head. Dwarfed by the 50-foot-high double walls, the diminutive Viewmont Drive resident stood with her neighbors before the recently erected structure towering above them and shook her head again. “It’s monstrous.”

China has its Great Wall; Jerusalem, the Western Wall. Viewmont Drive in the Hollywood Hills has, simply, the Wall, a gray structure so massive that it consumed 25,000 tons of concrete -- enough to pave 4 1/2 miles of a two-lane highway, 8 inches deep. It’s six stories tall and 480 feet long, casting a big shadow on the houses beneath its girth.

“This is just too much,” said Jim Nelson, another resident of Viewmont Drive, a narrow street with million-dollar-plus homes and commanding views of downtown, Century City and the ocean beyond.

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In a trend that is alarming hillside residents but winning praise from some developers and real estate agents, slopes that appear to be better suited to mountain goats than luxury homes are being graded, groomed and held up by unimaginably large retaining walls to house those who can afford the steep price for rooms with a view.

A dearth of available lots in the flats of Los Angeles and Orange counties and advances in engineering and construction technologies have sent builders to these once undesirable slopes in canyons and on hillsides, where developers literally are moving mountains to build homes.

While technologically feasible, building on these precarious precipices requires the moving and compacting of hundreds of cubic yards of earth and the construction of massive walls, at a cost of millions of dollars before beginning home construction. Not to mention the disruption to neighbors who bemoan the truckloads of dirt hauled to and from their streets amid piles of sandbags and miles of blue plastic that affront the eye.

“I wouldn’t touch these projects with a 10-foot pole,” said Gary Drake, chief executive of Drake Construction in Beverly Hills. “But I understand why some builders do. Property values are so high now that it’s more cost-effective to do it. But it’s very complicated.”

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Just ask the Viewmont North partners. They already have spent $4 million to hire civil engineers, grade the hill, build the wall and plant greenery on it, widen the street and move power lines underground -- $500,000 for each of the eight lots -- without yet driving a single stake for foundations. But with the finished homes sure to fetch at least $2.5 million each, the investors stand to gross about $20 million.

The story of Viewmont North unfolded about three years ago when Roger Davis, a mild-mannered actor and designer with several building projects under his belt, took San Diego builder Barry McComic and potential investors to the top of the hill to sell them on the development. The spectacular views and Davis’ commitment to oversee the project convinced the partners to buy the eight undeveloped lots there.

The group now is four months from finishing the grading and an additional 18 months from completing the first house. The principals involved in the project admit that it has cost them more than they bargained for, both financially and emotionally.

“If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t,” McComic said. “It’s been a very slow and difficult process because of the city’s extraordinary efforts to make sure this project was done right.”

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To launch a hillside project, whether on Viewmont or Cole Crest drives in the Hollywood Hills or Davies Drive in Benedict Canyon, the city has to approve geology and soil reports, and grading permits must be obtained, building permits issued and civil engineers hired, according to Bob Steinbach, chief inspector for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.

The grading process involves the hauling away, compacting and returning of tons of dirt, day after day, for months. In the case of the project on Viewmont Drive, a narrow, winding street off Sunset Plaza Drive above the Sunset Strip, mail carriers and garbage trucks sometimes had to turn back at a blocked street entrance, inconveniencing and at times infuriating neighbors.

Although the finished upscale Viewmont North development may increase home values in the neighborhood, that prospect has not appeased most residents, who complain that dust, noise, mud, blocked access to their homes and long delays in the grading process have jangled their nerves and, in some cases, left them considering a move.

“The possible increase in property values is not worth what we go through,” said attorney Pam Cooke, a Viewmont resident and planning and land use chairwoman of the Bel-Air/Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council for the city of Los Angeles. “They’re overburdening the land. It impedes everyone’s quality of life when they do this, benefiting a few people but hurting the rest.”

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Not everyone shares Cooke’s assessment. Tony Eldridge, the former owner of the Viewmont North property and a onetime resident there, said that the street improvements and custom-built, high-end homes will only improve the neighborhood. Several real estate agents agreed.

“They’re not putting up a 7-Eleven or an oil refinery there,” Eldridge said. “These are great homes with views.”

That may be true, but the Wall could discourage buyers of the older homes there, said Beverly Hills agent Barbara Nichols. “It’s a major eyesore.”

Whatever the benefits or detriments, Viewmont homeowners complain that they weren’t given sufficient information about the wall and its effect. Had they known of the scope of the work necessary for the development, they would have fought the project, they said.

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That would not have stopped it, however. Once a permit is issued by the building and safety department, residents’ only recourse is an appeal before a building and safety department commission, Steinbach said. But absent a glaring mistake by the department, the commission will not reverse the approval.

“We’re not in the habit of allowing structures to go up that are illegal,” Steinbach said. “There’s a lot of work involved in making sure these projects are correct.”

The hillside areas of Los Angeles are subject to city ordinances that attempt to regulate development there. However, earlier ordinances did not envision the type of grading and retaining-wall construction these steep hills require today.

Seismic concerns have tightened the design criteria for hillside homes, so that once-popular cantilevered homes, for example -- those built on “stilts” -- typically are financially unfeasible today. Flat foundation pads, the result of grading, better meet today’s requirements.

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Powerless to stop development on the city’s steep slopes, some residents are calling on City Council members to help pass legislation that will limit the height and visual effect of retaining walls, allow greater notification of neighbors and more participation of residents in the approval process.

Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents the Viewmont residents, has proposed the creation of a working group to develop such legislation, citing the Viewmont retaining wall as an example of “ugly concrete eyesores.”

“Hillsides used to mean a bungalow life,” Weiss said at a recent news conference at the Viewmont wall. “In less than one generation we’ve gone from the bungalow life to a fortress life.” Viewmont Drive residents, who say they bought their properties to enjoy the bucolic canyon ambience, fear that the area’s remaining green space will give way to more imposing concrete structures.

Developer Davis said that he hopes the extensive planting he and his partners have provided to cover the Viewmont wall, and the improvements to the tiny street, will mitigate the effect of all that concrete. “Ultimately, I hope they’ll see that they have one lovely street.”

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