The Oscars a trip? They hope not

Times Staff Writer

Maybe they should order up an extra-thick red carpet for this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.

Workers are racing to fix a buckling section of the Hollywood Walk of Fame in front of the Kodak Theatre, where cracked terrazzo and broken sidewalk stars could be a major Manolo Blahnik hazard for starlets arriving for the Oscars.

The emergency work was underway Thursday as Hollywood announced that it is boosting the price of new stars along the famous boulevard by more than 40% in order to pay for future Walk of Fame repairs -- to $25,000 per celebrity.

Hollywood officials believe the buckling is the fault of the Metro Red Line subway, which has a station beneath the Hollywood & Highland shopping center that houses the Kodak Theatre. The subway’s tunneling was blamed for the 1994 crumbling of the Walk of Fame that left Tinseltown in turmoil.

But Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials contend that the sun is at fault for the buckling. They suggested that damaging “thermo-expansion” occurs when sunlight heats the black terrazzo.


The repair work, along a 60-foot stretch of the Walk of Fame on the north side of Hollywood Boulevard west of Highland Avenue, is viewed as a test project that could determine once and for all what is causing the buckling.

Its $80,000 cost is being divvied up among the nonprofit Hollywood Historic Trust -- which operates the Walk of Fame -- the city, the Hollywood & Highland center and the MTA.

About 121 damaged terrazzo squares, plus 16 others with stars in them, are being replaced. Workers are experimenting with a concrete base up to 8 inches thick to hold the new squares in place. The buckling sidewalk’s base is about 3 inches thick.

“We wanted it to look good for the Academy Awards” on Feb. 25, said Hollywood honorary mayor Johnny Grant, who leads the trust.

Finding a permanent solution to the sidewalk cracking is important to the trust. Under an agreement with Los Angeles, it is responsible for ongoing maintenance of the Walk of Fame.

“The MTA has been stalling me for years,” Grant said. “We’ve had a lot of damage there. We think it’s earth movement with the subway under there.”

Hollywood activists who have monitored Hollywood Boulevard since the subway construction began suggest that poor grouting has led to the sidewalk subsidence. They say “voids” formed outside the tunnel and the subterranean station when excess dirt was removed, and that they should have been permanently filled by pumped-in grout.

But an underground aquifer beneath the Hollywood-Highland station was wet, and workers had difficulty getting the grout to stay in the voids, said Robert Nudelman, director of preservation issues for Hollywood Heritage and a longtime subway critic.

“The underground river is about 60 feet down. The tunnel is right above that,” Nudelman said. Water from the aquifer normally fills the voids. But during dry years the aquifer shrinks and the water in the voids seeps out. And that causes the tunnel, the earth above it and the sidewalk at ground level to slightly subside, he said.

“It’s the domino theory, and the Walk of Fame is the last domino,” Nudelman said.

The MTA disputes that.

“We didn’t find any excessive wetness at Hollywood and Highland. There’s no river in the area,” said Dennis Mori, executive officer of project management for the transportation agency. He was involved with the construction of the Red Line segment beneath Hollywood and Highland.

The Walk of Fame’s problems are due to sunlight, Mori said. “The black terrazzo is subject to expansion when hit by the sun. There’s thermo-expansion. There’s supposed to be expansion joints in there. They didn’t put in enough expansion joints” when the Walk of Fame segment was constructed.

Mori said a terrazzo expert has been summoned from Miami to consult on the repair project. “He was brought in because we wanted to have a second opinion if the sidewalk was installed properly. This has been a problem many years, even before the subway came in.”

Cynthia Ruiz, president of the city’s Board of Public Works, said inspectors are watching the project and will evaluate the thicker sidewalk base in about six months. She said the city has been investigating the problem since 2002.

“They haven’t come up definitely with whose fault it is,” Ruiz said. “At this point I’m more interested in finding a solution than fault. There’s been a lot of finger-pointing going on. That was part of the problem. The fact that we got everyone to pitch in to pay for this was a feat in itself.”

The question of wet soil was an issue during the 1994 Hollywood tunneling. After a nine-block stretch of Hollywood Boulevard sank 9 inches, the MTA ordered the injection of grout into the ground to harden it before drilling proceeded. At the time, MTA officials speculated that leaking water pipes were to blame.

A Times investigation in late 1994 revealed that grouting was not initially included along Hollywood Boulevard out of a desire to save money. Later, after it was ordered, the process stalled when the contractor’s grout-pumping equipment broke down.

Sinking wet sand near Highland Avenue was reported in August of that year by an inspector who noted that a project superintendent evacuated his workers out of fear that “the tunnel was caving in,” construction documents reviewed under the California Public Records Act showed.

One report quoted a soils specialist as noting that “water problems” in loose, sandy soil beneath Hollywood Boulevard were not controlled.

A study published in a 1997 Geological Society of America bulletin reported that a subterranean “alluvial fan” extends from canyons above Hollywood through the heart of the business district. An underground barrier traps groundwater, creating a water table that in some places is as close as 15 feet to ground level.

Geologist Douglas Hammond said Thursday that voids could be a problem around the subway if groundwater levels fluctuate.

“Any place you get alternate wetting and drying, you’re going to have this movement,” said Hammond, a professor of earth sciences at USC. “It could be an aquifer or water pipes in the area failing.”

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who is an MTA board member, said he feels that the buckling in front of the Kodak is occurring in part because the Walk of Fame is wider there than elsewhere along the boulevard.

“We have a problem. It’s unsafe and ugly,” he said. “You could break an ankle walking there.”