HERMOSA BEACH — More than three years after heavy rain from fierce winter storms flooded streets, overflowed inadequate storm drains and swamped several businesses and homes, the downtown is getting a new storm drain system.
But the long-awaited project, which will run under the heart of the business district and will replace a decades-old system, comes at an awkward time: the beginning of the lucrative tourist season at one of the South Bay's most popular beaches.
During the first couple weeks of construction of the $1.6-million system, crews have dug up portions of the beachfront walkway, parked massive steam shovels and cranes on the sand and closed a portion of the beach south of the pier where the drain will dump into the ocean.
"I just couldn't believe it when I looked at the pier head," said William Fowler, executive vice president of the Hermosa Beach Chamber of Commerce. "I thought it was World War III."
Though most have accepted the construction as a necessary disruption, some restaurants along The Strand report business is down, several merchants have complained that valuable parking spaces have been lost to construction, and some regular beachgoers bemoan the loss of a popular meeting place at the base of the pier.
In an effort to help businesses cope with the disruption, City Manager Gregory Meyer will recommend to the City Council next week that the city sell validation stamps to merchants at a reduced rate during the construction period. The city sells the stamps to merchants who in turn give them to customers for free parking in downtown lots.
In addition, Meyer said he will suggest that the city open a temporary parking lot for employees of downtown businesses on a vacant lot on Manhattan Avenue near Pier Avenue so downtown lots on Hermosa Avenue can be used by customers who might otherwise have parked on the street.
The city has already provided the vacant city-owned site of the former Biltmore hotel on The Strand for parking and storage of equipment so construction crews will not block street parking spaces.
"This is the kind of thing that happens once every 50 years," Meyer said. "We are going through a major rehab of the city's support system."
Lifeguards and police report that fewer people have been congregating on The Strand near the construction site, but they said there has been no visible decline in the number of people using the beach. Police said there have been no arrests or injuries but life guards have complained that children have been playing in the ditches.
"We've had to go down in the holes and get some kids out of them, but the construction hasn't affected the overall activity on the beach," said lifeguard Jim McDonald. "People are still coming to the beach."
1,800 Feet of Pipeline
In the next few weeks, construction crews will move from the beach and The Strand and begin placing pipeline under Pier Avenue between the pier and Hermosa Avenue, north under Hermosa Avenue to 16th Street, and under Beach Drive between 10th and 13th streets. In all, 1,800 feet of pipeline will be laid.
The project is scheduled to be finished by the end of next month, although unanticipated delays could push the completion date past the Fourth of July holiday weekend, city officials said.
"I am still optimistic that we will make the deadline," said Anthony Antich, the city's director of public works. "I am just thrilled that it is finally under way."
The storm drain system is being built by Los Angeles County, which is paying for all but $350,000 of the cost. The remainder is being paid by the city with federal Community Development Block Grant money, city officials said.
County officials said it is the first county-built storm drain system in the downtown area. City officials said the existing system, which is a collection of small basins and pipes, was built before World War II.
"Everything has a roof or asphalt over it now," Meyer said. "There is a real need for the drain."
When the county approved the project last year, merchants and city and county officials worked together to draft a project proposal that Meyer said has minimized the disruption to downtown businesses and beachgoers.
Built Section by Section
The contractor, Edmond J. Vadnais Construction of Solano Beach, has agreed to work in segments--dividing the project into sections so that the entire downtown is not torn up at one time, Meyer said. Each segment will be repaved before the next section is excavated, he said.
The construction company also agreed to remove all equipment from the streets and beach during the Memorial Day weekend, when the Chamber of Commerce sponsors its annual street festival. Sections of the street that are still torn up at that time will be temporarily filled for the weekend.
"We get 100,000 people down here over the three-day weekend," said Fowler. "We have to make sure that there are no safety hazards."