Donald E. Cunningham seemed a bit abashed when reminded how he once compared a proposed levee for a business-residential development he wants to build in the Tujunga Valley to the dikes protecting the Netherlands from the pounding sea.
"I was just using that as a figure of speech," Cunningham, a San Fernando developer, said during a recent interview. "We're not building dikes. There are levees all over the world, from the Mississippi River to the Nile."
But he was not embarrassed to propound his theory that, despite doubts of environmentalists, government engineers and some homeowners, the floods that periodically fill the Tujunga Valley's wash in the northeast San Fernando Valley can be held in check.
As visualized by Cunningham, the $100-million development would combine an industrial park, about 500 homes and three to five commercial buildings. Part of the development, including the housing, would be on the southern side of the 565-acre wash, whereas several commercial buildings would be built on an overpass next to the Foothill Freeway overpass.
The developers have earmarked another $5 million to $7 million for construction linked to flood control.
The proposal is in bureaucratic limbo while it undergoes evaluation by an independent engineering firm, as ordered by the City of Los Angeles. The plan would have to be judged feasible by that firm as well as by city engineers before it could be presented to other city agencies for comment and approval.
Several government agencies and neighborhood groups view with dismay Cunningham's controversial plan for the wash, worried over the environmental consequences of the project and its effect on the neighborhood. Others are openly skeptical that the levee-based flood-control system can work.
Still others, notably homeowners groups calling themselves "The YES Coalition," are behind the project, saying it is technologically feasible and will attract new residents and 3,000 new jobs to the area.
Los Angeles City Councilman Howard Finn, who represents the area where the project would be built, has expressed reservations. There are similar doubts in the Los Angeles County Public Works Department, which served as a consultant to the city on the project, which is within city limits.
"Any proposal to channelize Tujunga Wash needs to be carefully reviewed, as it is an unstable, highly dynamic river capable of rapid channel shifting and transporting and/or depositing large quantities of debris," Thomas Tidemanson, director of the Public Works Department, wrote in a report on the project.
Los Angeles city engineers have said the project has grown so complex and ambitious that they are unable to evaluate it.
"I hate to admit that we can't analyze it, but it will take people who have experience in the mechanics of river and flow, and we don't have that kind of system in an urban environment," said Ralph Valenzuela, deputy engineer at the Public Works Department.
The city has appointed an independent engineering firm in Ventura County to analyze the plan, which is expected to take about six weeks. The developer will pay for the study, which will cost about $13,000.
Meanwhile, Cunningham said that, with the aid of Donald D. Hoag, an engineer and land development consultant, and advice from other consultants, he has tackled concerns of the city and county.
"When we've gone this far, you have to believe that we know what we're doing, and we really believe in this," Cunningham said.
The property is owned by the estate of Peter J. Akmadzich, who lived in Tujunga, and CalMat Inc., a gravel-mining operation. Developer Cunningham owns an option to buy the land but he refused to say for how much.
Just above the project site to the northwest, Tujunga Creek serves as the outlet for runoff from the western San Gabriel Mountains, also known as Big Tujunga Canyon. Runoff from rainfall in the mountains flows from the 115-square-mile canyon into the creek, which then drains into Tujunga Valley, about three miles long and half a mile wide, with many channels.
As proposed, the floodwaters leaving Tujunga Creek would hit an 11,000- to 12,000-foot-long levee, a slanted wall of thick reinforced concrete running parallel to Wentworth Street. The new levee would connect an existing levee to the east along Oro Vista Avenue to the Hansen Dam recreation area on the west.
Would Offer Protection
Cunningham said the new levee would protect the development, which lies south of it, from floodwaters and debris. He said the levee would be 10 to 20 inches thick, enough to protect the development from boulders that are washed down during the floods.
Although the wash would be narrowed significantly by the development, the level of the water would rise only slightly, Hoag said. He said the velocity of the water flow also would increase by an insignificant degree.
Cunningham said that, in any case, the development would not be built in the part of the wash where a flood would occur.