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Competing Interests : Building a Subway--It Isn't Boring

THE SUBWAY BUILDERS: One in an Occasional Series

September 14, 1987|TED ROHRLICH | Times Staff Writer

When a pipe broke recently, leaving the 500-room Clark Hotel in downtown Los Angeles without water, manager Paolo Vinci blamed Metro Rail construction crews who were rerouting pipes nearby.

To supply his guests with water, Vinci hooked a fat hose to a fire hydrant.

Then he called "Tony, the guy you complain to."

For Tony Ferruccio, the resident engineer in charge of building Metro Rail's station at 5th and Hill streets, the call was a small reminder of the biggest challenge in subway building--coping with the urban environment that surrounds the job.

The corner of 5th and Hill, one of the busiest in Los Angeles, is next to Pershing Square and the Jewelry District. It is home during the day to wholesale and retail merchants and, by night, to marijuana peddlers, winos and prostitutes.

'The Great Awakening'

Five months into construction, after years of planning, people along Hill Street are going through what subway builders call "the great awakening."

They are realizing the extent to which digging up Hill Street, from sidewalk to sidewalk to make a block-long crater for a subway station, will disrupt their lives.

As merchants squawk about dust and detours and torn-up pavement, Ferruccio, 31, is having an awakening of his own--realizing just how much easier it would be to build the station if it did not have to be downtown.

Ferruccio already knew about Vinci's problem at the Clark Hotel because water from the broken pipe was gushing into Ferruccio's office in the basement of a building four doors down. But he told Vinci there was not much he could do about it.

Ferruccio, whose role as chief on-site representative of the Southern California Rapid Transit District makes him sort of the unofficial mayor of Hill Street, decided that the pipe had broken of old age, and that made fixing it Vinci's responsibility.

Good Will or Money?

The stage was set for a debate that could have taken longer to resolve than the subway will take to build, but Vinci gave in, deciding that Ferruccio's good will was more important than money to fix the pipe.

Vinci agreed to unhook "our lifeline"--as he called the hose that ran illegally from the hydrant through a hole in the sidewalk and down to the broken pipe in the Clark's basement--and call a plumber.

"We just went ahead and paid for it ourselves rather than go into a lengthy debate," the hotel manager recalled.

He said he is saving whatever bargaining chips he might have with Ferruccio for something more important: keeping the hotel accessible to guests while the station is being built.

Vinci's biggest problem is that the Clark has only one entrance--on Hill Street. He knows that Hill Street will have to be closed for brief periods to build the station. But he hopes nonetheless that Ferruccio will find some way to avoid it.

"As long as they keep our entrance open, we'll be happy," Vinci said.

Ferruccio said he does not know how he can always keep Hill Street open.

But he and a small army of RTD construction managers will try to minimize disruption to the Clark and other businesses on the block by juggling community interests with contractor needs.

While the shell of what is expected to be Metro Rail's busiest station is constructed during the next three years, Ferruccio and his colleagues will keep a lid on the street as much as possible so that most construction can go on underneath it, out of sight, while cars roll by on top.

The hitch is that it takes nearly a year just to get the lid--or temporary decking--in place, and Hill Street will have to be sporadically closed to traffic next spring while the decking is installed.

Both before and after the installation, Ferruccio and his colleagues will have to balance the contractor's desire to close as many lanes on Hill Street as possible with the public's desire to pass by.

They will also have to factor in the Fire Department's need for constant access, the Veterans Administration clinic's need for parking for its ambulances, the parking lots' need for accessible driveways, and the stores' need for curbside deliveries.

Competing Interests

Ferruccio has helped build dams, tunnels and hydroelectric power plants. But nothing has prepared him to cope with the hodgepodge of competing interests that must be addressed to build a subway station downtown.

There, nothing is as simple as it seems.

Even a fence is not just a fence. Rather, it is something that can put a man out of business. And Myung Kyun Kim complains that the contractor's fence is doing just that.

The wooden fence, eight feet high, is erected in the middle of the sidewalk that passes in front of Kim's fast-food restaurant.

It separates the station perimeter from public passageways--reducing the public's exposure to dust--but it is so tall that it hides Kim's restaurant from passing cars.

Kim said his business has declined 50% since the fence went up.

"Even the deliverymen think our store is closed," he complained.

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