Jim Nelson veered onto a scruffy dirt road near the top of Laurel Canyon, his Jeep spitting dust as it dug into the dry ground. It was a clear autumn afternoon, and in the distance the city sparkled like the backdrop of a Hollywood set.
But Nelson, the bearded leader of several hundred hillside dwellers, was not taken by the view. His eyes were fixed on the road--what there was of it--and nearby stacks of lumber and some freshly poured concrete.
"Can you believe they are allowing this?" he asked, pointing to some homes being built on a steep ravine at the edge of the unpaved street. "It's a little bit of the Wild West up here."
300 Miles of Unpaved Roads
In a city distinguished by its graceful freeway interchanges, thoroughfares wide enough to land jumbo jets and rivers lined with concrete, there are thousands of Los Angeles residents who still live on dirt and poorly paved roads, many of which are so narrow or badly engineered that fire trucks and ambulances simply cannot use them. City officials estimate that there are about 300 miles of such roads in Los Angeles, most of them nestled in the nooks and crannies of the Santa Monica and Verdugo mountains and other hillsides throughout the city.
For years, the city largely ignored the "unimproved" and "substandard" streets--as they are called at City Hall--accepting them as a fact of life for residents looking to escape the concrete regimen of Los Angeles. But with skyrocketing housing prices in recent years, remote or unwieldy hillside lots once passed over because of costly engineering obstacles are filling up with homes--and city officials are beginning to worry that hillside streets cannot handle their new-found popularity.
"The problems of access have proven to be a real threat to public safety in the event of fire or other natural disasters, such as an earthquake or flood," Councilman Michael Woo wrote in a recent letter to hillside residents in his Hollywood-area district. "This situation cannot be allowed to continue any further."
Fire officials say they routinely have difficulty getting to homes in the hills, particularly when the narrow roads--both paved and dirt--are cluttered with illegally parked cars. In the winter, rains turn dirt into mud and undermine skimpy road foundations, making many cliff-side dirt roads too dangerous for fire trucks.
"At that point we have to change our game plan," said Fire Capt. Jack Coburn, whose station on Mulholland Drive covers canyons in the Hollywood Hills. "It becomes a hand operation. The firemen grab the hose and start running with it to get as close as they can. . . . We will always get there, but by the time you pack in equipment and firefighting lines, there is definitely a time delay."
Capt. John Holloway, who deals with access problems citywide for the Fire Department, said the difficulties in the Hollywood Hills are not unique.
While he would not cite specifics, he said there have been cases in various hillside neighborhoods of ambulances unable to reach victims because of inadequate streets. In new subdivisions, fire officials are able to require builders to provide streets wide enough and stable enough for safety vehicles, but they have no such authority over homes going up on existing roads.
"Historically in the fire service, all fire problems are pooh-poohed until something happens," Holloway said. "It usually takes a loss of life or a major dollar loss before something gets passed."
During the last year, according to city statistics, building permits for single-family homes and requests for additions to existing homes have doubled in one hillside stretch of particular concern--between the San Diego and Hollywood freeways south of Mulholland Drive. While the numbers themselves do not seem high--about 80 building permits and 200 additions--officials say the construction is concentrated in several canyons where roads are already crumbling.
"Now that the (San Fernando) Valley . . . and the Westside are all built up and there is still pressure to put up homes, people are moving into the mountains where there is some vacant land," Deputy City Engineer Larry Burks said. "And when you come up with more development and more people, there is a greater need for public services like streets and fire protection."
Varying Code Requirements
Most of the street problems can be traced to the original subdivision of hillside neighborhoods, which in some cases date to the early 1900s. Many hillside communities at that time were not part of the city of Los Angeles, meaning that code requirements varied widely and enforcement was often lax. Tiny lots--most smaller than the minimum 5,000 square feet now required by the city--were crowded along equally tiny and often unpaved streets.