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Subway Project Leaves Trail of Anger, Lawsuits


Henry Lee survived the riots. He survived the earthquake. But he did not survive the MTA.

Lee, whose key shop has had a red "Unsafe to Enter" sign posted on its door since last summer--when tunneling caused parts of Hollywood Boulevard to sink--is among the merchants and residents who have tried to cope with life in the Subway Construction Zone.

The tunneling is about to end in Hollywood and move on to other Los Angeles neighborhoods, but the region's biggest public works project is leaving behind bitter feelings and millions of dollars in claims and lawsuits.

"We never expected the construction to be more damaging than the earthquake," lamented Tim Shumaker, the blind owner of a talent agency who says tunneling problems in August forced him from his apartment and office to live in a one-bedroom hotel room with his wife, their 5-month-old baby and his guide dog. "They're tearing people's lives apart."

Lee and Shumaker account for but two of the 2,725 claims and lawsuits against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority brought by individuals and businesses along the subway route, ranging from big corporations to mom-and-pop stores. More than 100 property owners have filed for property tax relief, putting the subway project in the same category of "misfortune or calamity" as the earthquake and riots.

Since the project began, the transit agency and its insurance company have paid more than $15 million in settlements and judgments to businesses and residents, according to documents obtained through the California Public Records Act. The agency also has paid about $50 million for insurance to cover construction impacts.

Some have speculated that the claims and lawsuits will exceed $1 billion.

"This happens in the name of progress," MTA spokeswoman Andrea Greene said.

Transit officials say they have spent millions of dollars to lessen the impact of the project, on everything from hiring carolers and trucking in four tons of snow to promote Christmas shopping in Hollywood to funding the planting of more than 3,500 trees in the Wilshire corridor.

"How can there be any doubt that Hollywood is going to be better when we are done?" MTA Chief Executive Officer Franklin E. White asked, noting that communities have fought hard to get rail lines. He said businesses Downtown and on Wilshire Boulevard should start seeing more of the economic benefits next year with the opening of a two-mile extension of the subway to Wilshire and Western Avenue.

Chris Martin, an architect who owns a Downtown office building, called subway construction a "rip in the fabric of the city that takes time to heal."

He recalled a conversation he had with a tenant whose desk shook whenever beams were pounded into the ground during construction: "I said, 'Do you want to be in the heart of the metropolis, where the world economy is right outside your door? Or do you want to be in Cucamonga listening to the birds chirp?"

Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., cited the experience of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system as reason for optimism. "If you went to the Bay Area, you had a lot of very unhappy campers when they were doing construction," he said. "But now, if you go to Market and Powell (in San Francisco), which used to be ground zero, it's a happening place."

"I think the neighborhood will be much better in the long run," said Craig Klapman, a bookstore owner on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. "I'm not making much money, but I'm surviving."

Don Clinton, whose Clifton's cafeterias in the Downtown area endured 2 1/2 years of construction, was not so understanding. "I haven't found another business person who feels it was worth all the inconvenience," he said.

"We're all willing to put up with some discomfort," said Jerry Schneiderman, a developer who chairs Hollywood Damage Control & Recovery, a group of more than 500 property owners who have joined together to file claims against the MTA. "We're all willing to be good citizens and give our best for the community.

"But the level to which the MTA and its contractors have gone with their carelessness and destructiveness is beyond what anybody should endure," he said.

Property owners along Wilshire, Vermont Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard and now on Lankershim complain that blocked storefront views and traffic detours have driven customers away. One Wilshire merchant filed a claim alleging respiratory problems "and diminution of life expectancy" due to hydrogen sulfide gas leaks from the project.

The bulk of complaints have come from Hollywood, where tunneling was suspended for several months last year after the ground sank 10 inches. Businesses there complain about cracked walls, sunken floors, broken pipes and interrupted water service. In one case, transit workers had to carry buckets of water into a Hollywood business after the water was cut off.

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