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Highway Engineers Plan to Shore Up Landslide Site

October 23, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

For a quarter-century, Waterloo Street has been seen by some as a place where freeway engineers met their Waterloo.

The Echo Park roadway dead-ends at a landslide that has turned into something of a landmark for hundreds of thousands who pass it daily on the Hollywood Freeway.

The landslide scar is beneath the old Queen of Angels Hospital, a mile north of downtown Los Angeles' four-level interchange. The gash was created with a whoosh on March 4, 1978.

No one was hurt when a 50-foot-high wall of dirt slid onto the freeway, carrying a large chunk of the hospital's parking lot with it. All four northbound lanes were covered with mud and dirt, vegetation and pieces of parking lot asphalt.

A storm that soaked Los Angeles that day with 2.54 inches of rain was blamed for triggering the slide. The downpour came during a particularly wet winter season that had already dumped nearly 27 inches of rain on the soggy city.

Workers with the state Department of Transportation scooped up tons of dirt and debris and managed to get several northbound freeway lanes reopened the next day. They spent weeks after that with bulldozers and hydraulic excavators scraping away loose dirt and rocks from the slope.

But when they were done, they left behind a denuded, gouged-out slope and a parking lot on top with a 50-foot bite taken out of it.

The hillside collapsed again Dec. 26, 1999, this time sending dirt cascading to the edge of the freeway. Again, no cars were damaged. And again, Caltrans workers hurried to Waterloo Street to stabilize the hillside.

Now, 25 years after the sliding started, highway engineers are taking steps to repair and control their slippery slope permanently.

Caltrans officials are proposing a concrete wall as much as 300 feet long and 50 feet high across the face of the landslide. Preliminary plans call for it to be constructed of rigid panels similar to those used for massive retaining walls next to the Hollywood Freeway near Universal Studios.

Geologists with the department have turned over recommendations for the wall to design engineers. Now officials are seeking funding to pay for it.

Caltrans administrators insist that the hillside is stable and that freeway motorists are not at risk. Mechanics and drivers who now park old buses and trucks at the top of the slide zone are also said to be safe.

Founded in 1927 as a 404-bed Catholic hospital, Queen of Angels was a centerpiece of the Los Angeles medical community for decades. Its commanding, 10-acre hilltop setting was chosen for its proximity to two of the city's major early thoroughfares: Sunset Boulevard and Temple Street.

Development of the Hollywood Freeway in the late 1940s beneath the 14-story hospital gave it even more prominence, making it one of the busiest hospitals in the city in the 1950s. But occupancy declined when newer medical centers opened in the 1970s.

Queen of Angels was still solvent but was sometimes only half-full by 1989, when it merged and moved in with another struggling hospital two miles away: Vermont Avenue's Hollywood Presbyterian. After that, the old Queen of Angels building sat empty until the mid-1990s, when it was bought for about $4 million by a large, Phoenix-based Christian ministry.

By 1997 the church group, now known as the Dream Center, was doing outreach work with a fleet of nine buses and six vans, ferrying worshipers from all over the city to services at the site. Tractor-trailer trucks hauled food to a soup kitchen operated by the ministry.

The fleet was parked in what remained of the old hospital lot above the freeway when the 1999 slide occurred. Caltrans officials contend that leakage from the parking lot caused the slope to give way.

"They had a trailer parking area and they used septic tanks and irrigation for the trailers parked there," said Gustavo Ortega, a Caltrans geologist. "Two of them were leaking. The septic tanks contributed to the groundwater there. That made the slope collapse, in my opinion. We didn't have any rain in '99."

Dream Center officials referred inquiries about the landslide this month to business manager Jed Nibbelink, who refused to comment. "He said he would not be available," his secretary said.

These days, the buses and trucks remain parked in what is left of the lot atop the landslide. The Dream Center is using the hospital buildings to house about 600 people -- including some in outreach programs for gang members, prostitutes and drug addicts.

At the base of the slide, Caltrans workers have placed temporary safety barriers to catch any more falling debris. A ramp that has been cut diagonally across the slide area provides access to the slope for freeway workers and helps catch sliding dirt. Officials say the landslide site is too steep for vegetation to be planted.

Ortega said it was uncertain what the proposed freeway wall would cost. He indicated that the Dream Center might be approached "to see if we can recoup any funds" that might be used to help pay for it.

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