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Some Northridge Quake Wounds Are Yet to Heal

Despite a swift recovery effort after the deadly temblor a decade ago, some properties are still waiting to be rebuilt.

January 17, 2004|Hector Becerra and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

The owners of the Java lot, commanding panoramic views of the San Fernando Valley and L.A.'s Westside, started to rebuild their house exactly as it was, city records show. A geology report found cracks in the top 30 feet of soil. The condition was not unusual or prohibitive, it said, but officials demanded extensive foundation work to compensate for it.

The property has now been sold to Mark and Shelley Hellman, who are planning to build their dream house there. But the going has been slow.

Their builder, Jeff Ficks, said he has put more than a year into negotiations with city officials to overcome the problems brought out in the 1995 soils report.

"Once a house was red-tagged, they looked at it much more carefully," said Ficks, who has rebuilt several hillside homes.

The decision of whether to rebuild went deep into one homeowner's psyche.

When the earthquake struck, Manny Davis, a World War II and Korean War veteran, had recently remarried after losing his wife of 46 years to cancer.

"You've been living in Sylvia's shadow," he told his new wife, Renee, who had just moved into the house on Sherwood Place that he and his first wife bought in 1966. "Now you are out from the shadow."

Davis was well-insured and recovered the $250,000 cost of sinking caissons 60 feet deep and erecting a steel-frame platform for the replacement house.

He and Renee designed a modern floor plan, taking full advantage of a spectacular Valley view.

Others on the block moved on, unable to make peace with its memories, he said.

"Some people have a tendency to bounce back from crises more easily than others do," Davis said.

Though predominantly in the Valley, earthquake damage had a stealth effect in some of the region's poorest areas, especially along the Santa Monica Freeway.

Though a crash building program got the broken freeway back in operation two months early, earning its contractor a $15-million bonus, many nearby buildings languished for years because the owners could not qualify for government loans.

Today, despite $108 million in federal assistance, "recovery is still not complete in the Crenshaw and West Adams neighborhoods," UCLA researcher Nabil Kamel and urban planning department Chairwoman Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris wrote in their report this month.

But overall, the researchers found, recovery efforts were largely successful.

"The region's population has continued to expand," they wrote. "Housing units have increased and still the vacancy rate is low, all indications that L.A.'s image was not permanently diminished by the earthquake."

They also found that "federal programs worked as intended, mainly putting back or replacing what was in place before the earthquake."

But in a closer look, the researchers found that rebuilding took longer, and still lags behind, in areas where economic malaise created conditions that excluded many property owners from some government programs.

This effect is evident on a depressed portion of West Adams Boulevard, where more than a dozen buildings were red-tagged and at least three remain vacant lots. Others, still in poor repair, are shuttered or used for light industry.

In contrast, many of the residential streets intersecting West Adams today display the successful meshing of government and market forces.

Dozens of newly built homes are spotted across this pre-World War II neighborhood that was profiled in a 1995 Times article as an area teetering on "ghost town" status.

Since then, federal funds marshaled by the Los Angeles Housing Department leveraged the replacement of properties that had been denied the Small Business Administration loans that funded most of the recovery.

"I feel that our neighborhoods have improved around us," said Noel Sweitzer, president of a nonprofit group that owns eight subsidized apartment buildings damaged in the quake.

When Sweitzer's company, Housing Development Services Inc., bought the drab buildings in 1991, they were in poor condition and she said she was having a hard time getting them into shape.

"On one street, we were firebombed before we took management," she said. "Drug deals were going on."

Then the quake hit. Sweitzer got a $7.8-million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The two most heavily damaged buildings on West Boulevard were torn down and rebuilt with an art deco flair that won an American Institute of Architects award.

"When you rehab them like we have done, you sometimes get the neighbors cleaning up their garbage and painting their front porch," Sweitzer said.

The L.A. Housing Department brokered the financing for more than 300 projects in this area, said Sally Richman, manager of policy and planning. Overall, it arranged more than $300 million in loans to restore more than 13,000 housing units.

Conversely, the abandoned Panorama City high-rise shows how a vulnerable neighborhood can spiral downward when the city and an owner can't work together.

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