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Bracing for More Roadwork

Merchants in West Hollywood learn that their main boulevard needs fixing -- again.

March 30, 2004|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

Mike Gibson well remembers the last time West Hollywood repaved and improved Santa Monica Boulevard.

"To be honest, it was devastating," said Gibson, who watched business dry up at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, the cafe he manages on the boulevard. Clouds of dust and scarce parking caused by the construction chased away a lot of customers.

Now, less than three years after the city celebrated completion of that work, West Hollywood officials say they must repave large strips of roadway and replant scores of trees.

The signs are subtle -- trees are sinking and the wheel paths of buses and trucks are evident in the roadway. Gibson and others who lived through the first renovation will probably see more construction, and no one is happy about it.

City officials blame the planning firm that oversaw the original project and have filed a $13-million lawsuit.

The suit, filed in November, alleges that Willdan Associates drew inaccurate plans that forced contractors to change course several times in the middle of construction and allowed them to use the wrong type of pavement on several parts of the project.

"It appears they didn't account for the right amount of bus and truck traffic in the right-hand lanes in both directions," said Michael Jenkins, West Hollywood city attorney. The road is "showing some distress," he said.

The city also has had to replace more than 60 trees that fell over because, officials said, they were planted improperly.

In November 2002, a windstorm knocked down 40 trees, prompting city officials to take a closer look. They discovered that many of the evergreen elms had been planted in poorly compacted soil.

As a result, officials said, trees meant to last 40 or 50 years were sinking, sometimes by as much as 4 inches, and dying.

The $33-million project to repave and improve portions of Santa Monica Boulevard began in mid-1999. A three-mile stretch of the road represents West Hollywood's main street. Russian grocers and pharmacies serve its immigrants in the east, while glitzy bars and cafes on the west cater to a largely gay clientele. The boulevard is also a favored route for commuters; 50,000 cars traverse it every day.

The reconstruction was West Hollywood's largest undertaking since gaining cityhood in 1984. When construction finally ended in August 2001, the city threw a party to celebrate, spending more than $200,000, as residents and merchants breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Now, officials estimate it will cost an additional $11 million to repair the defective roadway and replace the trees. The city's lawsuit seeks $2 million more than that, arguing that faulty planning by the Orange County-based firm caused extra delays and drove up costs.

Willdan Associates declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Gibson and several other merchants whose businesses suffered during the original renovation groaned at the prospect of more disruption.

But city officials emphasize that repairs won't be on the scale of the massive original project, which included new sidewalks, gutters and landscaping.

"Santa Monica Boulevard was reconfigured and broken down for two years at significant inconvenience," Mayor Jeffrey Prang said. "There's nothing that will come close to approach that scale."

Although damage to the roadway isn't obvious, the asphalt is already starting to settle under the weight of heavy traffic, City Engineer Sharon Perlstein said. City officials first noticed the problem a year ago and brought in a pavement expert, who confirmed the problem.

Done properly, a reconstructed roadway like Santa Monica Boulevard should last 20 years without any major repairs, experts say.

Setting things right will be very costly, Perlstein said.

"It's not just putting down another layer of asphalt, it's the whole structure," she said.

Replanting downed and dying trees also is expensive. The evergreen elms that line the sidewalks cost about $300 each when first planted. But replacement trees tall enough to match the others cost more than $1,000 each.

In 1999 the city set aside $900,000, including $250,000 in business license tax rebates for merchants, in an attempt to mitigate the effects of construction. It also paid for an aggressive marketing effort to get the word out that the city was still open for business.

Many merchants along Santa Monica Boulevard are dreading another round with the bulldozers.

"There's no incentive for anybody to come into town when they tear up the roads," Gibson said. "We get commuters ... going to and from work. I'm afraid it will discourage them from stopping in."

Dean Maxwell, manager of Tango Grill, shook his head when told that the boulevard needed more construction. Last time, he said, business plunged 50%.

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