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Homes may be razed to widen 405

High-priced houses and businesses could be torn down to make way for a carpool lane in the Sepulveda Pass.

March 05, 2007|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

With state funds now in hand, transportation officials are dusting off plans to widen the San Diego Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass, a $950-million project that could level homes and businesses in some of the region's most affluent neighborhoods.

The most controversial option among the proposals would have the California Department of Transportation tearing down dozens of houses and a Lutheran church in Brentwood. A second, more palatable proposal calls for razing fewer homes, mostly as the freeway is widened through the San Fernando Valley.

Homeowners and local officials are urging Caltrans to take as few properties as needed to fill the 10-mile gap in the highoccupancy-vehicle lane. A decision is expected to be made this summer.

"We know there has to be an HOV lane," said Milton Miller, chairman of the transportation committee of the Bel-Air Assn. "We are not opposing it."

But, he added: "We want it done with the least amount of disruption and taking of property."

After years of delay, the project was fast-tracked last week when the California Transportation Commission, under intense political pressure, dedicated $730 million for construction. It was the largest single allocation of the new bond revenue.

But the money came only after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other officials demanded a fair share of the nearly $20-billion bond issue approved by voters in November.

Los Angeles voters, they argued, believed a portion of the bond money would go toward widening one of the nation's most congested traffic corridors: the 405 Freeway between the Westside and the northern San Fernando Valley.

Caltrans officials declined to provide specifics about the potentially affected properties, saying they were still unsure how much private property would be needed. But those who have been briefed on the five proposals under review shared some of the details. Community meetings are slated for later this month.

"No one likes to give up property," said Doug Failing, who heads Caltrans' Los Angeles-area district. "We recognize it's an inconvenience but it has to happen ... for the greater public good."

At worst, 30 multimilliondollar homes, including several housing multiple families, would be razed to widen less than a mile of the southbound freeway to meet federal highway standards. Eleven-foot-wide lanes would be expanded to 12 feet.

Under that proposal, residential and other properties on Church Lane, a short street on the freeway's west side, would be razed -- including Village Church of Westwood Lutheran.

Caltrans officials also are considering whether their plans would require demolishing a couple of two-story office buildings near the freeway, including one leased by Verizon.

Miller, whose group opposes such widespread demolition, compared the potential devastation from that plan, known as Caltrans' Alternative 3, with what might be caused by "a nuclear attack" south of Mulholland Drive.

"Alternative 3 would be horrendous and destructive of the neighborhood and not accomplish anything," he said, noting that the southbound carpool lane was added just a few years ago.

At that time, Caltrans received a federal exemption to reduce the lanes to 11 feet wide to make room for the sixth lane dedicated to carpoolers. Back then, residents also opposed taking so many homes for the freeway expansion, so Caltrans sought the exemption.

"Why should you widen it?" asked attorney Jason D. Kogan, who leads the transportation committee of the Brentwood Glen Assn., whose members would be most affected by the addition of the extra foot to each of the six lanes.

The primary advantage would be so Caltrans could raise the speed limit from 65 mph to 70 mph. But many commuters doubt they would ever be able to travel that corridor at such speeds.

More significantly, the plans recommend building a northbound carpool lane and improving several freeway ramps, including those at Sunset and Wilshire boulevards. Currently, commuters who rideshare get the advantage of a carpool lane in just one direction, heading south.

Transportation officials expect that adding the northbound carpool lane would encourage more solo drivers to double up on their daily commutes. Caltrans estimates that carpool lanes save motorists about a minute per mile traveled.

Once completed, as early as 2012, carpool lanes would be uninterrupted on the 405 Freeway north from Irvine to the San Fernando Valley.

To reduce the number of private properties that may have to be taken, Caltrans officials may close freeway ramps at Montana Avenue in Westwood, Moraga Drive in Bel-Air Estates and Valley Vista Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. Homeowners would prefer to keep the Montana ramp open but are willing to compromise to save homes.

"We are not going to go to the mat on Montana," Kogan said. "The more important thing is preventing the widening of the freeway going south."

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