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Out There: Residents on Long Beach island live in fear of sea wall failing

The quaint island community of Naples, with its million-dollar homes, famed canals and pirate statues, is protected by a crumbling concrete berm.

April 29, 2010|By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times
  • The concrete berm that keeps Naples high and dry has seen a series of short-term fixes. Residents say it's time to rebuild, but the cash-strapped city may demur and patch it again.
The concrete berm that keeps Naples high and dry has seen a series of short-term… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

It's a trade-off, living on Naples.

In exchange for inhabiting an island with quaint canals where kayakers, paddlers and opera-singing gondoliers float past million-dollar homes, residents of this Long Beach neighborhood live with the anxiety of knowing that the only thing protecting their property from the ocean is a crumbling sea wall.

"If the sea wall fails, we're in real trouble," said Bob Fletcher, a retired lawyer who has experienced the sinking feeling of spotting ocean water seeping under the floorboards of his Spanish-style home on Rivo Alto Canal.

An engineer recently warned the city that sections of the mile-long concrete sea wall are on the verge of collapse. Long Beach officials are now studying whether to patch up the most threatened walls, as they have for years, or spend more than $9 million to rebuild them.

On an island where wealth is on display, it is this plain-Jane concrete berm that separates the good life from the ocean.

The coarse gray sea wall encircles Naples and forms the sides of its famed canals, created in 1905 when the island was molded into its current shape and the first homes were built.

Residents, who call their marinalike neighborhood the Jewel of Long Beach, want the city to replace the sea walls now to prevent future catastrophe.

It's a hard bargain at a time when the city is financially stretched and doesn't know how it would fund the multimillion-dollar project.

Residents have long known that Naples is no ordinary neighborhood.

Divided into three portions, the island's 1,800 homes are a mix of Victorian, Mission Revival and modern sitting in a mazelike configuration of curved streets and narrow bridges.

The artery of the community is its system of canals.

Electric boats, kayaks and other small watercraft line the canals and gangways, parallel-parked like cars on a city street. Not one, but two pirate statues stand as sentinels, one on a section of Naples known as Treasure Island.

In summer months, the splash of water sports abounds. Neighbors hold swimming contests: one side of the canal versus the other. In fall and winter, crowds descend on the sidewalks lining the canals for trick-or-treating, Christmas caroling and gawking at outrageous holiday light displays.

Residents within earshot of the canals — which is most everybody — have memorized the gondoliers' Neapolitan songs: "O Sole Mio" and "Santa Lucia."

But over the years, fear has escalated: If the sea walls buckle or crumble, oceanfront homes could slide into the water.

The sea walls were built out of timber in the 1920s and then rebuilt with concrete after the catastrophic 1933 Long Beach earthquake.

Decades of saltwater corrosion have taken their toll. As homes on the island have gotten bigger, furniture and planters and other features added, the development has put more stress on the sea wall and the weight has caused it to bow outward in places.

Public Works Director Michael Conway told the City Council earlier this month that "immediate attention is required to assure structural integrity" of about a quarter of the sea walls.

Skeptics question spending so much to rebuild the seawalls when the city is facing a projected $18.5-million budget shortfall and money is also needed in other areas of the city — to patch up potholes or repave crumbling streets, for instance.

"I don't want to have fear be the driver of this, I want it to be the reality," Councilwoman Rae Gabelich said at a special council meeting about the sea walls.

The well-heeled residents of Naples stress that it's not a pet project — they're not asking for public dollars to benefit their backyard, but to maintain the waterways for everyone who uses them.

"On holiday weekends, the canal looks like a freeway," said Bob Luskin, who cruises the canals in his inflatable motorboat. "It may be an island but it's not an isolated community."

Islanders can't help but feel nervous noticing concrete flaking off the sides of the seawall. When they take their boats out, they see from eye level the decay of the concrete and wonder what would happen in a strong earthquake.

Engineers say the most severely corroded parts of the wall are underwater and can't be seen without scuba gear.

Naples has an ally in its councilman, Gary DeLong, who calls the aging sea walls "a potential disaster waiting to happen" and has urged the city to fund a lasting overhaul.

If no money is discovered, however, the city may opt to spend $1 million reinforcing the most damaged sections, extending their life five to 10 years.

But within the next decade or two, the city will have to replace all of Naples' sea walls, at a cost of $60 million.

The neighborhood's sea wall committee has been presented with study after study dating back to the early 1990s warning of the impending failure of the sea walls, said chair Maureen Poe. Her She says now is the time for action.

"They've been up for a long time and they've been holding up pretty good, it's actually surprising," she said. "But their time is up and we need to start addressing it, because we all suffer or benefit because of the walls."

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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