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The 405's nocturnal racket of progress

COLUMN ONE

Neighbors near ground zero of the massive construction project have dealt for 2 1/2 years with shaking walls, pounding noises and the ever-present beep-beep-beep of trucks backing up.

September 27, 2012|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • Kim Sandifer stands between her property wall on the right and a sound wall on the 405 Freeway on the left. Sandifer lives in Westwood Hills, ground zero of the massive construction project to add a 10-mile carpool lane to the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass.
Kim Sandifer stands between her property wall on the right and a sound wall… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

The excavator's teeth bite into the footing of a recently demolished sound wall. A dozen empty dump trucks along Sepulveda Boulevard rumble forward one by one.

Tons of concrete and rebar tumble into each bed, the booms and clatters echoing against the metal sides. Up the slight hill, the walls and windows of a house on South Thurston Avenue begin to shake and rattle.

It is 2 a.m. Tuesday, and the racket of the 405 Freeway construction has roused the Sandifers. Again.

As Angelenos brace for 53 hours of disruptions from Carmageddon II, this weekend's temporary closure of the freeway, Kim Sandifer can only dream that her construction-related misery could be confined to a few days. She could dream, that is, if she could sleep.

Sandifer lives in Westwood Hills, ground zero of the massive construction project to add a 10-mile carpool lane to the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass. For 2 1/2 years, she and her husband, Dominic, and their two children have been worn down by the night-time thuds of jackhammers, the screech of diggers, the giant sucking sound of earth being vacuumed from trenches and, most gratingly, the beep-beep-beep of trucks backing up.

The scale of work and myriad disputes over damages have spawned lawsuits and intricate, increasingly rancorous negotiations between Metro or Caltrans and homeowners. In mid-May, Sandifer described the nocturnal activity blow-by-blow in an email to project managers, elected officials and neighbors:

1:15 a.m. — a booming pounding shakes our house.

2:15 a.m. — 2 big loud pounds.

3:15 a.m. — 6 big loud pounds. At this point I go outside … and try to monitor the sound. … After an hour on the street I returned inside.

5 a.m. — the pounding started again and kept going until 6:45 a.m.

The Sandifers and about 20 neighbors live just east of Sepulveda Boulevard, a stone's throw from the nation's busiest freeway. As part of the $1-billion 405 widening project, workers have torn down old walls and built a new cinder-block one that soars at its peak to nearly the height of a six-story building.

They have done much of the heaviest and loudest lifting at night, with the result that homeowners have had construction roar coming at them with the intensity of a diesel truck moving at 50 miles an hour 50 feet away. According to Caltrans, the noise of that diesel truck is equivalent to 86 decibels, the loudest level allowed at night under an agreement with homeowners.

"We can't move … we couldn't refinance if we wanted to," said Sandifer, 43. "We are stuck."

When they bought a decade ago — when 11-year-old Jack was not yet 2, and 6-year-old Eliza was not yet born — the Sandifers decided they could inure themselves to the constant thrum of freeway traffic in exchange for living in a house brimming with extras — a swimming pool, tree-shaded gardens and a striped basketball court.

Now, that regular freeway noise seems like a kitten's purr.

Over the months, Kim Sandifer has spent hours, often in her pajamas, among construction crews, measuring sound levels and making video recordings. She has complained loudly and often to officials from the California Department of Transportation and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, partners on the project.

Nerves have been strained all around. Early on in the construction, Metro made available the cell phone numbers of on-call employees. Obscenity-laced rants poured in.

"People were screaming at us," said Kasey Shuda, construction relations manager. "It was just getting to the level of harassment at night. People were being so rude … and knowing that we could not do anything. The work was going to continue. People didn't like that."

Metro now offers an online hot line with the promise of a response within 24 hours.

Project director Mike Barbour of Metro said he wished that transportation agencies had seized the Westwood Hills properties. "I don't think your first inclination is to buy out properties or homes," he said. "Looking back, it might have helped."

As it is, Caltrans has bought out one Westwood Hills homeowner for about $1.6 million, part of $16 million committed so far for temporary and permanent easements in connection with the project. The agency expects to pay millions more as judges and juries weigh in.

Coming up any day is the Sandifers' second court-ordered mediation session in their legal battle with Caltrans. The agency has offered $86,000, well below what the Sandifers think they deserve given the effect on their home's value.

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