Earlham Street Appeal Filed in Pacific Palisades: Landslide Fears on Friends Street

By Sue Pascoe

The questions Earlham Street neighbors have asked city planners include: Are the three lots on Earlham along Potrero Canyon safe to build on? Is the grading plan correct? And, do the three proposed 10,000-sq.-ft. houses, with swimming pools and basements, follow coastal development guidelines?

A public hearing was first held on December 5 regarding the Earlham project proposed by developer Reza Akef, owner of Metro Capital Builders, Inc. He also happens to serve as Area 8 representative on the Pacific Palisades Community Council. The property is part of an investment portfolio that is managed by his father.

The project’s proposed location (from 15210 to 15222 Earlham) is at the loop on Lombard Avenue between the intersections with Friends Street and Earlham. Each lot is about 12,100 sq. ft., and each house is roughly 6,500 sq. ft, with 3,500-sq.-ft. basements.

The Earlham property under dispute is located between Friends Street (to the left) and Potrero Canyon (right). The dirt fill from the Caruso Village Project can be seen in Potrero Canyon.
The Earlham property under dispute is located between Friends Street (to the left) and Potrero Canyon (right). The dirt fill from the Caruso Village Project can be seen in Potrero Canyon.

On March 21, in a 23-page report prepared by City Planner Griselda Gonzalez and approved by Faisal Roble, Akef was given permission to proceed.

In making her March decision, Gonzalez referred to a geology and soils report approval letter (dated September 24, 2015) from Jeffrey Wilson (L.A. city engineering geologist) and J. Adolfo Acosta (geotechnical engineer) that included 54 conditions that have to be met during site development.

The first condition stated that “prior to issuance of any permit, the owners shall record a sworn affidavit with the Office of the County Recorder attesting to their knowledge that the site is located in an area subject to landslides.”

Condition 12 said, “Existing uncertified fill shall not be used for support of footings, concrete slabs or new fill,” and condition 23 was “All foundations shall derive entire support from competent bedrock, as recommended and approved by the geologist and soils engineer by inspection.”

After the December hearing, in response to concerns raised by neighbors, Gonzalez contacted Byer Geotechnical, Inc., which had been hired by Akef to prepare the initial geotechnical reports, to answer these concerns. (Byer was one of the firms hired by the city to provide research regarding the multi-year project to fill and grade Potrero Canyon.) In a December 15, 2016 letter, Byer geologists John W. Byer, Hans Hoek and Robert I. Zweigler told Gonzalez:

“As part of the approval process, embedment in competent bedrock is determined during drilling by the geologist. If bedrock is deeper than anticipated in the report, the pile will be drilled to a greater depth. It remains Byer Geotechnical’s opinion that competent bedrock is anticipated at the depths indicated in the reports.”

That letter then referred back to condition #23 in the city’s soil approval letter that stated, “All foundations shall derive support from competent bedrock . . .”

Byer geologists concluded that “Slide #5 has been buttressed by filling in the canyon, and the existing slopes are demonstrated to be stable under static and seismic (earthquake) loading with the core-required factors of safety. There is, therefore, no risk that the slide underlying the subject properties can be reactivated.”

But that opinion differed from a September 1991 report, “As-Built Geologic Conditions,” issued by Kovacs-Byer and Associates, Inc. That report said the alluvium below Slide #5 could not be removed without triggering a reactivation of the slide. The compacted fill overlying the slide was noted to, “not be certified for the support of any structures.” (Kovacs-Byer and Associates became the J. Byer Group, Inc. in 1993.)

A Phase III grading plan report in 1997 also reported that “Slide #5 was too unsta- ble to remove and recompact as any attempts at removal caused the slide to reactivate and any benching of Slide #5 was not recommended.”

Responding to City Planner Gonzalez’ report, a group called Earlham Neighbors filed a March 31 appeal, specifically addressing the depth of the bedrock, the stability of the landslide area (landslide #5) by Earlham and Friends streets, and the grading.

Consulting geologist E.D. Michael, hired by Earlham Neighbors, looked at the Earlham/Friends lots and his report was submitted as part of the appeal.

Michael noted that Friends Street (which buttresses Earlham and is called slide #1) failed in 1933, and in 1958 homes on the east side of the street slid into the canyon. The road was repaved in the mid-1990s, and since then fracture patterns have reemerged.

“The pattern of cracks which extends across the entire width of Friends Street, indicates not just reactivation of the slide mass (slide #1), but actually headward advancement,” Michael wrote.

Michael also noted, “It is a matter of common knowledge that most landslides are caused by excess ground water.”

He expressed concerns about the basements under the proposed new homes, finding fault with the Department of Building and Safety Approval letter of Wilson and Acosta, saying that the basements are assumed to be subsurface, which would require 4,200 cubic yards of earth to be excavated, but the amount mentioned is instead 7,000 cubic yards.

“In the latter configuration, the structures do not actually have basements but simply exceed the normal planning code square-foot limitation for such structures in the local area. It is unclear what the site configuration will be to account for the additional grading volume, which may amount to as much as approximately 2,800 cubic yards.”

Michael’s conclusion: “It is inadvisable to develop the subject property as presently proposed. Lacking a grading plan on an accurate topographic base, and a reasonable record of ground-water levels leaves the property subject especially vulnerable to serious damage in the event of seismic event of fairly high intensity.”

City Planner Griselda Gonzalez was contacted about the next steps and said, “The commission office will schedule an appeal hearing in the coming months. That date has not been confirmed, yet.”

Earlham neighbor Brett Bjornson said, “The city made the wrong decision to approve the development as proposed.”

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