Proposed Earlham Homes in Pacific Palisades Under Scrutiny

By Sue Pascoe

A public hearing was held on Dec. 5 regarding three proposed 10,000-sq.-ft. homes with pools that would be built along Earlham Street, on the edge of Potrero Canyon Park.

The project developer is Reza Akef, owner of Metro Capital Builders, Inc., who also happens to serve as Area 8 representative on the Pacific Palisades Community Council. The property is owned by an investor portfolio that is managed by his father.

Three 10,000 sq. ft. homes are proposed for the land on Earlham. Story poles show how high the homes will be. Photo: Bart Bartholomew
Three 10,000 sq. ft. homes are proposed for the land on Earlham. Story poles show how high the homes will be.
Photo: Bart Bartholomew

The proposed location (15210, 15214, 15218 and 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 hearing in West L.A. addressed two issues: a Notice of Decision on a Local Coastal Development Permit (CDP), and an environmental review. L.A. City Planning Associate Griselda Gonzalez presided.

About 20 people attended the meeting, including Earlham neighbor Art Levin, who opposed the house sizes. “The next largest home in this area is 7,500 sq. ft.,” he said. “The average size of homes in this neighborhood is 2,500 sq. ft. These are four-story homes that will look like cruise ships.”

“These are mega-mansions,” said DePauw resident Harlan Hogue, who also addressed the land’s instability. “I’ve lived here 43 years and I’ve seen all the landslides. One took out the street.”

Geologists have labeled the area Landslide #5, and earlier reports refer to the area as a tributary canyon to Potrero.

Lombard neighbor Greg Victoroff said, “This is the wrong project at the wrong place at the wrong time.” His concerns were echoed by Earlham neighbors Mike Sultan and Brett Bjornson.

Gonzalez was given numerous early documents by Bjornson and Sultan that addressed the area’s past instability.

As early as September 1993, in a letter to Pam Emerson of the California Coastal Commission, the city’s Director of Planning Frank Gatania wrote: “The tributary canyon rim cannot be restored and the community felt that it was important to keep as much of the canyon ambiance as possible since the rim could not actually be fully restored. In this area, the slide is buttressed to assure stability, but cannot be certified for further development.”

In October of the same year, the city’s Potrero Canyon Park project director Kathleen Chan received a letter from members of the Potrero Canyon Association, which stated in part: “The private lots along Earlham are, unfortunately, the most problematic. It is believed by many that the ‘lake’ beneath the area is in fact an underground stream.”

Before Potrero Canyon was filled in, the cliffs were steep, and below Earlham there was a pond of water. Residents question how a developer can anchor piles in bedrock that can support homes and swimming pools, based on this early photo of the area.
Before Potrero Canyon was filled in, the cliffs were steep, and below Earlham there was a pond of water. Residents question how a developer can anchor piles in bedrock that can support homes and swimming pools, based on this early photo of the area.

In a December 17, 1997 letter to Chan, the J. Byer Group, a geotechnical consulting firm, wrote: “Nine landslides were identified along the flanks of Potrero Canyon, starting with slide #1 below Friends Street which is the largest. Slide # 5 is located below Lombard Street and has been active in the recent past.”

J. Byer submitted a grading plan that proposed graded slopes along the rim of the canyon to act as buttress fills for lots which front on Friends Street and DePauw Street.

“The majority of the fill placed will be certified by the J. Byer Group for the support of structures. However, landslide #5 is too unstable to remove and recompact. Any attempt at removal in the past caused the landslide to reactivate.” Further in the report, Byer’s geologists concluded: “For slide #5 compacted fill will be placed over the existing compacted fill, alluvium and landslide debris.”

(Eight of the landslides have been remediated—only #5 remains.)

Before Bjornson purchased his home at 15217 Earlham in 2000, he consulted geologist Haley Tucker, who told him the landslide came to the middle of his parkway.

In his report, Tucker wrote: “The reactivation of the slides required that emergency remedial repairs be initiated by the City of Los Angeles. Soldier pile bulkheads support the public right-of-way along Friends Street and Earlham. These installations consist of 60 to 90-feet long steel I-beams encased in 24-inch diameter structural concrete.”

Bjornson’s neighbors, Bob and Sue Stein, provided photos of the city installing the beams, which Stein estimated as 50 to 60 feet long, in an effort to stabilize the slide. Bjornson’s geologist concluded that “the residence [15217 Earlham] appears to be suitable for residential occupancy from a geologic perspective, although part of the property has been included with a landslide, as mapped by Kovacs-Byer and Associates, Inc.

On Dec. 5, Bjornson stated in a letter to the city: “To reiterate my concerns of the project, Mr. Akef ’s current plans do not properly reflect the depth of competent bedrock. In addition, I do not believe the City of Los Angeles has fully addressed associated remedial matters still lingering underneath Earlham Street up to the middle of my parkway.” To further complicate matters, Akef’s father, Frank, managed an investor portfolio that has owned the Earlham properties since 1997. Akef said the Coastal Development Permit process began in 1999, and in 2003 his father was granted a CDP for three homes on four lots.

According to the April 28, 2005 Case No. ZA 2003-2581 (CDP) for 15210-15222 Earlham, approval signed by Lourdes Green, the Associate Zoning Administrator, the four lots were divided to allow three homes. Lot 15210 was 5,500 sq. ft. including garage, Lot 15214 was 5,365 sq. ft. including garage, and Lot 15218 was 5,276 sq. ft. including garage. The developer was supposed to support the homes on piles that extend through the fill into the bedrock of the buried landslide.

The CDP stipulated that no pool would be permitted on any lot, unless approved by the Department of Building and Safety’s Grading section. Also, there had be a minimum 25-ft. front-yard setback maintained for each dwelling, the fences on the property line were not to exceed six feet, stormwater BMP’s were required and the back and side yards had to have xeriscape landscaping to minimize watering.

Finally, “All terms and conditions of the approval shall be fulfilled before the use may be established. The instant authorization is further conditional upon the privileges being utilized within two years after the effective date of approval and, if such privileges are not utilized or substantial physical construction work is not begun within said time and carried on diligently to completion, the authorization shall terminate and become void.”

Akef was asked why the homes on the property were not started in 2005. “A decision was made at the time to wait to see how Potrero Canyon was going to be developed,” Akef said. “If you remember, this was the same time that the Potrero Canyon Citizens Advisory Board was started.”

Leading up to 2005 city approval, Frank Akef faced neighborhood opposition.

Attorney Robert Glushon of Richman, Luna, Kichaven & Glushon (who represented the neighbors) wrote in a March 31, 2001 letter to L.A. City’s Chief of Grading Section David Hsu: “Prior to the issuance of any building permits, the filling of the canyon in the area of the site must be completed and the final compaction report approved by the department. Since there has been no compaction to date, there can be no final compaction report, until the fill is actually compacted.”

Glushon also noted, “The existing bulkhead is not founded in bedrock. The bulkhead is simply holding back the upper portion of the slide to a depth of about 75-80 feet. It [the slide] has been proven too unstable and dangerous to move, pursuant to John Byers.”

Certified Engineering Geologist Donald B. Kowalewsky, in a letter to Earlham resident Michael Sutton on August 15, 2003, explained he had spoken to Byer.

He cited a J. Byer Group December 1997 letter that stated: “However, landslide #5 is too unstable to remove and recompact. Any attempts at removal in the past caused the landslide to reactivate. . . The finished grade in this area will be non-structural fill due to the compressible alluvium below the fill.”

Kowalewsky explained that nonstructural fill meant that no structure should be supported on the fill and concluded, “Even in 1993, before the J. Byer Group discussed the unstable conditions encountered in slide #5 during grading, it was recognized that the area surrounding the proposed development on Earlham Street could not be stabilized and should not be developed. The subsequent finds of the J. Byer Group only verified the previous conclusions.”

In 2015, Reza Akef hired Byer to complete a geologic and soils engineering conditions report with respect to the project.

Akef received a 36-page paper dated May 19, 2015 which stated that “Byer Geotechnical, Inc. has reviewed the reports prepared by Kovacs-Byer and Associates, Inc., The J. Byer Group, Inc., URS Corporation and MEC/Geotechnical Engineers, Inc., and generally concurs with their findings and recommendations.”

The report concluded, “It is the finding of Byer Geotechnical, Inc. that development of the proposed project is feasible from a geologic and soils engineering [standpoint], provided the advice and recommendations contained in this report are included in the plans and implemented during construction.”

The firm recommended taking out the undocumented fill and replacing it with compacted fill. It also discussed friction piles (minimum of 24 inches in diameter and a minimum of eight feet in competent bedrock), retaining walls, stacked walls, backfill, temporary shoring with soldier piles and floor slabs.

It also noted that “exploration was performed only on a portion of the site, and cannot be considered as indicative of the portions of the site not explored.”

Akef received a geology and soils report approval letter from the City of L.A. in Sept . 2015, which included 54 conditions. Attorney Kristina Kropp of Luna and Glushon (now representing the Earlham neighbors, told the News after the December hearing, “The city is taking the position that the project qualifies for a Categorical Exemption (that the city does not have to do any environmental analysis). “Grading impacts such as the ones posed by the proposed project cannot be overlooked, as the city is trying to do,” Kropp continued. “They must be adequately analyzed by environmental review that complies with the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). If the Project poses environmental impacts (such as soil instability) to the homes across the street, CEQA requires that the City look into such impacts and mitigate them.”

“We applied for the CDPs in January 2016,” Akef told the News. “We have reached out to the neighbors since March 2016. We have door knocked, held three community meetings, and even had a couple of meetings in neighbors’ living rooms. I have always made myself available to answer questions and concerns.”

Akef, who has built two other homes above the Canyon on DePauw, told the News, “Grading is actually not the major concern as much as understanding the Earlham lots in comparison to the De Pauw lots. Thus far, 14 homes have been developed on De Pauw based on the same geological principle for the entire area—a residence cannot use the compacted fill for structural support; the residence must go beyond the fill and use the bedrock for structural support.

“All these projects have deep caissons drilled to bedrock, but on De Pauw, the builders had caissons go deeper than 115 feet,” Akef said. “The LADBS Grading Department has geotechnical engineers that review such projects.”

Akef pointed out that permission to build was granted about 10 years ago. “This time around the neighbors are getting a lot more consideration from me because that is how I operate,” he said. “In addition, we are eliminating 350 dirt-hauling truck trips if we are able to start construction by June 2017 and give the dirt to Potrero Canyon through the property line and not over public streets. That is a huge benefit to the neighbors.”

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