The Strand and Pier Hotel plans call for freezing the water table, and excavating dirt equal to 13 swimming pools
by Ryan McDonald
The Strand and Pier Hotel project’s beachside location comes with a challenge lurking just below the surface: a high water table. An analysis done on the site by Byer Geotechnical in 2015 found that groundwater levels varied between eight and 11 feet below grade, depending on variations in the tides. Initial excavation for the foundation and the proposed two-level subterranean basement and parking garage would require digging 30.5 feet below the surface. Shoring beams would go down another 50.
The dilemma is familiar to any contractor who has built a home on The Strand in Hermosa Beach. But Strand and Pier’s scale, and its outsize place in the town’s feelings about development, mark water as one of several significant obstacles the project would have to overcome before opening its doors.
Strand and Pier would dramatically reshape Hermosa’s most visible corner. What stands there now — burger joint, beer bar, breakfast spot, bike rental outfit, bivalve restaurant, Italian snack stand, surf shop, eight vacant apartments, and a flat parking lot long favored by bikers — would be replaced by 100 guest rooms, plus a fitness center, hotel bar and cafe, conference center, and a place to dispense 180 bicycles. The development also calls for at least five new tenant-operated businesses, including three restaurants and two retail stores.
The scale of the development has been predictably matched by the intensity of polarized views of the proposal. Depending on whose social media feed one reads, Strand and Pier will either be a business-generating godsend and the key to revitalizing the city’s downtown, or a view-blocking edifice poised to finally displace that fragile yet malleable thing called Old Hermosa.
Both are bigger picture arguments about the long-term effects of Strand and Pier, not practical questions about how such an expansive project might actually be built. What has emerged since the release of the draft environmental impact report this summer, however, are construction concerns that are more, well, concrete.
Hermosa has dealt with developments whose scale created resident concern, most recently the Skechers office complex proposal on Pacific Coast Highway. But Strand and Pier is steps from the sand, accessed via local roads, and fronts one of the most popular recreation areas in Southern California. And while some inconvenience is inevitable in all construction, Strand and Pier will present unique challenges that will require creativity, and likely a bit of patience from residents, to address.
Water, water everywhere
Without some way to stop groundwater from the high water table from flooding the site, construction would be all but impossible, a challenge that has influenced other developments in the area. Several years ago, during the approval process for the now-under-construction H20 hotel one block to the east, on Hermosa Avenue, developer Raju Chhabria said he would not pursue an underground parking garage, despite the fact that it reduced the number of rooms he could build, because of the high water table.
Strand and Pier’s construction management plan says that “dewatering,” in the Newspeak parlance of large-scale construction, is conventionally done by pumping, treating and discharging water throughout construction. But this method was rejected for Strand and Pier. Pumps on the site, operating 24 hours a day, would discharge up to 2,000 treated gallons per minute into city storm drains.
As an alternative, the developer has proposed another way of dealing with the groundwater during excavation: freezing it. Groundwater freezing is accomplished by inserting pipes into the soil and running a chemical brine through them, which removes heat from the surrounding dirt to the point that the groundwater freezes. (Under the proposal for Strand and Pier the brine would never touch the soil.)
The novelty of the method prompted some questions from members of the city’s Planning Commission at a public hearing on Strand and Pier last week. According to Amec Foster Wheeler, the environmental consultants who prepared the DEIR, Hermosa’s Public Works Department and contract engineers have looked at the proposal. Community Development Director Ken Robertson said alternative methods would be pursued if problems became evident during the customary plan check after blueprints became available.
Two experts in the field offered contrasting takes on the plan.
Kamran Nemati, an associate professor in construction management and civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington, said that groundwater freezing is normally used to provide structural underpinning and temporary support for excavation, and noted that it had recently been employed in the construction of a light-rail line in Seattle. The method is an especially good choice for projects done in granular soil, like the sandy base of Strand and Pier, he said. Because sand is more porous than clay, the surrounding groundwater does not need to be cooled as extensively, making the process cheaper.
Nemati, who occasionally brings up groundwater freezing in his classes, was impressed that the process had been identified for a hotel project, and estimated that only 5 percent of contractors even know it exists.
“The dissemination of knowledge in this field is very slow. I’ve talked to many contractors, and they don’t know about it. Or they say, ‘Oh wow is that possible?’ and they scratch their head,” Nemati said.
Joe Sopko, the director of ground freezing for New Jersey-based engineering firm Moretrench, said the process is typically used for the construction of dams, mining shafts, and large tunnels. Sopko, who has worked in the field for decades, said that he could not assess the viability of the technique for the Strand and Pier site. But he noted that, when his firm has previously been asked to bid on groundwater freezing projects for subterranean parking garages, they have declined.
Along with economies of scale, the large public works projects that Sopko identified also benefit from their round shape, which he said places less compression force on the edges than a square-walled structure like a parking garage. It is also extremely difficult to use the technique to stop groundwater that can move more than one meter per day, he said, as would occur near a large body of water subject to changing tides.
“Any time you’re near an ocean or a river, you really have to do a thorough investigation in advance,” Sopko said.
Assuming the dewatering works, excavation to build the parking garage would require the removal of as much as 42,700 cubic yards of soil, enough to fill 13 Olympic-sized swimming pools. This alone would require 80 truck trips to and from the site per day for about six months of what is expected to be a construction process lasting between 24 and 30 months in total.
During this time, the preferred route would take trucks exiting the 405 Freeway down Aviation Boulevard to Artesia Boulevard, where they would head west toward Hermosa Avenue. Artesia, however, becomes Gould Avenue and eventually 27th Street west of Valley Drive, where it narrows.
The announcement of the route unfolds against a push from residents along 27th Street to further restrict truck traffic there. Resident Anthony Higgins complained in a letter to the city about the health hazards associated with diesel particulate matter that large trucks emit, and the danger sending the trucks down a street whose narrow sidewalks sometimes force pedestrians into the roadway.
“Given that there is no curbside parking buffer, it makes no sense to have heavy cement trucks, 60,000 pounds when they’re fully loaded, going down those streets,” Higgins said at a City Council meeting last month.
Higgins noted in his letter that existing street signs restrict the flow of large trucks down 27th and that the Hermosa Beach Municipal Code allows officers to ticket trucks in violation. In response, City Attorney Michael Jenkins said that the presence of trucks on 27th was a consequence of the fact that “we only have four truck routes in the city and none that are west of PCH and north of Pier Avenue.” If trucks were never allowed down restricted streets, Jenkins said, properties on those streets would “in effect be isolated islands,” unable to receive construction services from heavy trucks. “Pass through” traffic, however, is not allowed on the street.
“We do not allow trucks to use restricted streets for pass through. The police department will cite a truck if they observe a truck that is simply passing through town instead of using an identified truck route. Obviously, any truck that would go down 27th Street for the purposes of then passing all the way through town as an alternative to Pacific Coast Highway, that would not be legal and we would enforce against that,” Jenkins said.
The question gained new urgency at last week’s Planning Commission meeting on Strand and Pier when residents concerned about trucks rolling down 27th outnumbered all other speakers.
“Whoever proposed Gould Avenue just looked at a map, and did not consider the residents affected or the safety of the route,” said resident Lindsay Miller.
Asked about trucks using 27th as a designated route for the Strand and Pier project, given that none of them would be providing construction services to homes in the area, Jenkins said in an email that his office is looking into whether it is consistent with the city’s prohibition on pass-through traffic.
But, as the DEIR revealed, there are drawbacks to other routes. Under the construction management plan for the project, using the current route, trucks would be staged along portions of Hermosa Avenue, consuming about 18 parking spaces. If the route were changed to send trucks down Pier Avenue instead of 27th, staging would consume about 45 parking spaces, according to environmental consultants, creating concerns about the impact on businesses. (The trucks are too long for Pier’s angled spaces, so each truck would take up a greater number of spaces there than the flat spaces on Hermosa.) It is not clear how many parking spaces would be lost in a second alternative, sending trucks down Herondo, but the option was dismissed in part because of the impact the flow of trucks would have on PCH traffic between Aviation and 190th Street. Both alternatives would also require a left turn from Hermosa at 13th. Given that it is an unprotected turn, and that 60-foot trucks would be turning from an 80-foot pocket, congestion would likely ensue.
City of courts
During at least part of the construction process, a portion of The Strand will be blocked, one of several challenges that the project’s beachside location will likely impose. In addition, several volleyball courts north of the Hermosa Pier will be relocated to the south side. (No construction on the sand itself is planned, but the courts closest to construction will probably not be desirable for matches.) And resident Jim Lissner pointed out that a request for special construction hours — occasional work from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. to do coordinated concrete pours — coincides with the most impacted time for bars and restaurants in the city’s downtown.
At a Planning Commission meeting on the project last week, Dana Sayles identified herself as a principal at 360 assisting developer Bolour Associates with the project, “otherwise known as the least popular person in the room.” She made the oft-repeated point that Strand and Pier will be a “catalyst” for the downtown area, but she also emphasized how Bolour has tweaked the project over time to meet concerns, including bringing it within the city’s height limits and modifying the design. These changes have won plaudits from elected officials, and successively warmer receptions from residents in each of the public meetings the developer have held.
Bolour’s flexibility with design so far may indicate a further willingness to accommodate during construction. They have, for example, agreed to fund a downtown shuttle and parking attendants in downtown lots, throughout construction. But there are only so many ways to move 13 swimming pools worth of dirt. For Strand and Pier, the allure, and the challenge, are there in the name.
Comments on the Strand and Pier Project may be submitted to Hermosa’s Community Development Department through Oct. 15