PACIFICA — Crews began a months-long process of pasting a new concrete wall over the failing cliff in front of Pacifica's Esplanade Apartments on Monday as several more people moved out of 320 Esplanade, the apartment building that was partially evacuated last Thursday.

A U-Haul moving van competed for space along Esplanade Avenue with news vans, cranes, trucks and a cement mixer, forcing locals and disaster tourists to step around caution tape and power cords. Men in muddy work boots made trips over the apartment buildings in a shaky metal basket to continue driving steel "nails" deep into the side of the cliff, the first stage of an emergency project to stop the bluff's steady retreat toward the back of the apartment buildings.

Workers will drill more than 200 nails 50 feet into the cliff behind 330 Esplanade, which was evacuated in December, and secure them in the sandy cliff with several layers of concrete. Next, a wire mesh with steel plates will form a smooth shield against rain and wind erosion. A final stage will involve erecting a sea wall in back of 330, 320 and 310 Esplanade to deflect the pounding current, which undermines the bluff from below.

The owners of 320 Esplanade will almost certainly decide to extend the concrete wall onto their property as well, which would mean two construction rigs working side by side by the end of the week, said Tony Fortunato of Engineered Soil Repairs. "The longer you wait, the more you lose," he warned.


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He estimated the entire cost of the project, including the sea wall, will be around $6 million. The owners of 330 Esplanade have already spent well over $500,000 stacking heavy boulders at the bottom of their cliff as an emergency measure.

Another 20-foot-by-5-foot chunk of bluff fell away from behind 320 Esplanade on Sunday, said Fortunato. Six out of 20 apartments there were evacuated last week when an even bigger piece of bluff, 50 feet long and 10 feet wide, feel into the ocean and left many residents looking at a deep chasm where their back walkway used to be. It now appears as if the soil has started to fall out from under the building.

Fortunato said that's an illusion. Yes, the bluff is under the walkway now, but another five feet still separate it from the foundation of the apartment building.

Pacifica Building Department official Doug Rider is watching for erosion every day. He acknowledges that five feet of bluff could disappear overnight, but couldn't really say what his criteria would be for red-tagging the rest of the apartments at 320 Esplanade. The residents at 330 Esplanade actually had more of a backyard when they were evacuated then a portion of 320 Esplanade does now. Still, Rider maintains that it is safe to live there — for now.

"It certainly isn't a pretty sight but for now it's status quo," he said on Monday.

Fortunato and his firm are dead certain that their proposed engineering fix will stop Mother Nature in her tracks — at least for 50 to 70 years. A "permanent" fix doesn't seem possible, given the buildings' location, but by then the apartments will be 100 years old.

"It buys a lot of time. Technology changes all the time. Who knows what they'll be doing in 60, 70 years," said Fortunato.

The city is less certain that the buildings can be saved, and it will have the last word on the matter. City Manager Steve Rhodes requested a soil stability study, which should be ready in a week or so.

"The question is the habitability of those buildings. This will give us the answer we need," said Rhodes.

Even if the owners of all three apartment buildings chip in together, $6 million could be a lot of money to spend for 50 years of habitation. Millard Tong, owner of 310 and 320 Esplanade, spent a total of $6 million to purchase both buildings back in 2002. And Farshid Samsami and Delfarib Fanaie spent $1.45 million to purchase 330 Esplanade in 2004, records show.

Esplanade Apartments representative Bart Willoughby wants to get money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the project, but those funds are generally used to protect public property.

Reach Julia Scott at 650-348-4340.