Jewish Journal

Pico-Robertson to mayor—let our parking stay

by Amy Klein

Posted on Dec. 27, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Terry Ring Schonwald used to be the owner of Nick's Coffee Shop on Pico near LaCienega.

That was until the city decided to restrict parking on Pico Blvd. because of construction, which lasted from 1994 until 1997. The lack of parking, she said, caused such a loss of customers that she was forced to sell her business.

"We couldn't subsidize it anymore, because there was no way to get there," said Schonwald, a former leader of the South Robertson Neighborhood Council. And now she believes the same thing will happen to other business owners as the city of Los Angeles considers steps to make Pico and Olympic boulevards into faster-flowing thoroughfares. As part of the plan, restricted parking is once again on the table.

"When they take the parking off Pico, they will put the small businesses out of business," Schonwald said.

On Dec. 18, she was one of a number of business people, residents and religious leaders who voiced concern about the Olympic-West, Pico-East Traffic Initiative at a meeting with representatives of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's and Councilman Jack Weiss' offices. The meeting was not open to the press.

People in the largely observant Jewish neighborhood known as Pico-Robertson -- a residential neighborhood that is also home to many small specialty kosher restaurants, supermarkets, synagogues and yeshivas -- are worried that changing Pico will hurt business and ruin the character of the neighborhood.

The mayor, with the support of Weiss, revealed the plan last month to the surprise of many residents and local politicians. This month, city officials are holding meetings with locals to explain the initiative, which they say offers a quick and relatively inexpensive solution to reducing traffic congestion in the city. They expect to begin implementing the plan in January.

There is much confusion about the initiative, which is often mistaken for an earlier proposal in April by Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to turn Pico and Olympic into opposing one-way streets. That proposal was evaluated by the L.A. Department of Transportation and rejected because elements were "found not to be feasible," according to a Nov. 19 Department of Transportation memo to the City Council. Instead, the current initiative focuses on alleviating rush-hour traffic on Pico and Olympic along the seven-mile stretch between Centinela and La Brea avenues (or perhaps only as far as Fairfax Avenue) in three phases.

Phase one would eliminate parking on Pico and Olympic, probably between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. and between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.

The second phase would change the timing of the traffic lights to move traffic faster.

The third phase would provide "preferential directional flow operation," which means creating three lanes of westward traffic on Olympic, with one lane of eastward flow for local traffic, and the reverse on Pico, with limited turning options to favor the preferential directional flow on each street.

Weiss said he expects the impact on the neighborhood of the first phase, which will cost $300,000, to be minimal.

"It's a very modest proposal. It will restrict rush-hour parking along those portions of Pico and Olympic that don't already have restricted parking. Most already have," Weiss, who was not at the meeting, said in a separate interview.

It will be an improvement on the current situation, Jonathan Powell, press aide to the mayor, said in an interview. "Restrictions are inconsistent -- in some places there are no parking restrictions, and there are bottlenecks all over the place -- all we're going to be doing we're making some of those restrictions consistent."

The plan is for the first two phases to be implemented in January. The third would begin six months later and would cost an additional $1.5 million. No part of the proposal requires approval from the City Council, according to the mayor's office.

According to the city's Department of Transportation (LADOT), the first two phases would improve traffic by two minutes in the morning and seven minutes in the afternoon on Pico and would reduce traffic by one minute in the morning and four minutes in the afternoon on Olympic.

Based on a simulation between Centinela and Century Park East (which is west of the Pico-Roberston neighborhood), and extrapolated to La Brea, LADOT estimates that phase two would reduce rush hour travel time by an additional seven minutes.

"The Olympic-West and Pico-East plan was developed by significant study, and it reflects the smart and safe way to reduce traffic," the mayor's press aide said.

Nevertheless, many are unconvinced that the change is worthwhile: "You want to give me two miles an hour so I can lose those wonderful places I shop and eat, where I do my business on Pico?" Schonwald said. "Give me a break!"

LADOT says the plan, which is intended to reduce traffic on the 10 Freeway and thereby alleviate traffic throughout the city, will bring a 45 percent improvement in traffic and relieve congestion throughout the city.

Yet many residents and most business owners in Pico-Robertson (from about Roxbury Drive to La Cienega Boulevard) insist this religious neighborhood is different from the rest of the city and the initiative could adversely affect the neighborhood's character.

The primary issue is a dispute over new restrictions on parking. There is no way to know how many spots could be lost, because already restrictions are spotty in the area along Pico.

On a recent late Friday morning in Pico-Robertson, when many people in Los Angeles were at work, Pico Boulevard had more of a weekend feel. Shoppers rushed through stores like Pico Glatt and Elat Bakery, stocking up for Shabbat, when the stores would close and the sidewalks would teem with religious residents going to shul and to community members' homes.

Local traffic is not exactly the problem here, because it moves, albeit erratically, with people cutting over to drop off and pick up passengers or slide into the rare available street parking spot or wait in line for one of the few parking lots.But parking is an issue. Only a handful of the shops lining the boulevard have their own small lots. Pico Glatt, for example, a teeming, kosher grocery/butcher/supermarket only has a few spaces in its adjacent lot. A line of cars snakes out into the street waiting for a spot -- a wait preferable to circling the street for parking.

"Parking is already a problem, especially the meters," said Albert Zadeh, one of the owners of Pico Glatt. "I think we'll lose a lot of customers -- they'll go to Pavillions, Ralphs, a place with a bigger parking lot," he said.

"You're going to see a larger percentage of people looking on side streets. They have to build more parking in the neighborhood," resident Ron Rosenberg said.

City Councilman Herb Wesson, whose 10th District intersects Pico and Olympic, is opposed to any initiative that doesn't include more parking. "We would like to see parking structures in the plan," said Ed Johnson, Wesson's assistant chief deputy.

While everyone acknowledges that parking is already a problem, the city's initiative does not incorporate a plan to build new lots.

"Building parking structures is a tall order for the city of L.A.," Weiss said, noting that they are working with business owners to come up with creative solutions for parking.

There are residents who are open to the idea of a plan that will speed up traffic.

"I'm no expert on traffic, but it would work for me -- I work downtown," said Michael Lawrence, who lives in the area.

Others said they are keeping an open mind. Rabbi Alan Kalinsky of the Orthodox Union, who was invited to the Dec. 18 discussion, along with representatives from the Simon Weisenthal Center and other yeshivas, is set to meet with area rabbis to discuss their position.

"The disruption of normalcy for people will be a big factor to overcome," Kalinsky said.

The real concern is how it will affect one of the few Los Angeles neighborhoods where people actually walk.

"It denigrates the idea of community," said Jeff Rohatiner of Jeff's Gourmet Sausages, who, like many others, is concerned about an increase in traffic speed.

"Pico is not like Olympic at all," said Nili Goldstein, who owns Magic Carpet restaurant and also attended the meeting. "There are a lot of kids, elderly, rabbis, walking around,"

Schonwald added, "People walk -- that's the way of life in this neighborhood."

While text of the LADOT initiative concedes that the plan will initially adversely affect businesses, it argues that this will only be until people get used to the new regulations. Officials cite as a model the Chandler Boulevard bus lane, which in 2001 generated fierce reaction from the Orthodox community in the Valley, who were afraid a fast express bus line would similarly ruin their quality of religious life. Since it was implemented, however, the route has been lauded as a boon.

"The sky is not falling," Weiss asserts, which is the reason the city is conducting educational meetings with residents and business owners.

"We want to garnish support for the plan," mayoral official Powell said. "Implementation will be contingent on support of the community and working with the community."

But community and City Council support is not required for the plan to go ahead. Indeed, many homeowner groups will not have a chance to debate the issue until after the New Year, and the next City Council meeting is set for the end of January.

Whatever their conclusions, the plan already seems to be in motion to proceed -- at least the first two phases.

"This is a modest proposal which will have impact that will likely not be as extreme as folks are predicting. The beauty of this proposal is that we can study the impacts, make changes and, I hope, come up with creative ways to help anybody who feels they've been hurt," Weiss said.

"Having said that, everyone in my district complains about traffic," he said. "I can guarantee you this: If we do nothing at all, we certainly won't make things better."

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