HOWARD FINE

Staff Reporter

In just six months, Staples Center is expected to open, bringing thousands of additional cars to already-jammed downtown streets and freeways. Yet the arena's developer has yet to submit a plan spelling out how that traffic will be handled.

Meanwhile, few of the planned street improvements such as additional turn lanes and widening of side streets have been completed. In fact, Staples Center officials say many of those improvements are still being negotiated with local transportation agencies.

Staples officials are also still negotiating with the California Department of Transportation over who is going to pay for the biggest-ticket mitigation measure: widening freeway off-ramps, particularly the one off the southbound Harbor (110) Freeway at Olympic Boulevard.

"They are on a really tight schedule and I don't know if everything can be ready on time," said John Sheppard, land use and planning deputy for Councilwoman Rita Walters, whose district includes the Staples Center.

Staples officials say that adequate traffic-mitigation measures will be in place by October.

"We will be prepared to open with all the mitigation measures necessary and we are working very closely with all the agencies to make this happen," said Staples Center General Manager Bobby Goldwater. "We're very aware that nothing is better than a good first impression, and we are going to do the best we can to make this a trouble-free experience for our guests."

But city planners and outside traffic experts say that congestion during the first few weeks or months will most likely be severe.

Even Ted Tanner, vice president of real estate for Los Angeles Arena Co., the holding company for Staples Center, conceded: "There's no question things are going to be a bit rough during the first few weeks. It's going to be a sorting-out period."

So how could a $360 million sports arena get approved in one of the world's most congested urban cores without a traffic mitigation plan in place?

The answer, in short, is political pressure.

Requiring a "parking and circulation management plan" typically part of an environmental impact report when a new project is proposed would have delayed the Staples Center project by a year or more. As it was, the City Council was under intense pressure during the summer of 1997 to fast-track the project.

The developer, a partnership headed by Majestic Realty Co. President Ed Roski Jr. and Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, was threatening to abandon the arena if it did not get rapid council approval.

The highest-profile challenge, spearheaded by Councilman Joel Wachs, focused on the financial agreement between the city and the arena developer. Traffic implications were put on the back burner.

"We weren't sure we were going to land the Staples Center at all until it actually happened," said Sheppard. "If we had forced a year-long delay, it might never have happened."

Lacking the normal parking management plan, the 1997 Staples EIR contained only limited traffic measures, such as new signals, additional turn lanes and widening of some side streets. The overall plan now being developed to handle as many as 7,500 additional cars coming into downtown on game days relies heavily on "soft" traffic-mitigation measures.

These include installing electronic message boards, redirecting freeway drivers onto surface streets like Olympic and Pico boulevards, and having arena patrons park in remote parking lots and then shuttling them to the arena by bus.

Tanner said the draft plan containing all these measures is due to be released in the next few weeks.

Most traffic experts including Michael Meyer, principal with Meyer, Mohaddes Associates, a transportation engineering firm agreed that traffic is likely to be severe early on. But Meyer noted that "soft" mitigation measures could be adequate substitutes to major infrastructure improvements.

"You are trying to manage a lot of cars going to or from one place for a particular period of time," Meyer said. "You don't want to spend the money to widen a street to four lanes in each direction (eight lanes in all) if you can keep the street at four lanes and restrict traffic flow to one way with a changeable message sign."

John Lower, traffic and transportation manager for the city of Anaheim, said these sorts of measures have been fairly successful in alleviating congestion around that city's sports arena, the Arrowhead Pond. But Lower said traffic problems persist when the arena hosts concerts and other one-time events.

"For these events, we have a lot of first-time visitors. They all seem to want to go to the corner right outside the Pond, even though there are signs directing them to alternate locations for parking," he said.

That could be an important factor at Staples, which will host all of the home games for the Clippers, the Lakers and Los Angeles Kings. During the six months from November through May, rarely will a day go by without one of the three teams playing. Many days will feature double-headers.

In addition, Staples Center officials are aggressively booking other events to fill up the arena, from the 2002 figure skating championships to concerts and other entertainment events. And that doesn't include all the events that will take place at the adjacent Convention Center.

The situation could get dicier still if the developer goes through with its plan to develop a major entertainment/retail complex and major convention hotel adjacent to the arena.

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