Girding for Gridlock at The Grove

Staff Reporter

The March 15 opening of The Grove at Farmers Market, L.A.'s newest shopping center, could be met with massive traffic problems as thousands of cars a day are added to what is already an increasingly congested part of the city.

Contributing to the woes are funding problems and short-staffing at the city Department of Transportation that have delayed by up to a year an upgraded traffic-light system that the mall's developer and city officials hoped would prevent traffic backups.

"Everything conspires to make it a difficult traffic situation," said Art Kassen, a traffic consultant hired by one of the local homeowners associations to examine traffic problems in the area, which long has been hard to traverse even without a large shopping center.

The Grove, a $115 million open-air mall, will be anchored by a Nordstrom department store, an FAO Schwartz toy store and a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Several sit-down restaurants such as Madame Wu's, The Farm, and Maggiano's will be there, as well as a 14-screen movie theater. An old-fashioned red trolley will connect The Grove to the adjacent historic Farmers Market. It is expected to attract 25 million shoppers a year.

Before opening day, the city's Department of Transportation was supposed to have $1.5 million in upgraded computer software installed at 120 surrounding traffic signals in the nearby L.A. and West Hollywood area to ease the flow of cars moving through heavily traveled intersections.

Request rejected

The city asked for county funds to pay for half the project but was rejected because the money would be used only for a system upgrade and not new signals. So now a smaller $800,000 upgrade of 60 to 70 signals near The Grove is being done but won't be completed for a year. It is being funded privately by The Grove, Beverly Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Cedars is opening a new outpatient and diagnostic center while The Beverly Center reached an agreement with Caruso to upgrade signals near its 3rd St. and La Cienaga Boulevard location due to the added traffic from the nearby Grove.

"The signals should have been done before these projects opened but we ran into some problems We've had some staffing problems and have a limited staff to do the signal design and upgrade the signals, said Robert Takasaki, the city's senior transportation engineer coordinating the project. "We've had other projects with higher priorities, such as the Rapid Bus line on Wilshire Boulevard and along Ventura Boulevard."

Consequently on opening day, Caruso will hire city traffic directors to stand at the most heavily impacted intersections and manually direct traffic into the mall.

Caruso said he was surprised that the upgraded traffic signals are not in place. "We paid for them," he said. "But it's part of a much broader issue. They are trying to get the whole area (of traffic signals) done."

Caruso is left with a dilemma: Does he hire traffic directors for the whole year or let frustrated drivers try to wend their way to the shopping center that is already in a congested area?

"We frankly are going to have to play it by ear," he said, while walking through the nearly finished mall. "It depends on the level of traffic."

The level of traffic may be considerable. At least 50,000 vehicles pass through the intersection of Fairfax Avenue and 3rd Street every day, one of the heaviest trafficked sections in the city. It is a densely populated area that not only has a number of residents, many of who are elderly and walk to do their errands, but a string of restaurants, delis, bakeries and boutiques.

Other developments to open

On top of this, a strip mall across from The Grove is undergoing a renovation in which Whole Foods will be opening a market in the old Albertson's location in May. Down the road, some 1,381 new apartment units are being built by Casden Properties at Park La Brea.

"It's just been murder for residents who live here. We can't get up and down 3rd Street because of all the trucks going up and down," said Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association. "I don't foresee it getting any better."

Takasaki said it will take several months to design the signal upgrades and then the project will have to go out to bid.

To ease traffic around The Grove, Caruso has added four signals to the shopping center's entrances and turned Stanley Avenue into a four-lane road that connects Beverly Boulevard to 3rd Street. Stanley will be renamed Grove Drive and become the main entry.

But traffic is still going to pose a challenge and, some say, could ultimately affect the economic success of the shopping center.

"There is some tolerance (of traffic) at the beginning," said Larry Kosmont, a local economic development consultant. "People will give it a first and a second and maybe a third chance. But if they find it nearly impossible to get in and out, they will go elsewhere to get their shopping done."

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