A proposal to turn Olympic and Pico boulevards into mostly one-way streets is generating resistance from businesses along the 14-mile corridor from downtown to the ocean especially in Koreatown where 500 business owners have joined in opposition.
Although Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky put forward the radical plan as a relatively cheap and fast way to ease traffic congestion on the gridlocked Westside, many business owners fear that access for customers would be eliminated and changing traffic patterns would steer others away.
The opposition is most intense in Koreatown, where business owners fear the community's retail center along Olympic Boulevard will be harmed.
"Olympic has all the main stores in Koreatown. If we tinker with this, there's concern that all of Koreatown may collapse," said Kee-whan Ha, president of the Hannam supermarket chain and also president of the recently-formed Anti Olympic-Pico One-Way Task Force that includes about 500 businesses in and around Koreatown.
But Yaroslavsky and plan supporters including Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce President Jay Handal contend that by improving traffic flow on what's now often a vehicle-choked corridor, more people will flock to Koreatown and other business establishments, not less.
"Traffic is so bad now on Olympic and Pico around the 405 (San Diego Freeway) that many businesses are losing customers who won't drive down there any more. If this is done correctly, it would make it easier for people to get to the area and patronize the businesses," said Handal, who also owns the San Gennaro Caf & #233; in Brentwood Village.
Handal's customers and fellow chamber members have to travel through the city's worst congestion zone, where gridlock even in non-peak hours is a routine fact of daily life. It can often take 20 or 30 minutes to traverse one mile on either side of the freeway. Businesses and residents alike have grown so frustrated that they appear ready to try almost anything that promises to alleviate the traffic.
But it's a different story along other, less-congested parts of the corridor, where businesses that are thriving now fear the changes that would come with a conversion to one-way streets.
"Sure, traffic is a bit heavier now than it used to be, but you can still go through the area with no problem. Under this plan, I fear customers will decide it's too much trouble to get into or out of my restaurant and will stay away in droves," said Demetrios Pantazis, owner of Dino's Burgers at Pico Boulevard and Berendo Street in the city's Byzantine-Latino Quarter.
Pantazis said he believed that the plan was crafted for the benefit of wealthy Westsiders who want quicker access to the Staples Center and not for the neighborhoods and business districts in the middle.
These varying experiences with traffic flow are just one difficulty in trying to bring the one-way street concept to reality. The L.A. City Council is now studying the plan; two council members Tom LaBonge and Herb Wesson have voiced opposition.
To bolster his proposal Yaroslavsky asked former L.A. Department of Transportation planner Allyn Rifkin to flesh and study the concept. In Rifkin's report Olympic Boulevard would be converted into five lanes of eastbound traffic and two "contra-flow" lanes for westbound traffic. One of these contra-flow lanes would be for commuters; the other lane would be set aside for buses during peak hours and parking during non-peak hours.
Similarly, Pico Boulevard would be converted into five lanes of westbound traffic and two "contra-flow" eastbound lanes.
Rifkin found that with no left turns allowed along the entire 14-mile stretch of both roads, travel times would be cut by 20 percent; if all the current left turns were kept in, travel times would improve by only 6 percent. "That's still more than the reduction we saw during the 1984 Olympics," Yaroslavsky said.
The key to the plan, Rifkin said last week at a presentation to Westside community leaders, is the clockwise directional circulation, with cars heading westbound on Pico and eastbound on Olympic. That way, switching directions would involve primarily right turns, not more complicated left turns.
But Rifkin also determined that converting the boulevards into completely one-way streets would be impractical, since it would cause major disruptions of bus service. For a rider to take the bus from downtown to a Koreatown business on Olympic Boulevard, a westbound bus would have to drop the rider off on Pico Boulevard and then the rider would either have to catch another bus on a major cross street or walk at least a half-mile to get to the business. "That's just unacceptable for bus service," he said.
So Rifkin came up with the contra-flow idea for buses heading in the other direction from the prevailing traffic flow. Such a lane now exists along Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles. He also included the option of another contra-flow lane for cars during non-peak hours to allow easier access to businesses on the left-hand side of the street.
Better for business?
Yaroslavsky said that in his talks with individual businesses and business groups, once they understood that there would be contra-flow lanes, opposition to the idea softened considerably.
"People just assumed that these streets would be entirely one-way, like freeways," he said. "But we are planning to give access to businesses. In fact, it will be better for businesses because people would be willing to venture into areas that they now steer clear of entirely."
Nonetheless, the plan still has several daunting challenges.
Unlike downtown Los Angeles, where relatively short blocks separate different directions of one-way streets, the distance between Olympic and Pico boulevards is never less than one-third of a mile and in places is more than two-thirds of a mile, meaning drivers would have to use cross streets or cut through neighborhoods to switch directions.
Another challenge is the sheer length of the boulevards 14 miles from downtown Los Angeles to the ocean, through three separate cities: Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. In order for the plan to achieve maximum effect, all three cities would have to sign on. Until recently, regional cooperation among these cities has been notoriously lacking. That has begun to change as elected officials in each of the cities have recognized that traffic congestion is a regional problem.
Finally, there's uncertainty over just where the western terminus of the one-way streets would be. Moving west through Santa Monica, numerous physical barriers crop up, including a tree-lined median along Olympic Boulevard and the splitting of Olympic into one-way streets at 11th Street.
Yaroslavsky said he envisions the western terminus at around 20th Street. "Once you get past the major employment center of the Water Garden, the peak-hour traffic thins out considerably."
Executives with the Water Garden did not return repeated calls seeking comment on the plan or the center's contributions to the Westside's current traffic woes.
All this has added up to a lot of confusion and questions about the plan among business owners up and down the corridor.
At the Westside Pavillion on Pico Boulevard in Westwood, which is in the final stages of a major expansion, the big question is access.
"Our main question is how people would be able to get into and out of our shopping center," said Steve Spector, senior vice president with Macerich Co., owner and operator of the Westside Pavillion.
Similarly, executives with the nearby Century City Chamber of Commerce are also looking for more answers from plan backers after they heard Rifkin's presentation.
"This contra-lane idea that's supposed to help business access there were a lot of questions about it. Some were concerned about the safety of such a lane," said Susan Bursk, president and chief executive of the chamber. "There were also questions about whether public transit shuttles would take people from Pico to Olympic and vice-versa."
A little east on Pico, where traffic flows are noticeably better than around the Westside Pavillion, Factor's Famous Deli co-owner Debbie Markowitz said she was opposed to the plan.
"I'm very concerned about it. It would be a big inconvenience for customers coming one way and then having to go all the way back around on all those other streets just to get back to our restaurant," she said. "Most of our repeat customers are local and this plan will be really inconvenient for local people."
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