City Sets Guidelines to Preserve Sidewalk Access Amid Construction

A glut of construction sites in Downtown has led to a number of closed sidewalks. The city has unveiled new rules requiring developers to maintain walkway access for public convenience and safety.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Development is surging in Downtown Los Angeles, and while many people are applauding the residential boost that will activate the streets, the crush of construction has had a side-effect that is frustrating numerous workers and residents: a rise in the number of closed or obstructed sidewalks, particularly in South Park and the Financial District. 

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Some stakeholders have been inconvenienced by the need to cross multiple streets to find a path around the shuttered stretches of walkway. Others, however, are taking a riskier approach — they are stepping into the street and walking close to the curb, while cars whiz past them. 

Last summer, 14th District City Councilman José Huizar introduced a motion calling for the Department of City Planning to review sidewalk access requirements at construction sites. Now the department has issued new guidelines that require developers to “maintain adequate and safe pedestrian protection” by providing clear walkways. 

Under the guidelines, which went into effect in June, developers must leave or create walkways and, in some cases, use barriers to keep pedestrians away from cars. They also must provide cover when there is a threat of falling objects. Walkway closures will only be allowed when no other option is feasible, according to the guidelines.

“We can do a much better job of making sure pedestrian access is prioritized and maintained,” Huizar said in an email. “If everybody knows that’s the goal from the outset, we’ll have better results and that’s what this new policy does.”

The policy will affect all new projects that require environmental review, which covers basically every development in Downtown, said Charles Rausch, an associate zoning administrator for the Department of City Planning. The walkway access requirement is being baked into the environmental review and permitting process as a “standard mitigation measure,” he said. The regulations will be enforced through regular monitoring reports and by complaints with the city Department of Building and Safety, Rausch added. 

“I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and until 10 years ago, blocked sidewalks weren’t really a problem. But all of a sudden construction fences were going up in the public right of way,” Rausch said. “Personally, I’ve seen too many people in, for instance, Little Tokyo walking around construction sites in the street. Someone’s going to get killed.” 

Maintaining sidewalk access throughout Downtown is important, not only for safety reasons, but because walkability is a key factor in the Central City’s appeal, said Tom Warren, chief operating officer for developer Holland Partner Group’s Southern California projects. 

The company is one of the most active developers in Downtown Los Angeles, with four projects either under construction or in the planning pipeline. Holland Partner makes efforts to keep walkways opened, but Warren acknowledged that it can be difficult when there is little room between an under-construction project and the public right-of-way. 

“Construction in an urban environment is challenging in all cases because of the surrounding uses, and that’s often the case in Downtown L.A.,” Warren said. “The only way to construct buildings is to utilize some adjacent land, and the logistics of keeping a sidewalk open are sometimes impossible. The [city Department of Transportation] can be resistant to closing traffic lanes to create a new walkway, too.” 

Despite those concerns, developers will need to find a way to make the new rules work, or risk delaying construction. 

eddie@downtownnews.com

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2015