DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES — Opening and running a restaurant is no easy feat, but it’s even more difficult when sidewalk access to the storefront is severely slashed.
That’s the conundrum that Stocking Frame owner Jerry Aschoff found himself in as soon as the South Park eatery near Ninth and Hill streets opened its doors last June. Construction of a 284-apartment residential complex from The Hanover Company shut down pedestrian access to the restaurant from the south.
“We haven’t had a sidewalk and we haven’t had street parking. From personal experience, I have to walk around several blocks sometimes to get from point to point,” Aschoff said. “The reality is that we’re not doing the business we could, and the debris and dust is a challenge too.”
The problem will likely become a growing one as South Park sees more sidewalk closures as a result of the more than 20 development projects that have started or are on the cusp of breaking ground. Major portions of Olive and Hill streets, from Eighth Street to Olympic Boulevard, are already closed down. Grand Avenue would see significant sidewalk closures between Olympic and Pico boulevards, and Olympic would be impacted between Grand Avenue and Hill Street. [See diagram below for more details]
The issue has caught the attention of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, an advisory board who helps steer development, resident and business issues in the Central City. The organization is trying to convince the city to more seriously investigate the impacts of multiple sidewalk closures.
“Our planning and land use committee did research and basically, people are being told that it’s not something to worry about. They need to worry about it,” said DLANC President Patti Berman. “Maybe it’s okay in the Valley to shut off a few sidewalks for a few years, but the impact is not okay in Downtown.”
Bits and Pieces
All developers and contractors have to address sidewalk closures as part of the project approval process, and multiple city agencies are involved in the overall picture. The key players are the city Department of Planning, Bureau of Street Services, Bureau of Engineering and the Department of Transportation.
The impact of a sidewalk closure is included in the environmental review process with city planning, while contractors must apply for a sidewalk closure permit with Street Services. Public improvements, such as rebuilding the sidewalk itself, go through Engineering. The traffic and pedestrian flow impacts are studied by DOT.
While this makes sense on a project-by-project basis, the cumulative effects of multiple sidewalk closures are not carefully reviewed by a cohesive entity, according to several city officials. Such closures are normally viewed as inconveniences rather than public safety problems.
“If we were to take sidewalk closures into consideration as a significant factor in environmental review, the whole process would simply take too long. We would be seeing major delays and [California Environmental Quality Act] lawsuits,” said Senior City Planner Craig Weber.
Even if closures were reviewed more carefully, there is “generally no” alternative to closing a sidewalk, according to the city Department of Public Works. Developers often build all the way out to the lot line, Weber noted, which leaves no space to carve out an improvised walkway. If a traffic lane is closed to create a walkway, vehicular congestion can become a major problem.
The notion that there is no alternative is disputed by DLANC’s Simon Ha, chairman of the planning and land use committee and managing partner of Tate Snyder Kimsey Architects. DLANC has looked at how other cities like Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C., regulate sidewalk closures, and Ha said that developers can be pushed to create four feet or so of space to leave a walkway, even if only for a portion of the construction timeline. The problem is that contractors are not required to do so, Ha added.
Beyond inconvenience, the closures can create public safety problems when people begin jaywalking or walk along a construction fence instead of crossing a block.
“In order for somebody to walk up and down a street, they’re playing Frogger, essentially,” Ha said. ”If you’re elderly or disabled, it’s even more difficult, especially considering the condition of sidewalks in certain areas.”
The city has already had to deal with a safety hazard at Eighth and Hope streets, the site of a high-rise construction. The Los Angeles Police Department originally began ticketing numerous jaywalkers to deter hazardous behavior, but that didn’t curb the problem. The issue was only resolved when the contractor and the city cut a traffic lane for half a block and created a protected path, Ha said.
“As we become a more pedestrian-oriented city, these policies need to be reviewed and with pedestrians and cyclists as a focus, not just impacts to traffic flow,” he added.
Jessica Lall, head of the South Park Business Improvement District, agrees that the issue of sidewalk closures is a significant one, and noted that the BID is investigating how to incentivize developers to leave walkways.
“A carrot, not the stick, approach is better,” she said. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to get these projects done as soon as possible. We don’t want to add costs to developers, but we want to find a compromise.”
The developers working in the district, Lall said, are cognizant of the impacts of closing sidewalks and she expects cooperation as more projects move forward.
As for the Stocking Frame’s Aschoff, he harbors no bitterness about the closure and says he supports the development boom.
“We have a good relationship with the Hanover guys next door. They’re doing the best they can,” Aschoff said. “They paid for the closure and there’s nothing we can do.”
So he’ll wait, like many other travelers and business owners in Downtown, until an alternative becomes clearer to all parties involved. DLANC plans to submit a formal letter to City Council about the matter in mid-August.
diagram courtesy of Downtown LA Neighborhood Council
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014