A stream of motorists filed neatly into the two southbound lanes of Fairfax Avenue just north of Pico Boulevard one afternoon last week. Moments after passing through the intersection, it became clear which of them was the seasoned Fairfax traveler.
A woman driving a silver Nissan in the right lane pressed her foot to the floor, swerving her vehicle around several cars in the left lane and then squeezing to the front of the pack. As Fairfax narrowed from four lanes to two a short distance later, the stream of merging cars slowed to a near standstill.
Except for the Nissan. The car was already sailing through the next intersection. The woman never had to stop.
Jockeying for position along Fairfax has become a way of life for motorists who use the heavily traveled road between Venice Boulevard and Pico, a narrow two-lane corridor just north of the Santa Monica Freeway that is lined with stucco homes and wide, grassy parkways.
Los Angeles city officials say it has also become a major safety concern, with motorists at either end of the three-quarter-mile stretch driving over lawns, rear-ending slow-moving vehicles and crashing into parked cars and trees in an effort to get a jump on traffic.
One city official likened the roadway to a constricted blood vessel: Everything on either side of it backs up in a desperate attempt to get through.
On Wednesday, the City Council is scheduled to vote on an environmental report for a proposal to widen the stretch by as much as 16 feet, install new street lights, sidewalks, driveways and storm drains and reconstruct the road's crumbling gravel and asphalt base.
City engineers and transportation planners have characterized the project as a crucial improvement to the neglected roadway that will help feed traffic from the freeway to the Farmers Market, CBS Television City and other commercial developments and residential neighborhoods to the north.
But a group of homeowners who live along the stretch see it as the death of their neighborhood, the only strip of single-family homes on heavily commercial south Fairfax. More than 130 of them have signed a petition opposing the project.
"We have a beautiful residential neighborhood here," said Stella Stout, who lives on the 1700 block of Fairfax. "If they widen the road, we can see the future: The homeowners will want to sell to get away from the traffic . . . and we won't have a neighborhood left."
Residents' opposition to the road widening has thrown the project into political turmoil, with newly elected Councilman Nate Holden, who represents the area, squaring off against Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who represented the west side of the street before council boundaries were redrawn in 1986.
Yaroslavsky, recruited by some of his former constituents, has promised to fight efforts to widen the road. At a recent hearing on the project, he told Holden that he would not allow the new councilman to destroy a neighborhood that he worked for 10 years to protect.
"This is a turkey," Yaroslavsky told Holden. "Leave these people alone."
Holden, who pledged during his campaign last spring to do something about the road, has said he will not be intimidated by his senior colleague to the west. He attributed Yaroslavsky's interest in the project to politics, saying Yaroslavsky has been annoyed that Holden has not sided with him on numerous issues. Last week, for example, he voted against a controversial proposal by Yaroslavsky to limit high-rise development along the Wilshire Corridor.
Holden said residents in Yaroslavsky's district have launched a scare campaign in the Fairfax neighborhood, telling homeowners that the project will destroy their property values and bring crime and traffic to their doorsteps.
"People all around that neighborhood want the road improved," Holden said last week. "We are trying to make it safe. The people against it have been scared by false materials . . . that say we are going to put a highway outside their front doors. That just isn't true."
But at a public hearing in October and a recent council committee meeting, opponents of the project far outnumbered those in favor of it. At both sessions, residents accused Holden of forcing the widening project on the neighborhood to serve the growing commercial areas near 3rd Street and Melrose Avenue. Holden, who does not represent those areas, has dismissed the charges as nonsense.
Residents along Fairfax as well as some from nearby streets said widening the road would simply invite more commuters to abandon other thoroughfares and join the parade of vehicles outside their homes. The residents were unanimous in supporting rebuilding and repaving the road--which has become the unofficial hubcap capital of the Westside because of its deep and abundant potholes--but they said those improvements do not require widening it to 46 feet.