A bitter feud among Pacific Palisades merchants over one-way traffic on a portion of Swarthmore Avenue has blocked a plan to beautify the main business district.
"People have become so polarized they can't think," said Joan Graves, chairwoman of the Pacific Palisades Community Council. "Right now we have no plan. I'm caught between the devil and the deep blue sea trying to be a peacemaker."
Swarthmore shopkeepers have been sharply divided over the traffic issue since last February, when the avenue became a one-way thoroughfare between Sunset Boulevard and Monument Street. It was the first step in a plan to perk up the commercial district and make it more "pedestrian friendly." Some merchants, believing that their businesses have been harmed by the change, have called for the reinstatement of two-way traffic.
The principal landlord on the block-long strip of Swarthmore had remained silent in the dispute. But in a Feb. 5 letter addressed to members of the Community Council, attorney Robert D. MacDonald--who heads a group that owns most of the property on that part of Swarthmore--lined up squarely with merchants opposed to the one-way traffic.
In his letter, copies of which were sent to Swarthmore merchants and Councilman Marvin Braude, MacDonald said the improvement plan is being "jammed down the throats" of merchants.
The plan began in 1985 as a community effort to save 13 beloved bay laurel trees--11 of which are on MacDonald's property. The trees' roots had cracked sidewalks, posing a danger to passers-by. MacDonald obtained a permit to cut down the trees but agreed to merchants' requests for a delay while the community looked into ways to save them.
A citizens advisory committee appointed by Councilman Braude helped draw up a proposal for wide sidewalk promenades that would allow ample room for the trees to flourish, outdoor cafe tables, diagonal parking and one-way traffic. Thus far, the traffic flow is the only part of the plan that has been implemented.
Last month the Community Council, an informal body representing several civic organizations, voted 9 to 2 to proceed with the improvement project, and formed a committee to raise private funds to finance it. But a merchants group called the Majority Swarthmore Committee charged that the vote was invalid because the issue should be decided only by merchants, not the community at large.
In his letter, MacDonald said the plan's "proponents are persons who have no interest at stake and therefore (have) nothing to lose if Swarthmore turns out to be an aesthetic success but an economic disaster."
"A little reflection will suggest," the letter continued, "that that is precisely what it will turn out to be."
Upon receiving the letter, Judy Elliott, a boutique owner who spearheaded opposition to the one-way traffic, said: "It's about time."
"I wonder how long it will take the Traffic Department to get it back to a two-way street so that we can resume doing business as usual," she said. "I'm sure our business will increase by 30% the second that street's returned to two-way."
"I may have to leave (Swarthmore) anyway because business is so bad in general," Elliott said. But she quickly added, "Our business has been curtailed chiefly by the one-way street."
Bobbie Farberow, a delicatessen proprietor, declined to comment on MacDonald's letter, saying, "I think what goes on between the landlord and us is private."
But Farberow said she favors the renovation of Swarthmore Avenue according to the original plan.
Graves said a meeting has been scheduled Tuesday evening for Swarthmore merchants, nearby residents, some community leaders and Milt Jeffs, an engineering consultant.
MacDonald was invited but said he will not attend, and no one from Braude's office was asked to attend.
"We don't want the city (of Los Angeles) in on it at all yet," Graves said. "We want to wipe the slate clean of all prior plans and try to come up with some sane, sensible plan.
"We have a street called Swarthmore that needs fixing," she said. "We want to see if we can get rid of this polarization. This is no way to operate a business street--or a community, for that matter," Graves said. "This is a fresh start."