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On Easy Street

Sections of Downtown Are Nearly Deserted, Much to the Delight of Those Who Had to Be There


David O. Carter was one lonesome judge Monday morning.

As the only federal jurist to take the bench in downtown Los Angeles, he couldn't help but share his sense of isolation with his equally lonely group of jurors. "Someone turned off the air conditioning because they didn't think we'd be here," Carter said ruefully.

It was a similar story at the county Criminal Courts Building, the downtown Jewelry District and many Bunker Hill offices. "It's like a holiday," attendant Angelo Franco said at the Criminal Courts parking lot.

Yes, the city was thick with Democrats and demonstrators. Yes, parts of downtown were populated by more cops in riot gear than your average Third World dictatorship. But other parts of official and corporate Los Angeles were looking a bit like a ghost town Monday--albeit a ghost town with lots of security and the constant buzz of helicopters overhead.

William A. Brandt Jr. looked like a man who had just won the lottery--which, in a peculiar, L.A. kind of way, he had--as he waited for the elevator to his 20th-floor office at one of the Wells Fargo towers in Bunker Hill. Brandt, president of a consulting firm, Development Specialists Inc., was clutching an "America 2000" convention tote bag, having just returned from Staples Center, where he was working on the Democratic Platform Committee.

"This is marvelous!" he gushed. "I can park wherever I want downstairs! This is the way life should be. You pull in and take any space you want. I'm going to suggest that three or four conventions come a week."

Brandt, at least, was still working, as were his employees, but many companies downtown encouraged employees to stay away this week and closed early Monday.

Only about a third of the staff at Fleishman-Hillard, the public relations giant, showed up Monday, with those living farther from work telecommuting.

Absence of Activity Was Intentional

"It has been considerably quieter," said receptionist Lorraine Cummings, who made the short drive from Pasadena and parked in the senior management lot for the first time. "Most of the account executives notified people, 'I'll be working from home, or reach me via e-mail.' "

There were all sorts of reasons for the unexpected pockets of solitude.

The city-county office that issues film permits banned filming downtown for much of August, cramping the style of Hollywood studios that use downtown's grittier streets for urban reality shots.

The district attorney's office was lightly staffed, in part because police aren't available to testify in criminal cases this week--they're all on the streets.

Some big law firms, including Latham & Watkins, weren't even answering the phone.

At Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, another big law firm, many lawyers and staff moved from the downtown office to Century City, and others were encouraged to telecommute this week. Those who stayed downtown were asked to leave by 3 p.m. Monday.

As he left work early, attorney Marty Washton smiled broadly as he described how light traffic had been and how easy it was to park. "So far, it's been a repeat of the '84 Olympics," he said.

Traffic officials seemed to agree. "It appears to everyone here that the numbers are much lighter," said Tom Swire, a city traffic engineer.

But on public transportation, there were signs that increased convention ridership was making up for any decrease in regular riders.

In fact, traffic on the Blue Line train was so heavy in the afternoon that the MTA added an extra train.

One problem, transit officials said, was that so many out-of-towners were using the MTA rail system--and paying cash rather than using passes--that ticket dispensing machines were breaking down. MTA workers were trying to fix the machines as fast as they broke down.

While many parts of downtown were quiet, others seemed to be humming along as usual.

At the underground mall beneath City Hall East, merchants said business was fairly normal. "For a Monday, it's good," said Patty Ornelas, manager of the Bob's Big Boy in the mall. She said the restaurant gets a lot of business from Police Department employees who work across the street at Parker Center, which is much busier than usual.

Harold Wilson, a parking superintendent at the county's Hall of Administration, said there were just as many cars in the county garage Monday as on a typical summer Monday.

And then there were the oddballs who couldn't work--but wanted to.

"I have work to do," grumbled one senior manager for the KPMG accounting firm as he left his Bunker Hill office on orders from building security. "It's like a police state down here."


Times staff writers Mitchell Landsberg and correspondent Richard Winton contributed to this story.

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