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Give Up the Suburb? Yes. Give Up the Car? No Way

December 27, 2004|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

When urban planners first talked about the new residential boom in downtown Los Angeles, they conjured up idyllic streets where pedestrians -- their cars sold to ex-neighbors in the suburbs -- strolled happily to work along streets lined with cafes and bookstores.

People are moving downtown, all right. But this is L.A. So they're bringing their cars with them.

And now local officials, who just a few years ago stopped requiring developers to build parking spaces in most loft buildings, are scrambling to accommodate automobiles -- and their owners -- downtown.

For example, when Michael Esparza moved to a downtown loft from Rancho Cucamonga last year, he shed almost every reminder of his suburban lifestyle except his cellphone with its 909 area code -- and his green 2000 Audi TT convertible.

"I can't imagine not having a car," he said. "It's not as essential as breathing or food, but, honestly ... this is Los Angeles."

Esparza lives in the Higgins Building, a converted 1910 office structure at 2nd and Main streets, and keeps the car in a lot across the street. He walks to the Los Angeles County Superior Court complex, where he does legal research for bail-bond companies.

But he doesn't think much of L.A.'s public transportation, and he uses the car frequently -- to visit clients, shop for groceries, even to reach such downtown destinations as Arnie Morton's Steakhouse at 7th and Figueroa streets.

He and other downtown residents ride public transit for just 7% of their overall trips for work, shopping and other purposes, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments. The other 93% -- minus a statistically insignificant number of trips on foot -- are made by car.

"Downtown L.A. will continue to be a place where you need a car for the majority of your trips," said Hasan Ikhrata, the association's director of policy and planning. "I don't see less reliance on the automobile in the near future."

Concerned that the revival will get stuck if residents and their visitors can't comfortably navigate and park their cars downtown, the city and its Community Redevelopment Agency have begun pressuring developers to build more parking.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation is considering eliminating one-way bus lanes to allow more parking and improve traffic flow. Some streets near artist lofts in Little Tokyo were recently re-striped for diagonal street parking.

"There is suddenly a need for parking for these buildings that have been underutilized or vacant for a number of years," said John Fisher, assistant director of the city Department of Transportation.

"Although the conversion to housing attracts many people who rely on transit, there are still many people who need a car. And they need places to park," he said.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents much of downtown, has asked the Transportation Department to look at all aspects of traffic planning for downtown, including opening some one-way streets to two-way traffic.

Perry has also asked the city to expand its DASH shuttle service to better accommodate downtown residents, running the buses at night and on weekends and adding new routes.

But most people, even if they live and work downtown, will still need an automobile to visit family, go to the doctor or take a trip to the beach, experts say.

"It'll never be like San Francisco; it'll never be like Manhattan," said Michael Dear, director of the Southern California Study Center at USC.

When Marie Condron moved downtown from West Hollywood five years ago, she didn't expect to keep driving to work.

But she drives to her job as communications director for the Greater Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, even though her office is just 1 1/2 miles from her Spring Street apartment. She needs the car, she says, for business meetings, and she complains that there's no convenient bus route to work from her apartment building, where she parks in a garage.

"I'm really ashamed of myself that I'm doing it," said Condron, who is married to an urban planning student and believes in reducing society's reliance on automobiles.

"But we live a few blocks off the DASH route ... and if there are meetings during the day that are anywhere outside of downtown, I have to use my car."

For policymakers, situations like Condron's create a quandary: Is it better to make people uncomfortable in their cars and push them into walking or using public transportation, or are ample parking and easy auto access integral to the development of downtown as a neighborhood?

To encourage developers to turn abandoned 1920s-era office buildings into apartments and lofts, the City Council waived rules requiring builders to put in parking spaces. That saved significant money and effort retrofitting the buildings, most of which were designed without garages.

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