West 3rd Street's bustling foodie row might well be L.A.'s latest exemplar of too much of a good thing.
Aggrieved locals say restaurant owners who are eager to expand are lining up phantom parking spaces to satisfy city requirements, routinely claiming spots that belong to or have been leased by other eateries, print shops or clothing boutiques. The practice leaves customers and valet vigilantes, particularly on weekends, jockeying on crowded streets for an inadequate number of spaces.
City planners acknowledge the problem of "fictitious parking" but have no database to track which businesses are leasing which spaces.
"It's a giant shell game," said Danielle Elliott, a Realtor who lives just off 3rd Street and has complained to the city about the issue. "It's affecting our quality of life."
As exasperated drivers can attest, parking is at a premium in destination pockets throughout Los Angeles. Densely packed spots such as Westwood Village, Larchmont Boulevard, Melrose Avenue and Venice's Abbot Kinney Boulevard have more customers than parking spots to accommodate them.
In neighborhoods where fast-food joints and tattoo parlors prevail, having a stretch saturated with popular restaurants and customers might seem the best sort of problem. But residents near 3rd Street say they're fed up with the congestion.
West 3rd Street, once humdrum, now hums with patrons who frequent the 30-odd eateries that line the dozen blocks between the Grove shopping center and the Beverly Center. Inside, chefs are cooking up turkey meatloaf and butter beans. Outside, customers and valets are concocting a traffic nightmare.
"The streets are jammed with cars," said Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Assn. "There's no place to park. It's an impossible situation."
Weekends are especially chaotic in the blocks between La Cienega Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, residents say. Crowds line the curbs in front of restaurants such as Toast and Joan's on Third, waiting for indoor or outdoor seating -- which is in high demand even though diners inhale bus fumes as they eat.
Loading zones behind businesses fill up with cars, forcing semitrucks delivering supplies to restaurants onto side streets, where they block alleys and permit-only street parking, which is scattered throughout the area.
Drivers speed down residential streets looking for spots. Valets make U-turns or zoom customers' vehicles in reverse down busy blocks to secure open metered spots.
"Whenever there is an available metered space that should be open to patrons of all businesses, it's grabbed by a valet vigilante with a walkie-talkie," Elliott said.
"As soon as one car pulls out, they pull in another."
The 3rd Street parking controversy has been simmering for years but came to a boil with the proposed tripling, to 3,000 square feet, of Joan's on Third, a busy gourmet marketplace and cafe.
"We are the first to admit there's a parking problem on 3rd Street, but it's not Joan's on Third's problem. It's a city planning problem," said Susie Hastings, manager of Joan's and a co-owner with her mother, Joan McNamara, and her sister, Carol McNamara.
"We're talking about one-of-a-kind shops that are growing to survive," Hastings said. "We have more customers than we have room for."
Linn Wyatt, a zoning administrator in the city's planning department, approved the expansion, with conditions. The restaurant had to lease 30 parking spaces exclusively for patrons and offer valet service starting at 5 p.m.
When neighbors contended that some of those parking leases were bogus, the restaurant hired Rose & Kindel, a Sacramento-based consulting firm. Steve Catalano, the firm's deputy managing director in Los Angeles, acknowledged in an interview that he had serious questions about leases that Joan's had previously secured, and "we changed those."
Wyatt signed off on the project, and the City Council approved it with the strong backing of Councilman Jack Weiss. Catalano said the parking he helped arrange for the expanded Joan's was in compliance, "to the best of my knowledge."
However, Elliott and other activists maintain that some of the spaces have already been subleased to other businesses, including another restaurant.
The so-called double-dipping problem reflects the economic boom on 3rd Street, which has benefited in part from the spillover success of the Grove and the expanded Farmers Market. The values of nearby residential and commercial properties have soared. A number of factors contribute to the problem of fictitious parking, planners and residents say.
Restaurants in the city of Los Angeles are not required to supply parking spaces for outdoor diners, based on the often faulty assumption that they arrive on foot.
What's more, many commercial buildings were built decades ago, before parking requirements were imposed, and have little or no parking.