Construction cranes are slicing through the air in downtown Los Angeles as the biggest building boom in decades transforms the skyline. But the economic surge has also produced a dangerous consequence.
So many sidewalks have been closed to accommodate construction that pedestrians are walking into the streets — amid traffic — to get around. In the South Park district of downtown, east of Staples Center, 11 sidewalks are closed in a 24-block area, and some will continue to be for as long as three years.
That's bad enough, said Simon Ha, an architect and local resident who has been mapping the closures. But a dozen additional major projects are in the pipeline for the same neighborhood, with the potential to close 29 more sidewalks.
Residents sometimes loaded with groceries have to zigzag from block to block down Olive Street, south of 8th, one of the hottest construction areas. Disability advocates say it's not just an inconvenience for pedestrians but a legal risk for city officials who are already locked in a 4-year class-action lawsuit over allegedly poor sidewalk access for the disabled.
The problem is also occurring in Hollywood.
Construction has closed five sidewalks in a three-block area north of Sunset Boulevard between Gower and Vine streets. Patrons of Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles, across the street from one large construction site, frequently take their chance crossing busy North Gower Street as they come and go.
Paula Pearlman, executive director of the Disability Rights Legal Center, said federal access laws require the city to provide an alternative walkway if a sidewalk is closed. "An accessible route does not mean forcing people to traverse streets to get where they're going," she said.
The Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council is so concerned, it has drafted a letter asking officials to intervene before things get even worse. In May, Ha said, he took a photograph of a woman in a wheelchair pushing herself alongside whizzing cars.
Patti Berman, the neighborhood council's president, said city regulations have been slow to keep up with the changing reality on the streets, especially in areas that are becoming more pedestrian-oriented.
"For the first time since Los Angeles was a very young city, it has a thriving urban center," Berman said. "But the city is still handing out these permits with a suburban model in mind, closing off sidewalks whenever a developer asks. There has to be some accommodation made for pedestrians."
The challenge is evident during a busy lunch hour outside the dowdy Macy's on 7th street, between Hope and Flower. With the retail center in the midst of a major renovation, two-thirds of the sidewalk fronting it is closed and will remain that way for at least eight months.
In the space of 60 minutes, more than a dozen people ignored a "Closed Sidewalk" sign and walked into the street against traffic, placing themselves within inches of rushing cars. When Ha asked the construction site supervisor to provide pedestrian access, he declined.
"He said unless the city makes us do it, we are not obligated to do it," said Ha.
The Los Angeles building code has a mechanism for officials to order covered walkways, but it's not often used, Ha said. In practice, it's often left up to developers and site contractors to decide if a temporary walkway is needed.
Gary Harris, investigative and enforcement chief for the Bureau of Street Services, which issues the sidewalk closure permits, acknowledged that the city gives developers leeway to close sidewalks if they wish. But they are required to maintain some kind of public right-of-way if possible, he said.
If there's a closure on one side of a street, for instance, a permit seeking to close the opposite side would be denied, Harris said. "The key is [to] ease the impact on pedestrians and vehicles. But we have to do what is necessary to accommodate reasonably the construction."
Washington, Boston and Chicago require contractors to construct covered walkways on the existing sidewalk, or to create a clearly marked alternate walkway nearby. Sometimes that means closing a street lane to provide a temporary walkway.
That's what city officials eventually ordered the builder of an apartment tower at 8th and Hope streets to do — but not until walkers regularly began darting into traffic to cross mid-block. Los Angeles police issued hundreds of jaywalking tickets but that didn't change anything, said Ha, who lives in the Market Lofts at 9th and Hope and watched the progression of events.
Finally, officials closed a lane of traffic and the construction crew built a covered walkway in the street lane.
The downtown Neighborhood Council wants city officials to require that similar walkways be built where possible. If a construction project makes that impossible, the group wants officials to do all they can to limit the duration of closures.
Enforcing new rules would bring the city in line with Mayor Eric Garcetti's oft-stated goal of improving walkability in neighborhoods across the city, advocates say.
"I basically avoid South Park now," said Alex San Martin, a downtown resident who uses a wheelchair and is president of a nonprofit called Communities Actively Living Independent and Free. "These are just basic services. It's not like the citizens are asking for much."
Berman, who sometimes walks two or three blocks out of her way to get around closures, sees the whole situation as a case of the city saying one thing but doing another.
"I realize that Los Angeles until very recently didn't know that 'pedestrian' is a real word," the neighborhood council president said. "But we're building a downtown that is supposed to be for pedestrians, for cyclists, for people in wheelchairs — for everybody," she said. "Not having access to sidewalks in so many places for so long is really a handicap here."
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