LOCAL

Residents cry foul as Dodgers reopen an old way to the stadium

Mitch O'FarrellDodger StadiumPolitics

After moving into her home near Dodger Stadium in 1987, Lisa Keller learned to live with the gridlock. She scheduled her work hours to avoid the swarm of fans in blue T-shirts. And before long, she'd learned a guiding truth of her hilly neighborhood: If you don't have to leave your house on game days, don't.

"It was really crazy," she said. "The sheer amount of traffic was really, just, annoying."

But in 1996, after the neighborhood successfully lobbied then-owner Peter O'Malley to shut the Scott Avenue gate, Keller said things in her mostly residential neighborhood west of the stadium improved a lot. Without an entry point, game traffic started to fade away and before long there was new game-day wisdom in the neighborhood: If you need to get into or out of the area, head to Scott Avenue. But now, residents fear that their trusted go-to route is about to clog up again.

For Friday's home opener against the Giants, and for the rest of the season, the Scott Avenue gate will be unlocked — marking the first time in almost 20 years that the stadium's fifth gate will be used as a permanent entrance and exit.

Like other battles that have flared periodically through the years over issues such as traffic, drunken fans and noise, the recent gate decision has put the Dodgers at odds with the team's Echo Park neighbors and sparked an online petition and a tense community meeting.

Perched in the hills above downtown, Dodger Stadium has always been synonymous with traffic congestion. Before the stadium opened in 1962, some feared the crowds would cause "a traffic problem the likes of which this traffic-choked city has never experienced," as The Times wrote. Despite talk over the years of widening roads and building a people-mover system, little has materialized.

Renata Simril, the Dodgers' senior vice president of external affairs, said their decision to use the fifth gate as a way to get into and out of the stadium is part of a larger effort to alleviate traffic that backs up on Sunset Boulevard on game days. About 15,000 to 20,000 cars show up at the stadium for any given game.

"Our goal is to get them off the public streets and into the stadium as quickly as possible," Simril said, calling the change part of a multi-pronged effort to deal with what's anticipated to be record-high attendance.

Two of the lanes that funnel up Elysian Park Avenue from Sunset will turn left on Stadium Way and then take a right on Scott Avenue, she said, providing a new space for cars to queue up. Simril stressed, however, that Department of Transportation officials will man Scott Avenue where it intersects with Stadium Way and with Echo Park Avenue to deter game traffic from lining up along residential streets for stadium access.

Keller said she doubts that effort will help much.

"Dodgers traffic is like water," she said. "It finds the easiest route."

Less than a mile down Scott Avenue from the gate, Angie Scarpa often watches game-day traffic from her second-story porch. During big games last season when the gate was used as an exit, she said cars leaving the stadium took Scott Avenue all the way to Glendale Boulevard. Sometimes it took them 25 minutes to move the distance of a single block.

"It was complete and utter chaos," she said. "It's insane."

Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, who represents the neighborhood west of the stadium, said many of his constituents felt blindsided by the recent news of the gate's reopening, adding that he thinks the Dodgers should have started doing community outreach about the change at least a year ago.

"I think they've lost a real opportunity to cultivate goodwill in the community," he said. "And that's just something they're going to have to deal with now."

Before Alexis Hanawalt bought his home on Scott Avenue a few months ago, he did his research. He'd noticed the nearby gate and worried about the masses that must pour through it on game days, but his real estate agent assured him that it had been closed for decades. He read some old articles and decided it was safe.

"It sounded like something that would never happen," Hanawalt said, laughing.

Hanawalt said he's mostly curious to see how things unfold with the gate open, but some longtime residents have stronger feelings. They say the reopening is an all-too-common reminder of a sometimes-contentious history with the baseball team in their backyards. It triggers memories of gridlock, thousands of loud, sometimes drunk fans traipsing through their lawns, and of the period in the 1990s when whispers of an NFL stadium opening up next to the ballpark sparked panic.

"The whole neighborhood was shuddering at the thought," said Keller. "It was just too much."

But then in 1996, the gate closed and they finally felt listened to.

A few years later, The Times ran a story headlined "Great Scott, What a Change!" in which residents praised the team's decision and raved about how much it had improved their quality of life. One man said he no longer had to wait 20 minutes for someone to let him back out of his driveway on game nights.

"It's such a simple thing," he said. "But during baseball it was totally awful."

So when the Dodgers announced a plan to reopen the gate in 2007, residents objected and the team's ownership struck a compromise: they'd use it as an exit only when 40,000 or more fans attended games.

This time around, O'Farrell, as well as members of the Echo Park Improvement Assn. and Greater Echo Park Elysian Neighborhood Council, have taken a stand against the reopening. A petition on Change.org, which amassed more than 500 signatures, doubles as a place for neighbors to list their grievances and ultimatums: A woman who rents in the area said she's going to start looking for a new place to live and a mother complained that in the past, drunken Dodgers fans have exposed themselves to her kids and gotten into fights on her front lawn.

Simril said the Dodgers take the neighbors' complaints very seriously and are adding two off-duty LAPD officers to patrol the area and enforce laws, such as drinking in public and littering.

"We're in this with the community," she said.

The Dodgers have taken several other steps to reduce car congestion, Simril said, such as adding new bike paths and pedestrian walkways and offering ticket holders free shuttle rides from Union Station. They're also looking into implementing a pre-pay parking system that would allow attendants to process cars more quickly, simply by scanning a receipt instead of taking fans' cash and giving them change.

As for O'Farrell, he said he plans to personally patrol the area near the gate and make sure DOT officials are in place to keep game-day traffic off residential streets.

"Let me put it this way," he said. "I will not be at the Dodgers game Friday. I'll be in the 13th District. In the field."

He paused for a moment and laughed, realizing his unintentional baseball reference: "The other field."

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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