After 405 Freeway project, a feeling-unblocked party in Bel-Air

Outside the Bel Air Bar and Grill, residents hold a We Survived the 405 Neighborhood Block Party

Carmaggedon. Jamzilla. Those were just the headlines.

The southwestern corner of Bel-Air had it bad for four and a half years.

As a more than $1-billion 405 Freeway improvement project moved through the Sepulveda Pass, the streets up against the freeway between UCLA and the Getty Museum became a maddening, ever-changing maze of ramp closures, lane closures, detours and unexpected dead ends.

Ask Mahin White about the project, she raises a well-manicured hand and says, "Please, you're opening a can of worms."

Says her friend Harold Igdaloff, 89, who lives just off the freeway: "On my street, they dug a trench 20 feet wide by 20 feet deep. Every night when I came home, it was a different challenge because they either had this blocked or that blocked or the other blocked."

On Saturday, White and Igdaloff joined many of their neighbors right alongside the freeway, outside the Bel Air Bar and Grill on North Sepulveda, for what was billed as a We Survived the 405 Neighborhood Block Party.

Not that their 405 construction headaches are through. Not really. Almost every day, the Bel-Air Assn. blog still runs a long list of street, lane and onramp closures. Linda Behar, who can see the freeway from her home in hillside Mountaingate, said that when she set out for the party she was surprised to find her freeway onramp closed. "You still never know," she said.

Susan Disney Lord, the Bel Air Bar and Grill's owner, said she first planned the party a year ago, then delayed it to May, then again. When the construction work that was supposed to have ended kept on going and going, she finally decided: close enough.

"They're never going to proclaim it over," she said, "and we so badly needed a party."

For years, she said, the construction mess has scared many visitors away from her restaurant and the nearby gas stations and the dog groomer and nail salon and other small businesses in the two little strip malls right across Sepulveda.

"What I think is that people got trained not to come anywhere near here," she said.

Mabel Henriquez, who opened Mabel's Dog Grooming 15 years ago, said she lost some customers who got very stressed out when they couldn't find a way through the closures to pick up their dogs.

The block party, of course, was part publicity stunt — the equivalent of jumping up and down and screaming at the top of their lungs that the worst was over and that they're easy to get to again, not to mention eager and very much open for business.

To that end, Lord laid out an elegant spread of free food: egg-salad sandwiches, chopped salad, linguine Bolognese, chicken pot stickers. Manny's Pizzeria served up slices. Legend Cleaners handed out coupons. A deejay spun records. There were balloons and banners. All the local storefronts pitched in with freebies and refreshments.

Lord says she's all in favor of the infrastructure improvements — which included 10 miles of new northbound carpool lane. But while the recently built sound walls help with noise, they also block passing drivers' view of the businesses.

Her biggest thrill Saturday, she said, was the people who just saw a party, stopped and discovered a little business district they hadn't known existed.

As for the longtime residents, opinion was divided about whether all the construction had been worth it in the end.

There was muttering about a recent study, posted on L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's website, that sampled two weeks of northbound afternoon rush-hour traffic in the pass and concluded that even with the new carpool lane, it had remained constant or perhaps even slowed down a little.

Said Ron Hudson, 71, an interior designer who has lived in the neighborhood since 1969: "We still have a mess on Sunset. When you cross over the freeway, it's still bumper to bumper. I think if we'd put a tram down the center of the 405, it would have been the best way to go."

L.A., he said, never stops growing. Add new lanes, new cars show up to fill them.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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