Before Gridlock: Decongesting L.A.

DR, RICHARD MILHOLLAND / for The Times

As he surveyed the big city a quarter-century ago, Lewis Mumford concluded, "In the act of making the core of the metropolis accessible, the planners of congestion have already almost made it uninhabitable."

In his book, "The City In History," Mumford, a distinguished critic of urban planning and life, was concerned over what he called "planned congestion"--big developments for big economic gains were making urban life miserable. He was also deeply troubled by the way progress in transportation--from foot to cart to stagecoach to streetcar to automobile--had helped contribute to intolerable big city paralysis:

"One encounters congestion in the constant stoppages of traffic, resulting from the massing of vehicles in centers that can be kept in free movement only by utilizing human legs," he wrote. "One encounters it in the crowded office elevator or in the even more tightly packed subway train, rank with the odor of human bodies."

A kindly Reagan Administration is determined to spare Los Angeles that last unpleasantness by trying kill the Metro Rail subway project, although it is not dead yet.

Last week, a pro-mass-transit House committee chairman halted an Administration effort to withhold previously appropriated funds from Metro Rail. That was early skirmishing. The project's fate will be decided later in the year in a meeting of House and Senate conferees. The House favors a mass-transit appropriation containing all the money Metro Rail now needs; the Senate favors less.

Metro Rail is just one solution to local congestion. And it would not be a cure. London, New York, Washington and all other cities with subways are badly congested. A subway merely offers an alternative to gridlocked streets.

Whatever the decision on Metro Rail, Los Angeles today faces unavoidable decisions on growing traffic congestion downtown. Mumford's gloomy vision is not yet here, but it could be by the end of the century.

Congestion is not a new problem in Los Angeles. Although many of the early 20th Century immigrants who moved West sought to escape the crowds of Chicago and New York, they soon found themselves caught in downtown traffic jams, evident in photographs of Broadway packed with streetcars and Model Ts. As Los Angeles became a great commercial-industrial center, crowds were inevetable downtown, where the bankers and lawyers gathered. In the 1920s, city planners, seeing the way the core was developing, began talking of a subway for Los Angeles, but nobody was especially interested.

Congestion is not necessarily bad. The crowded Broadway of the '20s and '30s was an exciting street, with its busy Bullock's, Broadway and May Co. department stores and its movie palaces showing first-run films. A very recent example of what some residents consider pleasant congestion is on the Westside of the city. The Beverly Center, at 3rd Street and La Cienega Boulevard, and the new Westside Pavilion, at Pico and Westwood boulevards, have brought many more cars and people to the area, as has Century City. But they have also brought a variety of shops, restaurants, bars, cinemas and a legitimate theater (the Shubert), amenities of a city. Not everybody likes deathly quiet on the weekend.

Still, there is a traditional longing for quiet, uncrowded residential districts in this city. There is also a tradition of being able to drive from these neighborhoods to central shopping centers that can accommodate the auto traffic with a minimum of inconvenience. Balancing the freedom of movement, the dislike of crowds and the inevitable commercial growth was a major goal of the city Planning Department's Concept Los Angeles, adopted by the City Council in 1974. It envisioned several commercial or industrial centers around the city, such as Warner Center in the San Fernando Valley or Century City. A major goal was to "preserve the low-density residential character of Los Angeles, except where higher density centers are encouraged."

Much has happened since to darken the planners' dream. Ventura Boulevard in the valley is becoming a long, stretched-out commercial center, with strong economic pressures to build big buildings along the street, accompanied by upscale shops and restaurants. Olympic Boulevard, west of Sepulveda Avenue, is turning into a canyon of high rises. If the Westside Pavilion is a success, the small-scale shopping areas around it will probably prosper in turn, as once sleepy Westwood Village did a few years ago.

The most significant change is downtown. The city's business, political and cultural leaders have joined forces to locate theaters, museums and commercial headquarters there. Witness the Museum of Contemporary Art, the dance theater in California Plaza, the new Los Angeles Actors Theater on Spring Street, along with about 27 million square feet of additional commercial projects in the central business district. This development contradicts at least some of the assumptions of the 1974 centers plan and requires new thinking and planning.

Looking at potential trouble, the city Department of Transportation warned last December that downtown streets could be regularly gridlocked by 1990 unless something is done to ease congestion on city streets.

There is no agreement on what to do. A committee of business leaders appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley called for expansion of the downtown minibus system and increased ride-sharing. The committee's most controversial proposal called for parking areas on the periphery of downtown, and elimination of a current requirement that developers include garage space in their new buildings. Some city officials are skeptical that parking outside downtown--with workers shuttling to their offices on buses--will work. Councilman Howard Finn, chairman of the City Council Planning Committee, insists parking must be required. He wants downtown development limited--a stand intolerable to Bradley, a high-rise booster, and the downtown developers who are his political and philosophical allies.

Meanwhile, separate government agencies are going ahead with their own congestion-causing plans. The new 12-story state building, planned for Spring and Third streets, will have 448 underground parking places as well as 350 in a garage across the street. The county is planning to work with private developers to build commercial high-rises on county-owned land near the Music Center. Officials say these would probably include parking.

Separate government agencies going their own ways without communicating is an old story in Los Angeles, as old as traffic jams. That should end. A crowded downtown is here to stay. It may not approach Mumford's gloomy description of the ultimate congested city: "The befouled and poisonous air, the constricted housing at three to four hundred an acre, the demoralized social life, teeming with violence and crime . . . ." But a downtown where no thought is given to easing congestion, and where there is no acceptable alternative to the automobile, will be an unpleasant place to live or shop--or work.

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