Crackdown on Cruising Studied : New Burger Stand is Beacon for Mobile Night Owls

Times Staff Writer

Johnny Gomes sat on the hood of his burgundy Nova four-door, cracking his knuckles as he watched the traffic pass on Whittier Boulevard. It was shortly before 11 on a recent Saturday night, and Gomes and a couple of high school buddies were in position next to Tommy's burger stand, waiting for some action.

Since Tommy's Original World Famous Hamburgers opened in October, the parking lots surrounding the 24-hour eatery on Whittier at Durfee Avenue have become staging grounds for youthful night owls and cruisers.

"It's an all-night joint, and a street named Whittier Boulevard," sheriff's Capt. Robert Pash said. "It's a magic combination."

It won't be that way for long, though, if the City Council has its way.

Responding to complaints about noise, traffic and trash from cruisers drawn to Tommy's, the council is expected to adopt an anti-cruising ordinance on Monday. It would allow authorities to set up random checkpoints and ticket cruisers and impound their vehicles.

Similar to County Law

The ordinance is similar to one approved by the county Board of Supervisors last May to curb cruising on another stretch of Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, Pash said. "Within three weeks," he said, "the cruising simply went away."

Establishing checkpoints in Pico Rivera is a last resort, Pash said. "But if problems in the area return," he added, "we won't hesitate to use them."

Before the Christmas holidays, as many as 500 people on some weekend nights descended on the shopping district where Tommy's is located, about a mile west of the 605 Freeway. Some cruised the streets, others parked in front of businesses.

Merchants complained about trash, while angry residents had to weave past dozens of slow-moving vehicles clogging Whittier Boulevard. Some nights, City Manager Dennis Courtemarche said, there was "sheer gridlock" on Whittier as cruisers converged on Tommy's.

Although a crackdown by sheriff's deputies on loitering around Tommy's has discouraged some from flocking to the area recently, Courtemarche said the city needs the new anti-cruising ordinance to strengthen the enforcement effort.

Tickets, Towing

Like the county law, Pico Rivera's proposed ordinance allows deputies to cite drivers and passengers as well as tow away vehicles that pass an established checkpoint twice within a four-hour period. At the initial stop, all occupants of the vehicle are given a copy of the ordinance while deputies note the make and year of the vehicle and its license plate number.

Tickets cost offenders $25, Pash said. If the vehicle is impounded, it can run as much as $100 to recover, the captain said.

"Many of the cruisers use their parents' cars," Pash said, "and believe me, if that vehicle is impounded, it's only going to happen once.

"If a parent has to get up in the middle of the night, go down and bail out their car, I guarantee you that teen-ager won't be on the streets for a while," he said.

Because of the city's get-tough stance, Gomes, 17, said many of his friends are feeling the heat to steer clear of Tommy's.

"We're just out to have a good time, meet some people and maybe, just maybe, get lucky," said the Montebello senior, surveying the near-empty lot between Tommy's and a Lucky supermarket. "But look at it, there's hardly nobody here. Man, they've scared a lot of dudes away."

'Best Place' to Meet Boys

Julie Hurtado, a junior at a La Puente high school, said Tommy's is the "best place" to meet boys. She and her friends come several times a month to the drive-through outlet with a Spanish motif.

"There's a certain excitement," she said, combing her long, black hair, "because you never know what will happen. It's a lot cheaper than a flick or the bowling alley."

Michael Rhodes, director of operations for the Beverly Hills-based Tommy's chain, said most of the offenders are not paying customers. He said the restaurant's neon lights and outdoor patio are magnets for young people "with nothing better to do than hang out."

"I wish they were all buying burgers," said Rhodes, who oversees operations at the chain's 10 outlets. "When we opened, this was our second-biggest grossing store. Now it's only fourth or fifth.

"All the publicity about cruising, trash and traffic has hurt us," he said. "It's scared some people away. If we had anticipated this, we would have never opened there."

Parking Problem

Congestion on Whittier and Durfee is only part of the problem. Parking in the Lucky lot also has triggered complaints. Tommy's has only eight parking spaces, including a space for the disabled. When it is crowded, some Tommy's customers use the Lucky supermarket lot, then cut through a landscaped median that separates the two lots.

Large signs with big red lettering have been posted throughout the Lucky lot, warning Tommy's customers not to park there. Nonetheless, people still congregate in the supermarket lot, particularly after it closes at 10 p.m. on Fridays and 9 p.m. on Saturdays.

To protect their spaces during business hours, the supermarket has hired a private security guard, said Judy Decker, a communications coordinator at Lucky headquarters in San Francisco. She said the major concern is the loss of business that might result if all their parking spaces are full.

"After we close, we can't do much," Decker said. "But we are not willing to give up spaces--and customers."

Plans to seal off the lot after the market closes for the day were considered by the company and rejected, Decker said.

Since Tommy's opened, Pash said, deputies have arrested more than 300 people during periodic sweeps. Most were arrested for loitering or illegal parking, but a few have been arrested on drug- and alcohol-related charges.

Coming From Miles Away

Some of those arrested live in communities miles from Tommy's, including Arcadia, La Puente and even parts of Orange County.

Pash said his deputies have worked more than a thousand hours of overtime trying to combat problems around the eatery. Courtemarche said it has cost the city about $30,000 a month for the extra law enforcement since Tommy's opened in October.

Legendary among cruisers, Whittier Boulevard has always been a favorite with young motorists. Almost every stretch of the 14-mile-long boulevard, from the Orange County line to East Los Angeles, has had a cruising problem at some point, Pash said. Its central location, wide lanes and many lights have made the four-lane thoroughfare a popular place to be seen.

"As long as there are cars and young people," Pash said, "Whittier Boulevard will be a place to cruise."

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