When Suzanne Mohr Coleman and her boyfriend, Christopher Barth, arrived at the Los Angeles Coliseum for an evening motorcycle race June 7, they found what hundreds of thousands of visitors to the stadium over the years have: Full parking lots.
"They said they were full and told us to keep going," Barth recalled Wednesday.
They began the hunt for a parking space elsewhere, finally choosing a curb-side spot on a side street southwest of the stadium--a place near where the 16-year-old Miss Coleman would be robbed and fatally shot hours later as the confused and lost Orange County couple tried to make their way back to their vehicle.
Miss Coleman's death has focused new attention--and demands for action--on a decades-old parking problem at the Coliseum--a facility that attracts up to 25,000 vehicles for major events but has only 5,800 auto spaces available on the grounds. Several thousand additional spaces are available at the University of Southern California and in nearby parking lots, but officials say it is still only a fraction of what is needed.
In an attempt to accelerate action on new parking structures and improved management of available parking in the area, Coliseum area Councilman Robert Farrell this week won approval of an order for city inspectors to crack down on property owners near the stadium who for years have illegally helped fill the parking gap and earned extra cash by renting parking space on their lawns, driveways and yards.
Police say narcotics and gang problems in the residential areas near the Coliseum have increased the need for a more secure and organized system of parking. Sgt. Tim Tyree, adjutant at the LAPD's Southwest Division, noted that Barth and Miss Coleman parked on a street in a "pocket of narcotics and gang activity" that has troubled officers for years.
"Ultimately, it would be helpful if you could eliminate all private property parking as well as on-street parking during special events," Tyree said.
Farrell, who has long pushed for elimination of private property parking, said Miss Coleman's "tragic death just pushed me to act."
The yard parking "is a violation of the zoning code. It's not done in Westwood or around Dodger Stadium. . . . That's a blight-inducing thing (that) gives the perception that anything goes in certain areas of Los Angeles."
Farrell insisted that the enforcement effort would not begin until other measures to deal with the parking shortage are implemented--including proposals to expand shuttle service to remote downtown area lots and more special RTD bus service to the stadium from outlying park-and-ride lots.
James Hardy, who has been general manager of the Coliseum for 14 years, said plans have been under study for several months to build parking structures that could ultimately add 15,000 additional spaces at or near the Coliseum.
He said be believes Miss Coleman's death will speed up those plans because it "has focused attention on the crying need for expanded parking facilities."
There has never been a serious attempt to expand the parking before, Hardy said, "because the powers that be haven't deemed it important enough to provide the money." He was referring to the city, county and state agencies represented on the Coliseum Commission. Meanwhile, reaction to Farrell's proposed crackdown has been mixed. Some neighborhood residents, who rent the parking spaces for prices that range from $5 to $20 depending on location and event, objected, saying that they rely on the additional income from parking and that they are offering a needed service.
"They're taking food out of my children's mouths," said Gloria Novoa, 24, who rents space in her yard a few blocks south of the stadium. "It's a dumb idea because when people leave cars here, we guard them. We stay up late until all the cars are gone."
But Adolfo Gutierrez, a homeowner who rented parking space in his yard during the Olympics, agreed with Farrell. Gutierrez has obtained city Redevelopment Agency assistance to upgrade and expand his duplex and wants to see the residential area improve. He said that the traffic congestion and jamming of cars on lawns make for safety problems, and that visitors to Coliseum events often return late and drunk, disrupting the neighborhood.
"The neighborhood is safe, but not if you're an outsider," he said.
Some City Council members and police officers also have expressed concern that if the crackdown on parking on private property takes effect before other steps are taken, it will worsen security problems by scattering Coliseum patrons over a broader distance.
Barth, an 18-year-old Fountain Valley resident, said he and Miss Coleman intentionally sought a parking place farther from the stadium to avoid areas where they saw "people breaking into cars" and "all the crowds and all the people begging us to park on their lawns."