THE PAPAL VISIT : Street-Smart Los Angeles Gears Up for the Pope's Visit

Times Staff Writers

Pope John Paul II's two-day visit to Los Angeles next month is being welcomed by government leaders as their first major opportunity to employ the lessons of the 1984 Olympics, particularly in averting downtown traffic gridlock.

Plans are being laid to reschedule truck deliveries, arrange commuter car pools and beef up public transit service--strategies that combined to produce a smooth traffic flow during the Summer Games.

Traffic planners for the Pope's visit say they are searching for a doomsday "catchy phrase" like the Olympics' "Black Friday" to reduce congestion downtown on Tuesday, Sept. 15, when an estimated 1 million to 2 million people are expected to line city streets to watch a seven-mile papal motorcade.

Fears of congestion already have prompted the Los Angeles Unified School District to propose closing some or all schools on that Tuesday, which was to be the first day of class for 600,000 students.

Despite the concerns, effusive city leaders say Los Angeles will benefit in prestige and worldwide attention from the papal visit.

"I think it's probably more than a once-in-a-lifetime thing for the city," said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who is Jewish and will not attend the Masses because "why should I take a seat when a Catholic would appreciate it so much more?"

"I put it on a par with the Olympic Games," he said. "There is no question about it: Los Angeles has such a large Catholic community, such a large Hispanic community. . . . He is a man who carries with him a lot of moral power and who is very controversial."

Of course, there are enormous differences between the 16-day Summer Games and the Pope's two-day pastoral visit. Southern California had the Olympics to itself; Los Angeles will share the Pope with eight other U.S. cities, including Monterey and San Francisco. But the presence of a world leader and throngs of visitors eager to see him will have a major impact on the city.

Bill Rivera, spokesman for the Los Angeles school system, said the school board will decide next week whether to close all or some schools on Sept. 15. School officials fear that buses will have difficulty picking up children in the morning along the motorcade route and returning others in the afternoon to neighborhoods near the Coliseum, where the Pope will celebrate Mass that evening.

"The other problem is what kind of gridlock we are going to have," he said. "Can we even get teachers and other employees to school? A lot of them have to travel through downtown."

At USC, all afternoon classes for Sept. 15 have been canceled because of concern about traffic bound for the Mass at the Coliseum. "We think that after 2 or 3 o'clock, it will be impossible to get off campus," said Sylvia Manning, USC vice provost.

Several downtown streets will be closed and bus routes will be adjusted for the motorcade, which will begin at Western Avenue near the Santa Monica Freeway shortly after the Pope's arrival at Los Angeles International Airport. Riding in an armored "Popemobile," the pontiff will travel through various ethnic communities, including Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Tokyo and the largely Latino business district along Broadway downtown.

Transportation planners hope that downtown firms will encourage employees to take Sept. 15 off. Those who must work are advised to arrive downtown by 8 a.m., to form temporary car pools or to take the bus and not leave until the afternoon. Planners also advise residents who do not work downtown and do not want to see the Pope to avoid the the area altogether that day.

"Just like with the Olympics, the best way to avoid problems is to plan ahead," said city transportation planner Tom Conner.

To minimize downtown congestion, Conner said, he would like to come up with the kind of "Black Friday" label that referred to Aug. 3, 1984, the day when the largest number of Olympic competitions were scheduled and gridlock was feared. But residents heeded the ominous forecast, took public transportation, left town or stayed home, and traffic flowed smoothly.

"We're not calling it 'Black Tuesday' this time," Conner said. "But we're trying to think of a catchy phrase because that's what saved us during the Olympics."

Most of the concern about traffic is limited to the downtown motorcade; planners expect the Pope's other stops in Los Angeles to pose few problems. In addition to the motorcade and Coliseum Mass, the Pope's itinerary includes meetings with young Catholics, U.S. bishops and other religious leaders, and a Mass at Dodger Stadium.

Privately Complaining

Some city officials grumble privately that their traffic planning has been hampered by delays in getting information from the Los Angeles Archdiocese. "They're kind of like the Olympic committee," said one planner, who asked not to be identified. "They don't want to admit there's a traffic problem."

Church officials deny they have been uncooperative and dismiss talk of traffic problems.

"This is a city that knows how to deal with traffic," said Greg Cornell, who is coordinating traffic plans for the archdiocese.

The city and the archdiocese also have vastly different scenarios for spectator parking along the motorcade route. City planners say they are bracing for a major parking crunch downtown. Cornell disagrees. "There's tons of parking," he said.

Charter Buses Planned

The traffic and parking fears have prompted thousands to book charter buses, but some companies say they cannot meet the demand. The San Diego Diocese, for example, so far has lined up only enough buses and additional Amtrak cars to carry about 7,000 of the 12,500 Catholics who have tickets for the Coliseum Mass in Los Angeles.

"I'm told there is not a seat (on charter buses) from Santa Barbara to San Diego all the way into the Inland Empire . . . ," said Phil Boucher, executive vice president and general manager of Gray Line. "I've got people begging me for equipment, and I'm out of equipment. I've been out for weeks."

Boucher said his company will bus up to 5,000 people in and out of Los Angeles on both days of the Pope's visit, with the parade posing the biggest challenge.

Question of Cost

The ultimate cost to the city of providing security, traffic planning and street cleaning for the papal visit has not spawned the kind of controversy that led Los Angeles to demand reimbursement for city services from the organizers of the 1984 Olympics. City planners say they still don't know the cost and refer all questions about whether to seek reimbursement from the Los Angeles Archdiocese to the city's politicians.

"The king of Spain is coming downtown and we're not going to charge Spain," said City Council President John Ferraro, who strongly advocated a self-sustaining Olympics.

So far, only the Rapid Transit District, which miscalculated ridership during the Olympics and lost millions of dollars, has raised the issue. The district wants city and county agencies to reimburse it for more than $300,000 in added costs--for more buses and staffing--during the Pope's stay.

Not Expecting Bonanza

Business leaders do not expect any immediate bonanza from the papal visit, which is expected to attract a primarily Southern California crowd that will arrive and leave the same day. Few tourism officials believe traditional attractions, like Disneyland, will receive any additional business.

"We learned the hard way during the Olympics," said Boucher, who is not planning on a significant increase in business during the days preceding and following the Pope's visit. "We're not going to make the same mistake twice."

Los Angeles hoteliers said in interviews that the primary boost for them will be the hundreds of clergy, security agents and journalists who will arrive with the Pope. But September is a big convention month, and several hotels reported more reservations for convention business that week than for religious visitors.

Some business leaders are hopeful. Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said the worldwide television coverage of John Paul's visit will enhance the city's prestige and lure more tourists in future years. Recent freeway violence is scaring some tourists away this summer, and the vision of John Paul riding safely on Los Angeles streets "may be a very welcome antidote," Kyser said.

Good News and Bad

On Broadway, where the papal motorcade will attract thousands of spectators, merchants are both excited and apprehensive.

"When is he coming?" asked Trino Gutierrez, 33, manager of Harry's Electronics & Cameras on Broadway.

Gutierrez, a bearded man in tinted shades and a straw hat, sat behind the counter, surrounded by cameras, stereos, televisions and radios. "That day will be bad for us. Generally with a big parade, it distracts from the business," he said matter-of-factly.

But then he paused, his mind rapidly making a salesman's calculations in the spirit of the pre-Olympic days.

Photo Opportunity

"We'll probably sell more film that day, maybe a couple of people will buy cameras, " he said, his voice turning to a drone as the possibilities presented themselves. "Maybe people will spend money--a couple of radios. We have binoculars for people to see him better. People might buy one of our micro-televisions to see him close up on TV."

Like Gutierrez, most Broadway merchants seemed largely uninformed about the papal motorcade and city traffic plans. Estela Lopez, executive director of Miracle on Broadway, a nonprofit corporation working to revitalize Broadway, said she has had trouble nailing down details from planners. For example, she said, the RTD gave her a ludicrously broad crowd estimate: somewhere between 200,000 and 4 million people.

"Poor things," she said of the RTD. "They're going nuts."

The RTD's current crowd estimate for the motorcade is 2 million, and planners say they will soon announce specific details to help the business community cope with the congestion. Whatever the prospects, city leaders are certain that the Pope's arrival will mark an important date in Los Angeles history, and they look forward to seeing him.

Councilman Excited

City Council President Ferraro, a Catholic, said he is hopeful that the archdiocese will give him tickets so he, possibly his wife and his two "very religious" sisters can attend one of the papal Masses. Board of Supervisors Chairman Mike Antonovich, a Lutheran, said he has been told by the archdiocese that he will get tickets to both Masses.

Lt. Dan Cooke, LAPD spokesman, has postponed his retirement just so he can be involved in the papal visit, which he said will be "one of the jewels in the crown" of a police career that has spanned 35 years.

"I consider this thing one of the biggest things to hit this city since the '71 earthquake, not counting the Olympics, of course," Cooke said. "And I'm not even Catholic. . . . The attention of the entire world will be on us again."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°