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Residents Oppose Plan to Widen 2-Lane Stretch of Fairfax Ave.

Times Staff Writer

A stream of motorists filed neatly into the two southbound lanes of Fairfax Avenue just north of Pico Boulevard one afternoon last week. Moments after passing through the intersection, it became clear which of them was the seasoned Fairfax traveler.

A woman driving a silver Nissan in the right lane pressed her foot to the floor, swerving her vehicle around several cars in the left lane and then squeezing to the front of the pack. As Fairfax narrowed from four lanes to two a short distance later, the stream of merging cars slowed to a near standstill.

Except for the Nissan. The car was already sailing through the next intersection. The woman never had to stop.

Jockeying for position along Fairfax has become a way of life for motorists who use the heavily traveled road between Venice Boulevard and Pico, a narrow two-lane corridor just north of the Santa Monica Freeway that is lined with stucco homes and wide, grassy parkways.

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Los Angeles city officials say it has also become a major safety concern, with motorists at either end of the three-quarter-mile stretch driving over lawns, rear-ending slow-moving vehicles and crashing into parked cars and trees in an effort to get a jump on traffic.

One city official likened the roadway to a constricted blood vessel: Everything on either side of it backs up in a desperate attempt to get through.

On Wednesday, the City Council is scheduled to vote on an environmental report for a proposal to widen the stretch by as much as 16 feet, install new street lights, sidewalks, driveways and storm drains and reconstruct the road’s crumbling gravel and asphalt base.

City engineers and transportation planners have characterized the project as a crucial improvement to the neglected roadway that will help feed traffic from the freeway to the Farmers Market, CBS Television City and other commercial developments and residential neighborhoods to the north.

But a group of homeowners who live along the stretch see it as the death of their neighborhood, the only strip of single-family homes on heavily commercial south Fairfax. More than 130 of them have signed a petition opposing the project.

“We have a beautiful residential neighborhood here,” said Stella Stout, who lives on the 1700 block of Fairfax. “If they widen the road, we can see the future: The homeowners will want to sell to get away from the traffic . . . and we won’t have a neighborhood left.”

Residents’ opposition to the road widening has thrown the project into political turmoil, with newly elected Councilman Nate Holden, who represents the area, squaring off against Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who represented the west side of the street before council boundaries were redrawn in 1986.

Yaroslavsky, recruited by some of his former constituents, has promised to fight efforts to widen the road. At a recent hearing on the project, he told Holden that he would not allow the new councilman to destroy a neighborhood that he worked for 10 years to protect.

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“This is a turkey,” Yaroslavsky told Holden. “Leave these people alone.”

Holden, who pledged during his campaign last spring to do something about the road, has said he will not be intimidated by his senior colleague to the west. He attributed Yaroslavsky’s interest in the project to politics, saying Yaroslavsky has been annoyed that Holden has not sided with him on numerous issues. Last week, for example, he voted against a controversial proposal by Yaroslavsky to limit high-rise development along the Wilshire Corridor.

Holden said residents in Yaroslavsky’s district have launched a scare campaign in the Fairfax neighborhood, telling homeowners that the project will destroy their property values and bring crime and traffic to their doorsteps.

“People all around that neighborhood want the road improved,” Holden said last week. “We are trying to make it safe. The people against it have been scared by false materials . . . that say we are going to put a highway outside their front doors. That just isn’t true.”

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But at a public hearing in October and a recent council committee meeting, opponents of the project far outnumbered those in favor of it. At both sessions, residents accused Holden of forcing the widening project on the neighborhood to serve the growing commercial areas near 3rd Street and Melrose Avenue. Holden, who does not represent those areas, has dismissed the charges as nonsense.

Residents along Fairfax as well as some from nearby streets said widening the road would simply invite more commuters to abandon other thoroughfares and join the parade of vehicles outside their homes. The residents were unanimous in supporting rebuilding and repaving the road--which has become the unofficial hubcap capital of the Westside because of its deep and abundant potholes--but they said those improvements do not require widening it to 46 feet.

Seymour Robinson, executive director of the Westside Action Coalition, an umbrella organization of Westside resident groups, proposed a compromise at the committee meeting that calls for a 36-foot-wide roadway. In 1973, he and other residents defeated a proposal to widen the road to 66 feet.

About half of the affected stretch--that area south of Airdrome Street--is already 36 feet, but the segment from Airdrome north to beyond Saturn Street is only 30 feet. By contrast, the roadway flares out to 66 feet from Saturn to Pico. Beyond Pico, it narrows to 50 feet.

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Robinson said a 36-foot road--with strategically placed left-turn lanes, bus stops and parking limitations--would allow traffic to move swiftly without destroying the residential character of the community. Under the proposal, some residents would lose none of the parkway in front of their homes, while others would lose three feet. With a 46-foot-wide road, each resident would lose between five and eight feet.

But city transportation officials said last week that they had already considered a 36-foot alternative and rejected it because it would not solve congestion problems. The officials said the stretch needs a left-hand turn lane that extends the entire length of the project because of the many driveways along it. The 36-foot alternative would provide enough space for left-hand turn lanes only at major intersections, they said.

The officials also said reducing the project’s width to 36 feet could kill it by jeopardizing federal funding. About 86% of the $1.3-million project is expected to be funded by the federal government, but that funding was committed by the Federal Highway Administration based on a 46-foot-wide project, the officials said.

Gary E. Maner, an environmental associate for the city’s Bureau of Engineering, said any changes in the project’s description would require submitting a new application for funding. “That would mean starting all over with a whole new project,” said Maner, adding that it has taken four years to put all the pieces together for the 46-foot project.

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Residents opposed to the project, while sympathetic to the city’s financial plight, have not been swayed by the funding problems. James Brooks, president of the Fairfax Homeowners Assn., which was established to fight the widening, said the roadway has deteriorated enough that it should qualify for city funds.

“The vibrations are so bad that they are causing people’s walls to crack,” said Brooks, who lives in the 1700 block. “You can’t tell the difference between a bus passing by and a mild earthquake.”

Residents have also questioned why the city wants to create a four-lane roadway with an additional left-turn lane through their neighborhood, when a half-mile stretch of Fairfax just north of Pico is only one lane in each direction. That area, a commercial strip with small family-owned shops, has two additional lanes that have been set aside for parking.

Irwin Chodash, a city transportation engineer who has worked on the widening project, said congestion along the commercial strip is less severe than in the residential area. He said some traffic turns off Fairfax at the busy Pico intersection, and the remaining traffic flows fairly easily because the road, while only one lane in each direction, is wide enough to allow cars to make turns without holding up traffic.

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If congestion should worsen, Chodash said, the city also has the option of restricting parking during peak hours along that 50-foot-wide commercial strip and creating two new lanes. The same scenario, he said, would apply to the residential area if it were widened to 46 feet.

Last week, in an effort to soothe relations with the Fairfax homeowners, Holden met with about half a dozen of them to explain his position. Holden said he told the group that he would support a project that widened the road less than 46 feet, but only if he could find city or federal funding for it. In an interview last week, he did not see much hope for that.

“We just don’t have that kind of money at the local level,” he said.

Holden said his staff will spend much of this weekend collecting signatures from residents who support the 46-foot project so that he will have some ammunition when he faces the City Council on Wednesday. He will be asking the council to approve a negative environmental declaration for the project, which in simple terms means the project can go ahead without further review of its effect on such things as noise and air pollution. The project itself would still need separate approval from the council.

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Sometime before the council meeting, Holden said, he will ask city engineers to mark the roadway so that residents can actually see how much of the parkway--all of which is owned by the city--will actually be taken away from their front yards.

“I think that way they will realize that they will not be giving up their living rooms,” he said.

Charley H. Coleman, a 15-year resident of the 1800 block of Fairfax, and his wife, Maralda, said they would gladly give up some of the parkway to get new street lights, a wider entrance to their driveway and a safer thoroughfare through the neighborhood.

“There are accidents here nearly daily,” Maralda Coleman said. “When I hear a bang, I don’t even bother to look out any more. It is already a highway out there, but maybe if we make the street nicer, the traffic will at least flow easier.”

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