One of the San Fernando Valley’s hottest cruising spots--the La Rinda Plaza--has been declared a public nuisance by a city zoning official who ordered the shopping center’s owners to install gates that can be closed at night.
The decision was applauded Thursday by grateful residents and officials who said rowdy crowds at the plaza, which draws car aficionados from Rancho Cucamonga to Simi Valley, have brought noise, traffic and violence to their neighborhood.
“They are terrorizing the neighborhood,” said Officer Tim Falco of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Foothill Station. “There are beer bottles, urinating, shots going off every weekend. Some of the kids are good, but they don’t realize the danger they are in.”
But many youths insist that they are all suffering for the misbehavior of a few--that the violence is unrelated to cruising.
“We come to show off our cars,” said John, 22, of Simi Valley, who recently cruised the plaza in his purple Nissan truck. “We’re trying to keep out of trouble.” Like many of the cruisers, he declined to give his full name.
In an order mailed out Wednesday night, city officials directed the manager of the shopping center at Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Workman Street to close gates on five of the eight entrances to the property at 10 p.m. to drive off the scores of cruisers who gather in the parking lot from dusk to the next morning. The cruisers gather Friday and Saturday nights but the largest crowds congregate on Sundays.
Associate Zoning Administrator William Lillenberg imposed 13 other conditions on the plaza owners, ordering them to install overnight lighting, post security guards and develop a plan to renovate the parking lot with improvement such as landscaping, resurfacing and re-striping.
According to mall manager Stephen Chan, gate posts are to be installed today with the gates themselves to be installed in the next couple of days.
The shopping center has been a draw for cruisers for at least two decades, residents said. The lot has been a popular spot because the cruisers know they can scatter through any number of exits when the police show up.
But the problem has worsened in the past two years, leading residents to fear for their lives.
Some residents say they no longer sleep in bedrooms facing the street because they fear stray bullet fire. They find empty beer bottles tossed in their yards. Bricks or rocks are plucked from their yards to be used in fights.
Even officials with Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills have complained that their employees coming in for their overnight shifts have been trapped in the streets by the hundreds of cars that follow a traditional cruising route--Laurel Canyon to San Fernando Mission Boulevard to Workman and nearby streets.
In recent months police have cracked down on cruisers at the plaza and surrounding streets. On a recent weekend police impounded 80 cars and issued hundreds of tickets for a wide variety of violations. Officers say they have also broken up scuffles between the cruisers and recovered several stolen cars.
To youths who have frequented the area, however, cruising is a rite of passage--popping the hydraulics of their converted Cadillacs in adolescent challenges, then cruising down Laurel Canyon or Sepulveda boulevards in search of teen-age romance. It’s just fun, they say.
“If we were out here thinking there was going to be violence, we wouldn’t be here,” said Julie, who is seven months pregnant. “I’m not going to risk my baby’s health.”
Lillenberg said that this was the first time he used such measures to combat cruising. But the restrictions, such as the guards and lighting, have been effective in turning around liquor stores and motels which have been deemed public nuisances.
“We’ve had some pretty good success with it, but it depends on the cooperation of the owners,” Lillenberg said.
Chan, with Sun West Property Management, has been criticized by city officials and residents for turning a deaf ear to the problem.
But Chan counters that he has been limited in what he could do without police backup. Security guards hired in January have been too scared to confront the hundreds of cars coming into the plaza at night and have refused to work past 11 p.m.
With the city’s decision, however, Chan is optimistic that a solution has been found.
“We’ve got great cooperation from the Police Department, that they will be on site,” Chan said.
Within 90 days, city officials will hold a hearing to review how effectively the plaza has complied with the order. The plaza management might comply with the city order, but the cruisers may have other ideas.
“If you can force them to keep moving, then they are not very happy,” said Tom Weissbarth of Sylmar, who has kept an eye on the cruisers as a member of the Foothill Area Surveillance Team, a volunteer citizens watch group.
But even if the effort is successful, some law enforcement veterans concede that a few locked gates won’t end cruising.
“The only thing that has changed is that the cruisers are more vocal and rowdy,” said a 15-year veteran parking cop who used to blockade cruisers on Van Nuys Boulevard. “But there will always be cruising.”