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Stepped in Controversy : Santa Monica Residents Exercise Their Frustration Over Fitness Buffs Who Use Nearby Steps for Workouts

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In some neighborhoods, residents complain about drug deals, drive-by shootings and speeding traffic. But homeowners in north Santa Monica face a different type of problem: unruly exercise fanatics.

On weekends, hundreds of spandex-clad people gather at 4th Street and Adelaide Drive, ready to tighten their glutes and firm their thighs on two steep staircases that drop down into Santa Monica Canyon.

Exercise devotees stand on the roadways or the wide, grassy median splitting 4th Street, doing stretches before a dash down the 189 concrete steps. Others mill around the top of the stairs, cooling off after a grueling staircase set or chatting with fellow steppers while gazing out at the spectacular ocean view.

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Often on weekend evenings, the upscale community becomes packed with exercisers enjoying the cool sea breezes and magnificent sunsets. One man, sated by several reps on the 4th Street stairs, fired up a barbecue on the median as if he were in his own back yard or at the beach.

Residents say people using their neighborhood as if it were a public park causes a host of problems.

Some exercisers leave their water bottles along the curbs and in the bushes, neighbors complain; others do not pick up after their dogs.

Frequently, the stair steppers spill out into the street and block traffic, while the steady stream of stair-bound cars causes parking problems in the area.

Hot and sweaty, a few exercisers have come onto residents’ lawns and used their garden hoses to get a drink or shower off. Some people have even urinated and defecated in the bushes, residents said.

“The street used to be a pretty quiet place,” said resident Dr. Paul Tsou. “Now it is a problem because there has been such a huge influx of people. It makes the place not as nice as before.”

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Tsou, who lives near the wooden stairs east of the more-popular concrete staircase, finally put a fence around his front yard to keep the exercisers at bay.

Santa Monica police were called in last month. After meeting with residents, they agreed to start a campaign to educate the stair runners in what was appropriate--and what was lawbreaking--behavior.

The officers began by handing out flyers.

“We first wanted to notify people that we would start issuing citations for littering, trespassing on private property, disturbing the peace and blocking traffic,” said police Sgt. Gary Gallinot.

Officers visited the area for two weeks, he said, mainly targeting those exercising in the early morning and the 300 to 400 people who sometimes turn out on Friday and weekend evenings.

The warnings worked, Gallinot said. After three weeks of stepped-up enforcement, not a single citation had to be written.

“It was just a matter of educating the people,” he said. “Most of them just never thought about the problems they may be causing. We expected voluntary compliance because mostly it is nice people coming to exercise.”

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Eva Odma, a Westwood resident who says she has been running up the 168 wooden steps on and off for six months, said she was not surprised to hear that neighbors had complained about the crowds.

“I’ve seen some people leave trash . . . around,” she said. “I’ve never seen anyone drinking from [homeowners’ garden] hoses, but I’m not surprised because we all need to drink so much water.”

But other stair-steppers were less sympathetic to residents.

“It may be because the neighborhood is exclusive that they rebel against strangers,” said Jordon Hollis, who said he exercises on the concrete stairs a couple of times a week.

“It’s not like the people who come here commit drive-by shootings or murders,” he said. “They are just nice upper-middle-class people who get off work and want to exercise.”

Rather than triggering lawless behavior, the two long, steep staircases probably reduce criminal activity, one dedicated exerciser contends.

The stairs “should be recommended for everyone,” said Jim Acheson of Beverly Hills. “Police should be happy. The stairs help vent out people’s anger, give them a feeling of accomplishment, and they’re less likely to commit crimes.”

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Although the steps are known as a Santa Monica hot spot, they are primarily in the city of Los Angeles.

The concrete steps run from Adelaide Drive down to the intersection of Entrada Drive and Ocean Avenue. Only the top 22 are in Santa Monica; the bottom 167 are in Los Angeles, said West Los Angeles district engineer Stan Sysak.

The shorter, lesser-known wooden stairway to the east of the concrete steps also spans the cities’ boundary, Sysak said. The top 14 feet are in Santa Monica, the bottom 214 feet in Los Angeles.

Although no one can pinpoint the date the stairs surged in popularity, most residents and longtime stair-steppers say the crowds have grown over the last five years.

Although the stairs are a popular destination for out-of-town exercisers, some of the most dedicated runners are a group of easily identifiable locals.

Driving their fire engines to the stairs, Santa Monica firefighters from the nearby station house can be seen racing up and down the steep steps as part of their required 90 minutes of daily exercise.

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Tsou agrees that the stairs are a nice way to exercise and does not blame people for wanting to use them. In fact, he runs the stairs himself in the early mornings.

“The problem is there are just too many exercisers. They overwhelm the place with their numbers,” he said.

Having people shower off on his front lawn is not such a terrible crime, Tsou admitted. “But,” he added, “it gets old pretty fast.”

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