Fun for Some, Irritation for Others

Times Staff Writers

Traffic in an already congested part of Los Angeles is poised to get a bit worse. And motorists will have Jess, Molly, Kit and Samantha to blame.

Those are just some of the high-end American Girl dolls that will be luring hordes of breathless girls and their parents to the Grove shopping center near 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue when Mattel Inc. officially opens its third American Girl Place store this weekend.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 20, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 20, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
Grove parking: In Wednesday’s California section, a caption with a photo of children at American Girl Place at the Grove implied that shopping center employees would be permanently barred from parking in the Grove’s garage; the parking situation will be reassessed in the weeks after the store’s official opening Saturday. Another caption wrongly stated that a “lot full” sign was at the Grove’s garage; the sign was at the surface lot at the Farmers Market.

To pave the way for potentially thousands of additional customers each day, the Grove and the adjacent Farmers Market have told workers that they may no longer -- at least for the time being -- use the shopping center’s 3,500-space garage. Instead, they must park at a remote lot and be shuttled into the shopping area.


The change has resulted in a good bit of grumbling on the part of workers who previously, for a $5 daily fee, could park on the structure’s eighth floor. They now must scout for street parking or spend 30 to 40 minutes each day commuting by shuttle van from a garage at the Pacific Design Center. In the past, employees have been required to park off-site during the holiday shopping season to free up spaces for shoppers.

Residents and motorists are also expressing concern about heightened congestion. “Traffic in this neighborhood is much worse than it was before the Grove,” said Bill Higgins, who walks to the Farmers Market daily from his nearby apartment.

Indeed, getting around the Mid-Wilshire and Fairfax area -- also home to Museum Row, hundreds of new apartments and condos and the high-rise Beverly Center mall -- has gotten harder in recent years, said John Fisher, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

“It’s part of the Westside, and we have some of our most congested locations in the Westside area,” Fisher said. Sometimes, he said, “there is more traffic than some of the roadways can handle.”

This is despite more than $5 million in traffic improvements undertaken by Grove developer Caruso Affiliated before the center opened four years ago. Those included a new street, Grove Drive, connecting 3rd and Beverly Boulevard, as well as new turn lanes and upgraded signals at several intersections. Caruso Affiliated is headed by Rick Caruso, former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission.

More traffic improvements are in the works for the neighborhood.

Fisher said his department plans in about two months to award a contract to upgrade an existing automated traffic surveillance and control system to allow officials to better monitor traffic flow. The work is to be funded in part by a $2.85-million state grant.

The Grove opened in March 2002 to great fanfare and quickly became one of the most popular attractions around. Between 15 million and 17 million visitors annually stroll through its ersatz streets and the venerable Farmers Market next door. A survey two years ago found that about 27% of those visitors were tourists, said Jennifer Gordon, vice president of marketing and tourism for Caruso Affiliated.

For developer Caruso, enticing American Girl Place to fill the spot vacated by FAO Schwarz, a ritzy toy merchant whose parent company filed for bankruptcy protection, was a coup. American Girl has just two other locations: on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and New York’s 5th Avenue. Each of those stores draws about 1 million visitors a year, and American Girl anticipates similar numbers for the Los Angeles store, said Wade Opland, the company’s vice president of retail.

“I’ve been trying to get that deal for six years,” Caruso said. “It adds a uniqueness to the Grove that isn’t anywhere else in the Western U.S.”

To help ease the flow of customers, Caruso Affiliated has instituted improvements in its high-tech garage. Motorists may now pay by credit card at every exit station and soon will be able to purchase prepaid parking cards. The developer has also added “speed ramps” to make it faster for valets to retrieve vehicles.

Meanwhile, workers and tenants have mixed emotions about the advent of the American Girl store, given its likely effect on traffic and parking.

Early-bird customers this week have discovered that the store is having a “soft opening” before its official grand opening Saturday. Girls and their mothers and fathers on Tuesday morning were lined up to peruse $90 dolls and thousands of books and accessories. The store also features a doll hair salon, where patient employees braid and curl the locks of customers’ dolls, and a cafe that is already booked for weekends through June.

“If my employees don’t have a place to park, they are going to come late or have to park far away,” said Jessica Morrill, manager of the Kokomo Cafe in the Farmers Market. It took some doing, but Morrill was able to work out an agreement with Caruso to park the restaurant’s delivery van on the premises. That, she said, will save time and trouble.

Stephane Strouk, proprietor of Monsieur Marcel Gourmet Market in the Farmers Market, sees both sides. American Girl, he acknowledged, will bring more customers, an excellent prospect for his and other businesses. But one of his employees spent 30 minutes getting to the shop from the Pacific Design Center.

Strouk has another reason for seeing advantages and disadvantages. His 5-year-old daughter and three nieces, he said, have been praying for the American Girl opening. “We tried to book a birthday party,” he said, “and they’re already booked.”