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An L.A. ‘parking ambassador’

The tan uniform that identified William Hartsfield as a Los Angeles traffic officer was neatly pressed. A baseball cap embroidered with the city seal covered a head of wiry gray hair. His retractable Pilot pen -- a traffic cop’s greatest weapon -- peeked out from a breast pocket.

Roaming the streets just north of USC, Hartsfield displayed both the careful trepidation of a seasoned interloper and the practiced decorum of a gracious host.

When a woman stepped out of a Lexus, a cellphone in one hand and coins in the other, the 76-year-old Hartsfield held back. “I’m in shouting distance if you need me,” he told her. He watched from afar as she quickly figured out how to work the shiny new “park-and-pay” station on Jefferson Boulevard before darting across the street toward the campus.

When a family of four struggled with the same station, each taking turns trying to swipe a credit card through the machine’s reader, Hartsfield stepped in, a sheepish grin on his face. “The card part’s not working,” he said as he waved them on their way. “It’s on me.”

Hartsfield is a “parking ambassador” -- a job title that could be dreamed up only in car-centric Southern California. He and six other traffic officers, on leave from their regular jobs, were appointed after city officials decided they needed them to help introduce some of the most radical changes to street parking in generations.

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Over a 10-month period, Los Angeles replaced 15% of its 40,000 old-fashioned parking meters with the pay stations, which promise ease of use and maintenance. It also increased rates, with the minimum hourly rate changing from 25 cents to $1, topping off at $4 an hour in parts of downtown. Meters’ hours of enforcement were extended to 8 p.m. across the city and up to midnight in some entertainment and shopping districts.

The park-and-pay machines making their debut along Jefferson were placed every six spaces or so. About 3 feet tall, they require drivers to note the white number painted on the sidewalk next to their parking space and then enter that on the kiosk’s keypad before paying with a credit card or coins. The stations can send a reminder to motorists’ cellphones when time is about to expire. Drivers can also pay at any station in the area.

The disappearance of the kind of meter that has served the city for 60 years, coupled with the rate increases, Hartsfield said, has provoked some less-than-ideal civic behavior.

Downtown, he watched people kick the machines. Near UCLA, the tirades were verbal and directed at him.

Hartsfield has stood outside coffee shops, retail stores and schools, enduring epithets.

“They can’t yell at them,” he said of the bureaucrats who cooked up the new parking plan. “I am here. I am visible. I am a target. I can take it.”

In an effort to increase efficiency, Los Angeles decided in 2007 to begin replacing some of its aging meters with the park-and-pay stations. The stations were unveiled at a city-run lot in North Hollywood, not far from where the city’s first meters were installed in 1949. Officials promised that the stations were more reliable than the old meters -- and thus would bring in a steadier stream of revenue.

Last July, the City Council approved the rate changes, which officials said were long overdue (some neighborhoods hadn’t seen a rate increase for 20 years). Their goal, they said, was to better match the heavy demand for parking and reduce the cruising for hard-to-find, underpriced on-street parking, which can create congestion and pollution.

Bruce Gillman, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, said the higher rates were “determined on how much volume and usage is at that particular location.” The rates downtown, he said, “are very competitive with the off-street parking in that same area.”

Hartsfield said working as an ambassador has made him wonder whether the city needs to reconsider some of the rate hikes. Take downtown’s fashion district, where the $3-an-hour rate is among the highest in the city.

After a week in the district, Hartsfield said he worried about how the higher cost of parking might affect merchants, who already are suffering from the recession and trying to move goods at a discount, and their mostly lower-class customers, who come in search of bargains. “By the time they park, we’ve taken all their money,” he said.

“It gets in here,” he added, patting his heart, “if you have any feeling at all. . . It’s not hearsay. I am looking at it for days running.”

At an age when many city employees have long since retired, Hartsfield, who has worked for the Department of Transportation since 1987, eagerly answered the call to introduce L.A. to the pay stations. He usually spends his time hunting down stolen cars out of an office in South Los Angeles. He said he volunteered to be a parking ambassador because he wanted to be a face for the parking division. Meters, Hartsfield said, “are a fact of life. You do have to have somewhere to park. Just like with everything new, it takes a little time to get into the rhythm.”

A former waiter and maitre d’ at such old L.A. dining establishments as the Beefeater Inn, the Tail o’ the Cock and the Pips Club, he is used to dealing with picky customers. His calm demeanor and impish sense of humor often defused tense situations.

“Be thankful I was at the meeting,” he told more than one person who complained to him near USC, where rates went from 25 cents to $1 an hour. “They wanted to charge $5.”

Angelenos have surprised him.

Hartsfield watched a man in Brentwood emerge from a Rolls-Royce so new it hadn’t yet received its license plates. When the driver saw the higher parking fee, Hartsfield said, “he totally just lost it. I am looking at him and saying, ‘Isn’t that the same gentleman that got out of that Rolls-Royce?’ ”

The man, he said, got back in the car and drove off. “I can’t envision how much that car would cost. Even just the price of insurance -- you could probably buy a new car. And you care about a dollar, or two dollars? That totally baffled me.”

In Larchmont, where pay stations were installed just before Thanksgiving, Hartsfield stationed himself outside a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, only to be bombarded by motorists, passersby and even those sipping coffee at outdoor tables. They complained about the rates and the extension of paid parking hours.

“They were really up in arms,” Hartsfield said. “They seemed to think it was their own part of the world, and they didn’t want it to change unless they approved it.”

He shrugged. “Some areas where you would think it wouldn’t be a problem, it is,” he said.

People from Westwood, Larchmont, the Valley and downtown vented on blogs and other websites. “I’m already planning on some sledgehammer exercise,” one person wrote at Curbed L.A. “They aren’t nickel-and-diming us,” another complained at LAist.com. “They are dollar-and-dollaring us.”

Joane Pickett, who runs Pickett Fence, a women’s clothing store in Larchmont, said that though the city’s traffic department had warned merchants about the changes, most didn’t really think they would come about -- until the machines and the signs to go with them showed up along the block.

“The customers hate it,” she said, “especially the older people; they are saying it makes them not want to come here. I think that young people are getting used to it faster, and they like the credit card aspect. But the older people don’t like it so much.”

Still, Pickett said, there might be one upside to the changes: It’s become easier to find a space along the street.

The first phase of the meter switch has ended and the ambassadors have returned to their regular jobs. But the city has begun plans to install pay stations in other neighborhoods. When that happens, the parking ambassadors -- Hartsfield among them -- will be back on the streets.

On a rainy day in South Los Angeles several weeks ago, Hartsfield paced the sidewalk, a large overcoat covering his uniform. He said his tenure as an ambassador was “so fantastic. I thank God each and every day.”

Then he turned his attention to a nearby sign, which offered three more hours of parking than the meters allowed. He pulled a walkie-talkie off his belt and called for reinforcements.

Minutes later, a large truck pulled into a space on the street, lights flashing. A man climbed into a bucket at the back of the truck and was lifted into the air, tools and a sign in hand.

The discrepancy was quickly fixed, and Hartsfield looked pleased.

“We’ve got to have things right on target,” he said. “We can’t be sketchy.”

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cara.dimassa@latimes.com


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