In a sunbaked parking lot near downtown Los Angeles, a young man in a red polo shirt hopped out of a Honda sedan and jogged to the nearby valet stand, eyeing a long line of customers.
“It can get pretty hectic here,” valet Elmer Nolasco said, grabbing a stack of parking stubs. “The factory workers, they come and go at the same time.”
After complaints that workers were late for their shifts because there was not enough parking, American Apparel — the largest sewing facility in North America — has hired a valet company to wrangle thousands of cars at the company’s vast Alameda Street headquarters.
“Logistically, this is beyond impossible,” American Apparel chief of staff Tina Pellegrino said, surveying the sea of cars outside the multistory building. “The lot was full even when we were the only ones here.”
American Apparel, which straddles the Industrial district and the Arts district, was once surrounded by produce marts and cold-storage facilities. But the area between downtown and the Los Angeles River has seen an influx of businesses and residents in the last five years, straining scant parking and transit options.
American Apparel’s issues at Alameda Square are one dramatic example of a larger accessibility problem in the Arts District, advocates say, where little parking or infrastructure has been added to support about 2,600 people living in a traditionally industrial area.
Trucks cause traffic jams and put wear on the roads. The area has been a popular filming spot since the 1980s, and the vehicle caravan that accompanies a shoot can block a street and its parking spaces for an entire day.
The population is small enough that the Arts district’s coffee shops and restaurants depend on business from outside the neighborhood. With few direct transit options, visitors drive. Once they arrive, there’s not much parking.
“It’s not quite close enough to anything,” said real estate entrepreneur Tyler Stonebreaker. “It just isn’t very accessible.”
The area has a DASH stop and several Metro lines, and 1.5 miles to the north is Union Station. But no lines connect directly to the Arts district. Getting there requires a half-hour trip and a transfer in downtown Los Angeles.
A bus line once ran down Alameda, the area’s backbone, to Union Station. But Metro cut the route about a decade ago because ridership was low.
Metro’s downtown regional connector, due to open in 2020, will have a stop at 1st Street and Central Avenue. Residents say the neighborhood needs something closer, and sooner. Some have suggested a bus line along a north-south backbone, such as Santa Fe Avenue or Alameda.
Under a policy that encourages growth in less-developed areas, many Arts district businesses aren’t required to provide parking. “It contradicts the point of the program, which is to encourage business,” Stonebreaker said. “Business won’t do well if no one can get here.”
The tipping point could be Zinc Cafe, which will open at Willow and Mateo streets later this fall. The restaurant will provide free valet parking, but no parking lot. Baristas and customers at Handsome Coffee Roasters have anxiously watched the construction.
“I bike here now because I can’t find a place to park,” said Danielle Langley, who lives in Koreatown but comes for lattes on weekends. “It will get 10 times worse when other things open.”
Residents say a parking garage would be practical but wouldn’t match the scale of the area’s low-slung buildings. So far, they said, investors haven’t seemed willing to build an underground parking structure.
Fred Muir, a spokesman for Alameda Square parent company Evoq Properties, said they are considering a parking garage to serve American Apparel and its other factories. In the interim, Muir said, American Apparel could pay for more parking spaces. American Apparel said it still wouldn’t be enough.
Some businesses are proposing alternative solutions, including an Arts district tram that would circulate through Little Tokyo and downtown. In addition to valets, American Apparel provides discounted Metro cards for employees and historically has given bicycles to some if they want to ride from Union Station.
The company’s distinct salmon-colored factory is often used as a symbol of American manufacturing. But it’s hard to keep jobs in Los Angeles, Pellegrino said, when workers can’t get there.