City Creates Downtown Art Walk Task Force to Address Crowds, Incidents

Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk at Spring and 4th on July 2010 I Ed FuentesIn the wake of a death of an infant at the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk on July 14th, L.A. City Councilmembers Jan Perry and José Huizar presented a motion for an official city task force to be formed and ensure pedestrian safety.

It was passed by city council Wednesday, August 3.

The move comes after a series of informal meetings, including LAPD, LAFD, transportation officials and other city agencies.

"Clearly the popularity of Art Walk is a reflection of the growing appeal of Downtown Los Angeles," said Jose Huizar to KCET. "It has grown to the point that we need to make sure we are balancing all the competing interests as best we can, from safety, to crowd control, to local residents and businesses' concerns, to keeping Art Walk as focused as much as possible on its original intent, which is to promote the arts downtown.

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The Downtown Art Walk, held each 2nd Thursday of the month, has grown from 75 attendees on its inaugural night in 2004 to an estimated 30,000 who file into downtown's Historic Core, filling sidewalks with people and streets with cars.

The event is mostly centered in the blocks within Spring, 5th, 4th, and Main. It was on Spring, just south of 4th, where a 22-year-old driver jumped a curb while attempting to parallel park on the left side of the southbound one-way street. He struck several people on the sidewalk, killing a 2-month-old baby boy.

Immediately after the accident, even as details were being confirmed, advocates swept in and commented on blogs or tweeted with longstanding points of view ranging from making sidewalks wider, closing streets, and even rehashing of old grievances to current Art Walk management.

Victor Wilde, owner of The Brutique at The Last Bookstore, started a petition to close down the busier streets for Art Walk. He has had support from those new to the monthly night out.

That idea has had resistance from civic leaders, and also from Downtowners who have seen Art Walk since its quieter beginnings. Many consider street closures and required permits will make Art Walk officially an "Arty Gras."

"Art Walk is not an 'event' like a street fair or festival," noted Bert Green, who founded the Art Walk as a project to show the appeal of downtown. "No permits are required or special permission is needed, because there are no street closures or organized public entertainment." He adds: "The community has to decide if it is worth continuing something that has outgrown its purpose."

Advocated for street closures quickly point to the recent street fair in the Arts District as a demonstration. "BloomfestLA took six months to plan, and cost $4,000 for permits and security," said Jonathan Jerald, who arranged the needed paper work for the eight-hour event that pulled in 15,000 attendees on Traction, East 3rd, Rose and Hewitt.

No sustainable sponsorships have come forward to support a monthly Art Walk beyond basic administrative costs.

But it still grows, and while many agree the novelty of walking on city streets and people watching is an attraction, so is the nightlife.

Memorial for Marcello Vasquez of Montebello, California on Spring on July 21, 2011 ˆI Ed Fuentes

"Everyone involved in the development of Downtown Los Angeles has a different agenda, but none so potent as the prevailing desire for revenue, especially for the bars and restaurants, parking lots, and loft building owners," explained Alexandra Leh, a seven-year downtown resident. "The Art Walk has certainly served the purpose of introduction. But, in the interest of pure commerce, the Art Walk has, especially in the past 18 months, become nothing more than a street fair-turned-rave."

It may have been in the works longer than 18 months. "We are the new reason people come to Art Walk," is what one food truck vendor said while battling for street parking in August 2009, when the roving eateries began to find the hungry Thursday night crowd.

Food trucks are a major draw, but still operate as independent vendors, clustered in parking lots paying a fee that ends up in the pockets of parking lot owners.

They are among those who benefit from Art Walk, but do not contribute or sponsor the non-profit, which would be expected by many to handle street closures.

"Historically the food truck operators have not made financial contributions to the art walk organization," said Joe Moeller, the event's Executive Director. "The Downtown Art Park has not contributed either."

When Art Walk was to be postponed and moved to the weekend under Jay Lopez, which is what some residents now wished happened, nightlife businesses protested. Pledges totaling $200,000 were announced in October 2010, yet only a fraction has been collected, said an undisclosed Art Walk Board member.

Even so, Art Walk received those pledges based on the stipulation that the emphasis was placed on art, not add to the nightlife-like happening on the street.

Art Walk's official hours for the walking tour of art galleries are 6pm to 10pm, down from noon to 9pm. Some galleries that do not feature music close to avoid the party crowd.

There is no entity that oversees operations held in private parking lots, or events branded as Art Walk after parties.

That is what the Task Force may have to focus on.

The motion directs the Bureau of Street Services to oversee a committee with Public Works bureaus, Transportation, Police, Planning, Fire, Building and Safety, City Attorney, representatives from Council Districts 9 and 14, and a member from the Los Angeles County Health Department.

The committee's preliminary findings will include a proposed solution that would limit non-art-venue operations on private parking lots near Spring and Main Streets between 3rd and 7th. While the task force will work on long-term strategies, they are expected to have short-term recommendation in place for the next Art Walk to be on August 11.

"If I were invited to participate," says Leh, who fundamentally agrees with city council members. "I'd suggest refocusing the intention of Art Walk back to art."

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