Nearly eight years ago to the day, an 86-year-old man drove his mid-size Buick through the crowded Downtown Santa Monica farmers' market, killing 10 people and injuring more than 60. That the street was closed to traffic made no difference. George Russell Weller blew through the wood and plastic traffic barricades erected by the city and carnage ensued. Lawsuits over the incident cost the city of Santa Monica and other defendants $21 million. The city's traffic plans, the lawsuits argued, were insufficient to protect visitors to the farmer's market. A year 2000 e-mail from a Santa Monica police sergeant described the traffic plan as "a potential disaster waiting to happen."
I bring this incident up, because in the wake of the death of an infant at the most recent Downtown Art Walk, there have been cries to close the event to traffic--my own included. More than 600 people have signed an online petition to close the streets.
It seems like there's little doubt that Art Walk has outgrown the confines of the sidewalk. It is a huge monthly event that draws upwards of 35,000 people. But closing off the street, as I suggested in a post last week, isn't a cure-all for public safety. Closures, if they happen, need to be done right.
Last week I argued that instead of putting traffic cops in the middle of intersections, as the LAPD does for Art Walk now, "why not have them put up a few orange cones and block off the streets instead?" I admit now--in light of rediscovering the Santa Monica incident--this was a simplistic viewpoint.
I write all this because, as it stands now, it doesn't look like Art Walk will be closed to traffic anytime soon. I spoke with Art Walk executive director Joe Moller late last week, who informed me that he's already gotten wind of a push back from Downtown residents and businesses who were unhappy with the idea of street closures. This position is bound to draw impatient shouts from those tens of thousands of people who want to feel safe at Art Walk. And those shouts will likely try to force some immediate action. But NIMBY apartment dwellers and business owners who have apparently never studied the benefits of foot traffic, aren't the only things standing in the way of safe street closures.
According to Moller, as of right now, the LAPD doesn't charge Art Walk for traffic services. "We're looking at tens of thousands of dollars between the current budget and what street closures would actually cost," he says.
To get an idea of the costs associated with street closures, six months ago the city of Santa Monica unveiled a new "Dragnet system"--concrete reinforced blockades that can catch and physically halt a rogue car--to protect pedestrians in the closed off streets of its farmers' markets. According to the Santa Monica Daily Press, the system cost the city around $215,000. That will eventually save the city money, as blocking off the street with cones and police cost $172,000 each year. But the point is, street closures--especially safe street closures--aren't cheap.
"Suffice to say it's not 10 bucks," says Moller.
The glacial pace of movement on civic issues in Los Angeles often drives journalists insane. When Art Walk rolls around next month and street closures aren't in effect, the same feelings are bound to resurface. But all it takes is one drunk driver plowing through some plastic barriers and mowing over dozens of people to change the discourse entirely.
Art Walk street closures need to be done right, which will probably take some time. And that may not be such a bad thing.
The L.A. Vitamin Report is a column about quality of life issues by Matthew Fleisher. It is brought to KCET's SoCal Focus blog in partnership with Spot.Us, which receives support from the California Endowment.
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