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An Asphalt Jungle

IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT in the new Hollywood, and terrazzo sidewalks are bearing the kind of foot traffic they haven’t seen in decades. Velvet ropes and ursine men with shaved heads, ear buds and clipboards mark the territory of such mobbed Walk of Fame nightspots as Basque, Mood and Geisha. The aroma of burnt mesquite and sautéed garlic wafts over streets that not too long ago were perfumed by more pungent odors, a time when “Hollywood nightlife” meant a few decaying dives owned by the shadowy impresario Eddie Nash. Still, all is not happiness curbside. As one grim-faced man emerges from a Vine Street parking lot this Saturday, he’s asked how much the lot’s attendants are charging.

“Forty, fifty — anything they can!” he says, his voice buckling with contempt.

And, as if on cue, the metallic slap of a signboard reverberates at the Avalon nightclub’s parking lot across the street, as the price goes from $20 to $40. It’s a ritual repeated without warning throughout lots just north of Hollywood Boulevard. In response, a competing lot on the other side of Vine now also jumps from $20 to $40. Farther away from the Hollywood and Vine vortex, prices for club parking are lower but will still strike some out-of-towners as high.

One clubber, waiting in line to get into Rokbar on Las Palmas Avenue, is joined by a friend who’s just parked nearby.

“How much?” the first guy asks.

“?‘That be 20 dollah!’?” his friend answers, impersonating the immigrant valet he’s just paid.

“The way the lots operate is that [attendants] charge between $10 and $35,” says a Hollywood Boulevard club manager who wishes to remain anonymous. “They can start at $10 but if they see a Bentley roll in it shoots up to $35.”

“I’ve lost business where people who came to my club drove away when they saw the parking price,” says Bobby DeLeon, the owner of the Day After nightclub. “If someone feels ripped off once, they’re not coming back — not just to the clubs, but to Hollywood. They wonder if they’re getting charged extra for parking because they’re black, or white, or a woman, or because they’re driving a Porsche. They come into my club angry, and I’ll have to sit them down and buy them drinks because they’re upset.”

Meanwhile, musicians unloading their equipment in alleys have to be on guard against overaggressive tow-truck drivers, who have also been known to drive off with band vans, as well as the cars of club employees who parked with a lot’s daytime shift, unaware that the night crew has fingered their vehicles for removal.

Back on Vine, the conga line of cars heading toward Avalon from the 101 freeway is on freeze-frame. On Hollywood Boulevard by Improv West, two girls in a white Olds have rear-ended two guys in a Mercedes SUV, and now it’s the Day the Earth Stood Still for westbound traffic as the men get out to survey the damage with forensic deliberation. A cop car is stuck half a block directly behind the accident but may as well be parked at a drive-in for all the progress it’s making.

TINSELTOWN’S NIGHTLIFE RESURGENCE ?has set off unforeseen brushfires of controversy. Residents decry the explosion of liquor licenses (about 100 within 10 central blocks, and more than 450 for all of Hollywood); urban planners bemoan the opaque, uninviting façades of shuttered nightclubs that confront daytime tourists; longtime business owners worry about the disproportionately large number of these new clubs to the scarce inventory of midpriced family restaurants. By far, though, the most acrimonious debate involves traffic and parking. On some weekend nights visitors sit gridlocked in their cars — especially on Hollywood and Cahuenga boulevards, and Highland Avenue.

Most of tonight’s swarms of young people who are handing their car keys to valets appear passive and accepting of the new status quo. To them, this is what sophisticated nightlife entails: squads of red-jacketed valets double-timing it up Vine, fleets of tow trucks plying the boulevard and its tributaries — but above all, parking costs that rival the price of concert tickets in some cities. Mike Sabet, who owns Unified Parking Service, operates about 500 parking spaces in Hollywood, including the main lot adjacent to Avalon and one on Cahuenga across from White Lotus. He says high parking prices simply don’t faze today’s clubgoers.

“Early on in the evening,” Sabet says, “we get a few complaints — maybe from family people who want to go to the Wax Museum. But club people have to pay $100 to get in, and they give Avalon’s bouncers another $75 to get to the head of the line. That kind of crowd doesn’t really mind paying.”

Paul Stevenson is a director of Parking Company of America (PCA), which owns about 70 slots in Hollywood. “You have economic factors driving it,” he says about the rising cost of parking. “We have to pay lot rentals, employees, taxes, workers’ comp and insurance, which has ballooned over the last five or seven years. Then we have to pay a 10 percent city tax on every parked car. Most parking companies do not own their land, so you have competition to lease the lots [and that also] drives up the price of parking.”

 

Some worry that the difficulty and cost of simply visiting the new Hollywood on weekend nights will spell its doom. They describe an unregulated free-for-all in which attendants routinely raise prices based on what they think the market will bear.

While the city’s municipal code makes allowances for rates to change three times during the day, it forbids these kinds of spontaneous switches. It mandates that parking lots clearly post their prices at their entrances. But parking lots now form the laissez-faire frontier of a new Hollywood economy, in which club owners routinely incur daytime parking tickets in front of their venues so that at night they can use the valuable real estate as pedestrian space for their clubs’ overflow.

Unless they enter lots operated by Grant and Sunshine, two companies that appear to comply with the rules, most weekend-night drivers are likely to confront completely blank signboards — even though the municipal code states that prices must be visible from the street and cannot be arbitrarily raised during the course of business.

Sabet said his lots do not change prices, even when informed that his attendants were observed doing so over the course of several weekends. Instead, he explains that his lots charge a $35 “VIP fee” for drivers wishing to locate closer to Avalon. Still, at midnight one Saturday night, a sign announcing $40 for everyone in the Avalon lot was slapped over one that had advertised $25 for the same parking.

Like the signs on many lots north of Hollywood Boulevard, it was posted deep inside the property. By the time drivers reach an attendant’s booth and discover the price, a line of cars has impatiently built up behind them, and at that point drivers are not likely to turn around and look for street parking. One middle-aged red jacket on Ivar, who was windmilling a flashlight in front of a lot across from Joseph’s Cafe, was asked his lot’s admission.

“I don’t know,” he shrugged, “ask my boss!”

When run to ground, his boss was equally frank: “I have no idea.” (A few weeks later a $25 sign appeared — but was only visible to cars leaving the Ivar lot.)

This scene is repeated elsewhere; at Forbidden City’s valet station, an attendant is asked the same question and shrugs.

“$15? $20?” the man says, nodding toward another attendant who is opening a visitor’s car door. “He’s charging.”

One hundred feet away, a self-parking lot bearing a PCA logo sports a blank sign at its entrance with a second one beneath it: “SUVs & Trucks Pay $5.00 Extra. VIP Pays $10.00 Extra.” However, it isn’t until drivers reach the attendant station that they’re told the base rate is $40. PCA’s Stevenson acknowledges the municipal code’s signage requirement. When it’s pointed out that his lot across from Avalon doesn’t post prices that can abruptly jump $20 during an evening, he replies that at night PCA’s spaces are subleased to other companies. Welcome to the Wild West on wheels.

ON A BUSY SATURDAY NIGHT the LAPD is handcuffing a young valet attendant in front of Avalon — not for jacking up the price of parking but as part of a crackdown in which valets’ driver’s licenses are checked for warrants. “He’s not parking any more cars tonight,” a cop says as he leads the kid, wearing a yellow windbreaker, to a patrol car.

The revitalization of Hollywood was founded on a build-it-and-they-will-come assumption — the more you cleaned up the boulevard, the more nightlife you encouraged. The planners forgot one thing: In Los Angeles the operating principle is Build It and They Will Park. The invisible hand of the free market may resurrect Hollywood and make three-quarter-million-dollar condos possible, but in the parking lots that hand is bitch-slapping weekend visitors.

West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip is another heavily trafficked weekend destination that also frequently experiences bottlenecks, but never seems to suffer the parking triage that defines Hollywood Boulevard. Los Angeles’ municipal code (which governs Hollywood) is very similar to West Hollywood’s — the difference is that West Hollywood’s codes are enforced, while L.A.’s are not.

Los Angeles’ off-site parking lots must seek permits that are approved and enforced by the Los Angeles Police Commission’s Investigation Division (CID). Before his recent retirement, CID Detective Manuel Arujo discussed the problems of enforcing code provisions for parking.

 

“We have two full-time officers to check on permit compliances,” Arujo says. “It would be better to make lots post their prices, but we have to approach the code in the spirit of the law and not to enforce it to the letter. It’s kind of like not giving a ticket to someone driving 60 in a 55-mile-per-hour zone. We’ve got to pick our fights.”

CID Detective Gary Guevera agrees and says that there is no way to police parking without committing precious manpower resources to parking-lot stings.

“When we’ve got a chronic problem in Hollywood we’ll put together a task force. [But this means] one police officer has to sit there, watch money be exchanged, and can only cite one employee. We then need to transfer the citation to the owner. Is this the best use of law-enforcement manpower?”

Still, Guevera says CID is not running away from the problem.

“It’s a high priority for the police commission,” he says. “It’s become a squeaky wheel because of the complaints we hear from merchants.”

Hollywood parking is worse on Saturdays than Fridays, and if the Pantages and Henry Fonda theaters are both running shows, then the Sunshine Parking lots on Hollywood Boulevard will pack out early, creating a ripple effect from there to Cahuenga. Nevertheless, at 10 p.m. on a typical weekend, a few scattered open spaces at the area’s 829 parking meters can still be found just east of Vine, although Hollywood Boulevard traffic is starting to congeal by now.

Around 10:30, though, as the Pantages audiences begin to spill out of Rent or Wicked, Hollywood and Vine is transforming. This time of night is the tipping point, that third-drink moment when drivers suddenly stop making the lights and cease moving, when petite women in cocktail dresses go Tourette’s on those ursine doormen with ear buds and when the price of parking mysteriously goes up in the places Councilman Eric Garcetti calls “the crazy lots.”

Garcetti, the 13th District councilman who represents virtually all of the territory on which sit Hollywood’s clubs, believes the parking problem has been exaggerated. “We don’t get a lot of calls about it,” Garcetti says. “It’s not the folks in the hills complaining that [they] can’t get into Mood. Club owners are complaining about it, but most people know you don’t have to valet park. It’s the first-time visitors who don’t know where to go.” (In fact, it’s cheaper to valet park at the lots north of the boulevard, where the charge is usually $15.)

According to Garcetti, the problem is actually that Hollywood has too much parking available along the boulevard between Highland Avenue and Gower Street. Much to the annoyance of some local businesses and homeowner groups, he dissuaded the Clarett Group planners from adding more than the minimum number of residential parking spaces to the Nederlander property that Clarett will soon develop around the Pantages — hoping, he says, to nudge people into taking public transportation. Ben Resnick, a lawyer and spokesman for Clarett, says that as a result, there will be 175 fewer spaces available to residents in the new development.

“Hollywood has the potential to be this experiment of urban living in L.A., but it’s not going to happen overnight,” says Kerry Morrison about Garcetti’s promotion of public transportation. Morrison is president of the Hollywood Entertainment District, one of L.A. County’s 30 business-improvement districts. “It will be years until Hollywood settles into its new framework and until all the planned subterranean parking is built.”

ONE SPINOFF FROM THE PARKING MESS ?has been the infestation of bandit tow trucks, whose rise has become a national problem since Congress deregulated the industry in 1994. The level of abuse by some L.A. tow-truck operators has become so high that Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg recently pushed through a predatory tow-truck operator law, although the kinds of lots it covers (primarily the kind maintained by supermarkets and strip malls) will do little to help victims of rogue operators in private off-street lots.

“Tow-truck companies operate on .?.?.” says Unified Parking’s Sabet, trailing off to think of the right phrase. “Well, let’s just call it a kickback system. They actually tell us, ‘Look, we’ll give you $20 for every car we tow — just call us and we’ll do the rest.’ They come to us. It kind of goes under the table.”

Sabet, who has owned Unified since 1978, says many drivers try to slip onto lots unnoticed and that his policy is to place a bill on the windshield of drivers who have gotten into the lots without paying and, if they show up a second time after not paying, to have them towed. Virtually every major Hollywood lot north of the boulevard, including Sabet’s, post placards bearing the name and number of Quick Lift Towing service, which, last summer, the City Attorney’s Office slapped with an indictment involving multiple counts of extortion and illegal towing. (Representatives of the company, which pleaded no contest in October to the charges, did not respond to interview requests from the Weekly.)

 

Peggy Holter learned about Quick Lift the hard way when she returned to her car, which was parked in a mini-mall on Hillhurst Avenue, after a 10-minute coffee stop and found it up on a tow-truck hoist. The tow-truck driver told her it would cost her $120 to get the car down and pointed out a nearby ATM machine. “You’re stunned,” says Holter, a former producer of NBC’s Dateline news program, who was a plaintiff in the city attorney’s suit against Quick Lift. “You feel, Oh my god, these people have all that power over me. I had an ATM card, but this company preyed on a lot of poor and helpless people.”

“The basic problem is you have tow-truck companies patrolling parking lots,” says Gary Minzer, owner of Hollywood Tow Service, adding that operators are only supposed to arrive at the summons of a lot owner’s agent, who must then give written authorization for the tow. “This makes the [towing] company judge and jury on which cars to tow.”

Minzer believes that the managers of some fast-food places collude with bandit towing companies to have diners’ cars removed from lots while they are inside.

“You’ll find some of them calling tow-company services that are miles away, instead of us, who are right here.” The bandit companies, Minzer says, typically charge extra fees and avoid paper trails by accepting only cash. Minzer’s family has been in the towing business 45 years and, as an LAPD impound garage, Hollywood Tow does virtually all of its business with the city. Still, Minzer, who is the civilian co-chair of the Hollywood Community Police Advisory Board, gets the bad publicity generated by outlaw tow operators.

“The towing industry’s never had a great image,” he admits. “The bottom line is that people are having their cars held for ransom.”

CONGESTION, NOISE and tipsy club hoppers are problems that today pit the Chamber of Commerce against neighborhood councils, established and sedate businesses against loud, young ones.

Mott Smith, who runs Civic Enterprise Associates, a local urban-development group, is among a growing number of urbanists who believe a completely new parking paradigm is needed, one that would abandon long-standing requirements that businesses provide a minimum number of parking spaces for patrons. (Two parking slots are generally required for every 1,000 square feet of business property in a Community Redevelopment Agency zone such as Hollywood.)

“Otherwise,” he says, “the only people to benefit are big-box stores and fast-food stops — businesses that either have lots of land at their disposal or only need room for a counter and a few tables.”

This idea has found a laboratory in Pasadena, which revitalized its Old Town by, among other measures, persuading daytime parking garages to remain open late for nighttime restaurants and bars, and creating a universal valet service with which visitors can drop their cars off at one location and retrieve them from another. Jose Malagon, who chairs the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s parking committee, says the Community Redevelopment Agency is readying a parking study for Hollywood that will result in three city parking structures being built in the heart of its club district.

“Then again,” he adds, “you know how things work with the city.”

Malagon’s committee is in charge of the Holly Trolley, the ubiquitous minibus that looks like a cable car on tires. Launched this spring by the chamber and DOT to ease traffic congestion by providing visitors a cheap way to get from one nightspot to another, the $400,000 Trolley program has been shut down. It was often empty, even on Saturday nights — perhaps because people mistook it for the Starline tour bus it resembled, or possibly because riding in it was like sitting inside a giant bass speaker on which Star 97 continually blasted. (A spokesman for Garcetti’s office claims the trolley will run again sometime after Thanksgiving.)

With more than 3,800 planned residential units about to go up in central Hollywood, and with four major parking lots about to be taken away around Hollywood and Vine for commercial construction, gridlock is only going to get worse, and parking more expensive.

In late July, the Community Police Advisory Board that Gary Minzer co-chairs met Captain Clay Farrell, the LAPD’s new Hollywood Division commander. Farrell opened with an anecdote about how, before receiving news of his Hollywood assignment, he and another officer had been driving through Hollywood one Saturday night. His story’s punch line had been heard before by many in the room, but not as a joke.

 

“After being mired in traffic on Hollywood Boulevard at 1 a.m.,” Farrell said, “we swore never to come back.”

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