WITH L.A.’S NIGHT SKIES socked in by smog and light pollution, generations of stargazers have counted on the Griffith Observatory to view the full glory of the heavens — if only as points of light projected inside a dome.
Now, though, even those ersatz celestial bodies are proving difficult to enjoy, what with the hassles and costs of the crowd-control plan put into effect last fall when the observatory opened after a pricey, nearly five-year makeover. The scheme bans cars from the planetarium grounds and requires guests to park miles away and be bused in — at a cost of $8 a head for adults — or hike in, up a punishing grade.
Michael Tiberi, 48, a laser engineer who has been visiting the observatory much of his life, is one of many frustrated patrons who find that the once-easy trip is now a logistical nightmare.
“I just wondered, ‘Why did I have to go through all this?’?” Tiberi says after taking his wife and two friends from Ireland to the observatory in late August. His problems began when he tried to follow a confusing computer-printed map that came with the required observatory reservations, made online. Driving in from the Valley, he overshot the required visitor pickup spot — a shuttle stop at the L.A. Zoo — by several freeway exits, backtracked, waited for the shuttle, and, as the bus lumbered uphill for 20 minutes, ogled at all the free parking spots along the way.
Tiberi had to swallow the fact that the observatory — long one of L.A.’s best free attractions — cost his small group $32 for the bus alone. “If you’re used to the access you had for your entire life as an Angeleno,” Tiberi says, “that has changed, without a doubt.”
Tiberi’s experience was, admittedly, fairly mild. He visited on a day when Los Feliz Boulevard, the route the bus takes, wasn’t bumper to bumper. NASA can shoot a man into orbit faster than the shuttles often make the five-mile climb to the planetarium entrance. The once-familiar 10-minute drive in a car now can take more than 40 minutes via shuttle, acknowledges Jon Kirk Mukri, general manager for the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks.
Travel time from a second shuttle stop — in the heart of Hollywood’s dramatically worsening, development-driven congestion at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue — had begun taking as long as an hour for a six-mile trip. “I’ll be honest with you .?.?. it can get dicey,” Mukri says. “Gridlocked.”
The hare-brained transit scheme has made all the City Hall rhetoric about a bigger, better observatory sound like so much pie-in-the-cosmos mumbo jumbo. For people who had relied on the friendly, free, old observatory — especially lower-income families who can’t afford to splurge on Disneyland — the planetarium is still essentially closed. You can take the Metro Rail from Hollywood to far-off Long Beach for a fraction of the $4 the city charges children and seniors to hop the observatory bus.
Now, Hollywood’s gridlock has prompted the city to quietly abandon the Hollywood-and-Highland shuttle to the observatory. Dr. Ed Krupp, longtime director of the observatory, says the shuttles became entangled with Hollywood’s “many, many tour buses going through that area .?.?. you’ve got a shuttle bus trying to get people up [to the observatory] as soon as it can .?.?. it begins to reach a point of diminishing return. The complications just accumulated.”
THAT’S NOT HOW THINGS were supposed to be. The observatory, an L.A. icon, was bequeathed to the city in 1935 by Colonel Griffith J. Griffith with the explicit stipulation that it remain free of charge to the public.
Last November, when the observatory reopened after a $93 million renovation paid for largely with public bonds, along with some grants and private fund-raising, city officials adhered to the letter of the law — no door charge. But they took a buggy whip to the spirit of Griffith’s intentions, adopting shuttle fees that make it extremely difficult to visit the observatory without shelling out a wad of cash.
The official Web site, www.griffithobservatory.org, makes things worse with its disingenuous insistence that “Griffith Observatory continues to be free.”
Insiders say the shuttle system is no longer needed for its purported purpose — crowd control — and will be dropped, letting Angelenos once again drive up to hang out at the observatory. It’s “all going to change,” promises Mukri, who says the contracts for shuttle service last only one year. That means the Department of Recreation and Parks and Los Angeles City Council soon must re-evaluate the troubled setup. But for now, not even taxis are allowed to ferry visitors 1,000 feet above Hollywood to drop them off.
Meanwhile, embarrassing stories of user unfriendliness continue to pile up. Linda Immediato (the L.A. Weekly’s lifestyle editor) visited the planetarium about a month ago with her uncle and two young cousins. They took two cars and hiked up to the planetarium from a city parking lot near the Greek Theatre at the south end of Griffith Park.
The 20- or 30-minute walk was fine, Immediato says. They stayed past sundown, observed Venus from a telescope on the observatory lawn, and left. “It was really dark and there was no moon,” she says. Tired and fearful of mountain lions — warning signs were posted along the road — they tried to hop a shuttle bus heading down at the same time. “We were told very curtly by this woman with a clipboard that we needed to book our tickets in advance,” Immediato says. “We asked if there was any way to purchase a ticket to get down .?.?. and she said there was absolutely no way we were getting on the bus. She seemed angry we hadn’t purchased tickets, so we were being punished.”
Trekking down in the dark, they got another jolt when they reached their cars — $45 tickets on their windshields, for parking past sunset. And it got worse: The lot was gated shut and padlocked, stranding their cars. The infuriated Immediato moved trash cans and drove off-road, between trees and other obstacles, to free her car. Her uncle ended up scraping his car on a fire hydrant.
“The observatory’s big telescope is open until 10 p.m.,” she says, “so I assumed I would be able to stay and appreciate all the observatory had to offer. I was really pissed off.”
Some people have bought shuttle tickets, joined weekend crowds numbering 5,000 to 6,000, and been shut out trying to get into the featured attraction — the planetarium show in a theater that holds about 400. Those tickets, $7 for adults, are sold only at the door, no reservations allowed.
One afternoon last week, a typical scene unfolded: Several visitors showed up at the L.A. Zoo shuttle stop after trying to drive to the observatory, only to be turned away. One was Hector Martinez, 20, of Mission Hills, accompanied by his friend Janet Vega. “Let me tell you, it sucks,” Martinez said, preparing to fork over $16 for the bus. “With gas prices this high, and tickets this high, it may be the last time I come.”
Nearby, a sign said, “GRIFFITH PARK SHUTTLE, Next Bus Departs at: ______.” Blank. The uncertainty sent people scurrying 150 yards to the ticket counter in 90-degree heat, lest they have to wait for another bus.
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Disabled school teacher Sharon Smith hobbled toward the shuttle on a cane. “I feel it’s elitist,” she said of the restricted access to Griffith Observatory. “A lot of people can’t afford $8 to go five miles.”
She remembers driving to the planetarium with her ex-husband, a prominent artist. The mixed, kick-back crowds relaxing in the parking lot and on the lawns and broad stairways were part of a uniquely L.A. scene: street vendors, people buying snow cones, car clubs with their old Chevys. Now, Wolfgang Puck provides the eats. “The ambiance is gone,” Smith says.
A short time later, seven young friends drove up, part of a missionary group called Hope for Homeless Youth. They had been rebuffed by roadway guards and now got the bad news that the shuttle would cost the bunch of them $56. “Are you serious?” one said. “That’s crazy,” another moaned.
They voted unanimously for Plan B: “We’ll probably just go somewhere else,” said 21-year-old Crystal Hernandez. “We’ll just have to admire it from afar.” She had never been to the observatory. She laughed, but a moment later she and her friends trudged solemnly across the scorching zoo parking lot asphalt to the car.