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The Priciest Corner in L.A.

IT’S 1:30 P.M. ON FRIDAY and a blue-gray 2007 750Li BMW tooling along Clinton Street in the Hollywood flatlands pulls up to the southwest corner of Clinton and La Brea Avenue. Suddenly, three children from the nearby Bais Yaakov school begin frantically knocking on the Beemer’s passenger window — startling the driver as other children, aided by a crossing guard, walk in front of his car and cross La Brea.

Kids or no kids, two cars waiting behind the BMW begin honking at the luxury car to get going. With the crosswalk now free of kids, the hassled driver turns right onto La Brea.

He’ll pay for it — $159, in fact.

About 80 yards ahead of him on La Brea, an LAPD officer steps into the slow lane and gives the approaching BMW the “Stop! In the name of the law!” gesture. The officer, Regina Smith, informs the driver that he has just made an illegal right turn and will be ticketed. He’s clearly fuming.

It is illegal to turn right — even on a green light — from eastbound Clinton to southbound La Brea from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. The city has posted two “no right turn” signs warning drivers on Clinton not to turn right onto La Brea, at all, during those hours.

But this is Los Angeles, a town in which right turns on the green have been perfectly legal at almost every intersection for decades, and where the phrase “free red light” implies that even red lights can be ignored during a right turn — and an uplifting sense of freedom had in the bargain. Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall harrumphs of L.A., “I don’t want to live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.”

In fact, the only things that impede the right-turn driver in Los Angeles are those annoying pedestrians stepping in front of the car. Can’t they walk faster? Maybe jog? Just hurry up and get out of the way.

Now comes Los Angeles City Hall’s attempt to mediate between the increasing crush of drivers trying to turn right — in this case in overbuilt Hollywood — and the increasing numbers of new residents trying to cross in front of those cars.

Every month it seems traffic gets worse. Hollywood faces much worse traffic from exploding development, including a W Hotel on Vine Street, an 11-story residential tower built atop a Whole Foods on Vine, a 270-unit complex across from perpetually jammed Hollywood & Highland, and a dual-tower condo project known as McCadden Place, among others.

While Pasadena and Beverly Hills in dense pedestrian areas use the popular “all walk” — in which all cars halt while people amble across the intersection in all directions — the geniuses who run L.A. are trying something few motorists can fathom: the right-turn rush-hour ban during green lights. According to John Fisher, of the city’s transportation department, such bans are still rare in Los Angeles. “I would say there are maybe a handful, and by handful I mean maybe two dozen, signs like that in the city,” he says. “But most of them are in residential areas to prevent drivers from driving through neighborhoods. This is a very unique corner.”On Clinton at La Brea, either drivers don’t pay attention, or they think it’s only applicable on red lights (a right-turn ban on green being unimaginable) or they simply choose to ignore the signs.

That’s a $159 mistake. And it’s so far outside standard operating procedure that one well-known Hollywood-area activist, former mayoral candidate Larry Green, has been seen near Bais Yaakov school warning motorists not to turn. “This is a complaint location,” says Officer Smith of West Traffic Division’s Community Traffic Services Unit. “Maybe the [Bais Yaakov] teachers complained, or the parents of the students. We have more than 40 ‘complaint locations’ in Hollywood Division alone. This is one of the worst.”

A MINUTE AFTER the BMW driver is informed of his mistake, the three window-pounding students come strolling by and explain that they were trying to warn the driver not to turn.

“We told him not to make that right turn, and we pointed to the sign,” says Joseph Ary, 8, a third-grader. “Too bad for him he didn’t listen to us.”

The driver, Harry Haralambus, says that with the kids banging on his window and the cars honking behind him, it was too confusing. But his main complaint is where the police car was parked.

“They were lying in wait,” says Haralambus, using a term associated with homicide, and eager to vent. “My biggest objection is that they are not concerned about the students’ safety. Their only concern is writing tickets. It’s not about safety, it’s about increased revenues. If they were really concerned about the children they would have parked right there on Clinton.”

Police say Clinton Street is too narrow to park a patrol car on — which might prevent the illegal turns — without totally disrupting traffic. So instead they park down on La Brea near the Hancock Park Senior Assisted Living building. For some residents of the center, it’s their entertainment for the day — watching drivers get stopped, told to park and be ticketed.

“I come out a few times a week and watch the action,” says Elton Seller as he sits in a wheelchair in a prime spot on the sidewalk.

For one hour, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., Smith and her partner Tom Gracey almost constantly write tickets for right turns. They are so busy that many motorists get away with the right turn because either the officers are preoccupied writing tickets or they don’t want too many cars pulled over at one time for fear of causing a hazardous driving situation on La Brea.

In one instance, a large truck makes the turn and rumbles down La Brea, but the police officers decide not to risk standing in front of it with only their hands to stop it. Sometimes there are as many as four West Traffic Division motorcycle cops waiting for the oblivious right turners.

“It’s like if you have an area with a lot of burglaries, you send more officers there,” says Sergeant Christopher Kunz of West Traffic Division.

Other than the pissed-off BMW driver, most people are quite cordial toward the police officers, especially with Officer Smith, who flashes a warm smile as she hands out the huge fines.

One driver is perplexed when he is ordered to pull over. He wonders what he did to deserve the order to stop and park.

“I thought I had done something really wrong,” says Manuel Gonzalez, who has three passengers in his car. “But for a right-hand turn? I never got a ticket for making a right-hand turn. This is bullshit.”

Others readily admit they are wrong.

“I saw the sign, and it’s the law, and I’m a teacher and should know better, but I was late for an appointment,” says Jack Cloy, who would now be even later for his appointment.

Police deny they are lying in wait.

“It’s just people with bad habits,” insists Kunz. “If everybody followed the rules, there would be no tickets. We are not out to get anyone. We don’t get paid more if we write a lot of tickets. But, maybe if 300 or 400 people get a ticket here, they’ll get the message and take another street.”

It might take a whole lot more to get a message across. Last year citywide, police issued 502,374 traffic violations. Even if the tickets averaged only $50, that’s more than $25 million for the government. West Bureau alone, which covers Hollywood, issued 145,872 tickets in 2006.

Officers from West Bureau Division write between 6,000 and 10,000 tickets a month, according to Kunz. They do not break it down by corner, so there’s no way of knowing how pricey Clinton and La Brea has become for motorists, but it’s got to be bringing in a lot of cash, based on the hour I spent there.

Toward the end of Smith and Gracey’s one-hour tour of duty, a woman in a purple Nissan is pulled over. Smith talks to her, then retreats to the sidewalk, presumably to write the ticket. I knock on the woman’s passenger window; she rolls it down and informs me that “actually, they let me slide this one time.”

I ask the officer why she gave the lady a break.

“Actually, I ran out of tickets,” Smith says with a smile.