This week, Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell unveiled plans for a new bicycle-pedestrian span connecting Atwater Village to a popular public path along the opposite bank of the Los Angeles River, just south of historic Glendale-Hyperion Bridge. Tension was palpable as 50 people unexpectedly materialized at Red Car River Park for what normally would have been a barely attended press affair with officials touting their pedestrian-bicycle span idea.
The extra guests were there to discuss a bigger issue: the 1927 bridge, a major artery crossing over the river and the 5 Freeway and linking Glendale/Atwater Village to L.A.'s fashionable enclaves of Los Feliz, Echo Park and Silver Lake.
One of those 50 people, Matthew Mooney, transportation chairman of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, called the proposed pedestrian span "a red herring" put forth by city officials to distract residents from bigger questions about the future uses of widely loved, heavily used Glendale-Hyperion Bridge.
Glendale-Hyperion Bridge has been mired in controversy since the city announced plans for an extensive bridge retrofit a few years ago.
Pockets of debate quickly erupted at Tuesday's press event over what will become of the elegant old structure, so iconic that Disney's California Adventure copied it in 2012 in a re-creation of old Los Angeles at the Anaheim theme park. The bottom line is that there simply isn’t enough width on the bridge to fully accommodate every use people support.
Several mothers attended and seemed desperate to be heard — they want their children to be able to walk safely across the bridge. So they support a retrofitting plan that would remove one car lane to make room for bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides of the bridge, an option backed by many bicyclists and pedestrian advocates (see illustration above). Others, led by neighborhood groups on the Atwater Village side of the river, want to keep the bridge's four car lanes and eliminate a sidewalk on one side of the bridge to allow for bicycles.
Documents filed by the Department of Public Works show that its staff plans to recommend the latter, car-oriented plan, known as Option 1, at a public hearing set for Friday morning before the political appointees on the city's Board of Public Works, who will in turn recommend an option to the City Council.
On Tuesday, O'Farrell pledged to fight for protected bike lanes on the bridge. Pedestrian and bicycling advocates weren't satisfied.
Bicyclist Don Ward, a vocal advocate for the bicycling- and pedestrian-friendly remake of Glendale-Hyperion Bridge, says that O'Farrell "deserves to be cheered” for embracing a proposed bike-pedestrian span near the bridge. But Ward called that proposal “an attraction that we don’t have a convenient way to get to by bikes and walking.”
Keith Pluymers of Los Feliz, who commutes to Pasadena by bicycle and Metro, stood on the river's concrete embankment and pointed to where the new pedestrian bridge would be installed over the old Red Car concrete piers that once held up a line of the city's famed early Red Car transit system.
The Glendale-Hyperion Bridge complex crosses over the 5 Freeway into Los Feliz and the other communities, a region some have dubbed the Tri-Hipster Area. By contrast, the pedestrian span would be purely recreational, ending at a public path along the river. It would not connect the communities on either side of the freeway. “It’s an issue of recreation versus transportation,” Pluymers says.
Andrea Denike, who lives in Echo Park and organizes monthly rides with her group Bodacious Bike Babes, had another view. She called the pedestrian-span idea “a separate piece of amazingness. ... For so many years, the river disconnected communities, and now it is connecting communities."
It's interesting that, in Los Angeles, a couple of side-by-side bridges meant to connect people are cause for division. Metro is expanding its transit network, the L.A. River is being revitalized and CicLAvia is taking over the city streets three times a year. Mayor Eric Garcetti and city officials are sending a distinct message that transit in L.A. is undergoing a sea change. But that change includes growing pains, and the battle over Glendale-Hyperion Bridge is one of them.
One side says it's an issue of traffic flow and expediency. Another says it’s an issue of safety and equal access for those not in cars. There's still a long road ahead when it comes to drivers, cyclists and walkers peacefully sharing the streets of Los Angeles.
Nan Healy, 65, who walks a lot and attended the pedestrian-bridge plan unveiling on Tuesday, says, “I think the age of the car has peaked. We need to return L.A. to its neighborhoods.”
Recently, city officials abruptly announced the Board of Public Works hearing coming up on Friday to choose a plan for the historic bridge. But the conversation has been unfolding via bureaucratic channels and public forums for nearly two years.
The competing plans are complex, with three options on the table, numbered 1 through 3 — not to mention Option 1A.
The dispute dates to 2013, when Caltrans and the L.A. Bureau of Engineering announced a $50 million federally funded project to seismically retrofit and modernize the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge complex.
But an Environmental Impact Report revealed that the redesign would not include bike lanes, even though the 2010 Los Angeles Bike Plan designates that bike lanes be added to the bridge.
Outrage rippled through the bicyclist community. At the request of O’Farrell, the Bureau of Engineering convened a Community Advisory Committee to weigh several potential plans. The advisory committee, on which Ward and Mooney sit, wants Option 3 — eliminate one lane of Atwater-bound car traffic to make room for sidewalks and bike lanes on each side of the bridge.
Option 3 also is backed by the Los Feliz and Silver Lake Neighborhood Councils, Los Angeles Walks, L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, Friends of the L.A. River and dozens of other community groups and businesses.
But the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council, Friends of Atwater Village and the Atwater Chamber of Commerce are pushing for Option 1.
Option 1 would preserve the four lanes of traffic and two bike lanes, but in doing so would eliminate one of the bridge's two sidewalks.
Outgoing City Councilman Tom LaBonge also opposes Option 3. Meanwhile, the city's transportation department, LADOT, has proposed "Option 1A."
Option 1A would preserve the four lanes for cars, while bicyclists and pedestrians would share a lane on each side of the bridge. The Community Advisory Committee voted 6-3 against that plan.
Ward says pedestrians and cyclists favor Option 3 because, with only one sidewalk proposed in Option 1, pedestrians would have to walk one-half mile out of their way to cross to the other side of Glendale Boulevard, and they may instead decide to walk in the bike lane on the south side of the bridge, endangering both cyclists and pedestrians. Shared pedestrian-bike lanes, Option 1A, presents the same problem.
Mooney says the bridge is used by students, low-income residents and the disabled to get between Los Feliz and Atwater Village. But city officials, he says, “took out a sidewalk to make room for bike lanes, instead of taking out a car lane. … This is a divide-and-conquer move. The city is pitting low-income minority students and the disabled [who use the sidewalks] against cyclists. This is reprehensible and shameful.”
But on the hazy morning of the pedestrian bridge unveiling, walkers and bikers were an allied front, making up the majority of the surprise crowd. Deborah Murphy, executive director of Los Angeles Walks, one of the most active groups on the issue, came armed with extensive background information explaining why Option 3 was best for all. Advocates including Los Feliz resident Andy Lenigan argued that removing one car lane will reduce driving speeds without lessening the vehicle capacity of the bridge.
T.J. Flexer, who owns Orange 20 Bikes, a shop in East Hollywood, and has been biking in L.A. for 14 years, says the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge is one of the only places where he rides on the sidewalk — for safety reasons. “Going up that hill, I take the sidewalk because of the curve at the apex of the hill. Cars drift too much,” says Flexer, who backs Option 3.
Andy Miyares, 15, a sophomore at Marshall High School on the border of Silver Lake and Los Feliz, used to bike to school over the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge, but now takes Fletcher Drive and Rowena Avenue.
“There are a bunch of blind turns and traffic was way too fast. I got sketched out,” Miyares says. “There is a consistent problem with cyclists coming up the sidewalk because they don’t feel safe in traffic,” he says, adding that many of his classmates in Atwater Village use the bridge to walk to school.
But Sergio Lambarri of the Atwater Village Chamber of Commerce and Atwater Neighborhood Council insists that Option 1 — four car lanes, two bike lanes and one sidewalk — is the only way to go.
“Yes, we need bike lanes,” Lambarri says, “but to install bike lanes, something has to give. The business community is not supportive of [car] lane reduction.”
In response to Lambarri, bicyclist Ward pulled out a six-inch stack of petitions signed by community members and business owners in favor of Option 3.
Lambarri demanded he not be interrupted as tensions rose among the group of neighbors. He cited access for emergency vehicles and timely construction of an earthquake-safe bridge as primary concerns. “This is moving too slowly,” Lambarri says.
Eli Kaufman of the L.A. River Revitalization Corporation agrees. “We are in support of Option 3, but we need to move forward so we don’t lose this opportunity. Any option is better than no option.”
Denike, of the Bodacious Bike Babes, also is focusing on the progress made since the original proposal, which had failed to include bike lanes. “I see a plan that went from crash barriers to a compromise plan with two protected bike lanes and a sidewalk,” she says.
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Patrick Cleary, who lives in south Atwater Village, pushed his son in a stroller to the pedestrian-span press conference.
Like Mooney, Cleary believes that class is at the core of the bridge controversy. He says rebuilding Glendale-Hyperion Bridge with a single sidewalk, on the north side of the structure, provides good access to north Atwater Village — which happens to be a higher-income area than south Atwater.
While it may be a class issue for some, it's an ideological issue for others — and ideology doesn't always align with class.
Many present at the press conference were young white men, including one who rides across the bridge with his golf clubs tucked into his pannier. Whether it's hipsters on bikes versus business owners in cars, or the wealthy versus the working-class, one thing is evident. As Cleary says, this bridge plan is “dividing the community.”