Just a few months after agreeing to spend $1.3 billion in sidewalk repairs to settle a lawsuit under the Americans With Disabilities Act, Los Angeles City Hall is facing new legal charges from pedestrian groups.
Don Ward and Angelenos for a Great Hyperion Bridge are suing to halt a redesign of the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge, saying the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not fully considering pedestrian and bike safety in its $50 million bridge seismic retrofit and renovation.
Architect Michael MacDonald points to the death of cyclist Jose Luna in a recent high-speed hit-and-run on North Figueroa Street. The street had been targeted for a “road diet” to add bike lanes and slow down cars until City Councilman Gil Cedillo put a halt to that to keep cars moving. On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported that pedestrians account for more than 35 percent of all L.A. road deaths.
“Citywide, there's this acknowledgment that we have unsafe streets, and there is a way to somewhat rectify it — but nobody's doing anything,” MacDonald says. “It's frustrating that you have this ability to reduce the number of injuries and deaths but you don't do it.”
City Hall's abandonment of bike lanes on North Figueroa encouraged Ward to take a different approach when campaigning for more bike and pedestrian space on Hyperion Bridge.
“For years, the bike lobby has been rowdy and uncoordinated,” Ward says. “We saw that people protesting with Fig4All hadn't succeeded by being antagonistic. So we engaged the city respectfully. We did everything they asked us to do — collected signatures, got neighborhood councils on board — and they ignored us.”
“We followed that process, and then it was disregarded,” says Matthew Mooney, a co-chairman of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council's transportation and public works committee.
The City Council in June quickly and unanimously approved a bridge redesign that prioritizes efficient car movement. Design plans for the iconic bridge have been mired in controversy ever since the city secured $50 million in federal funds for the retrofit.
“This is a multi-bridge complex, and the city should have done an Environmental Impact Report,” says Michelle Black of Chatten-Brown & Carstens, the law firm representing Ward and the coalition of bicycle and pedestrian activists.
Ward, the only named plaintiff and a well-known cycling organizer, said the group wants L.A. to “build the city's first livable connection to the L.A. River.” The coalition gathered 1,200 signatures in favor of adding protected bike lanes and two Americans With Disabilities Act–compliant sidewalks to the bridge.
“It's important to a large section of the community that that bridge be safe, walkable and convenient,” Ward says. “And we're following through. We're sticking to our guns.”
The group Vision Hyperion said it is seeking “a bridge that stands by the city's and state's commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that promotes walking, bicycling and other alternative transportation, and that provides infrastructure so that people regardless of their age or ability can feel safe using it.”
Long before this month's lawsuit, Ward and Mooney, along with Sergio Lambarri and six others, sat on a citizens advisory committee to consider redesigns that would provide safe spaces for bikes and people on foot. The citizen committee voted 6-to-3 in favor of protected bike lanes and spacious sidewalks.
But after that, a spokesperson for City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell publicly stated that City Hall was never seriously considering the advisory committee's work. O'Farrell did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Hyperion Bridge crosses the 5 freeway and L.A. River, connecting Echo Park and Silver Lake to Atwater Village and Glendale. But its two sidewalks cannot be safely accessed by foot. Pedestrian advocates have called for reducing its four traffic lanes to three in order to add protected bike lanes and safe sidewalks.
Instead, the redesign approved last month by the City Council keeps all four traffic lanes and eliminates the southern sidewalk in order to create enough space for an ADA-compliant sidewalk on the north side and designated bike lanes on both sides of the bridge.
Eric Bruins of the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition says the city has calculated that, under the City Council's design plan, there's likely to be one bike-versus-pedestrian conflict per day as cyclists choose to ride up on the sidewalk, because they won't feel safe in the bike lanes envisioned, and as pedestrians use the bike lane on the south side because the south sidewalk will have been removed.
Lambarri, who backs the City Council's design, says the purpose of the retrofit “is so that these historic structures can withstand a major seismic event; it's unfortunate that certain groups would feel the need to derail this badly needed retrofit. … We can either move forward now and stabilize this historic bridge with a modern configuration, or we can wait for the next earthquake to strike and allow it to fail.”
Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, says lawmakers have to choose their battles when it comes to infrastructure. “The vast majority of Los Angeles isn't walkable and never will be,” Guerra says, citing monetary constraints.
But in this case, it wasn't about a lack of money.
The city's Bureau of Engineering officials told the Board of Public Works and City Council members that L.A. could lose $50 million in federal funds in 2017 if the four-lane, car-centric plan wasn't approved by the City Council by June 30.
But L.A. Weekly reported in mid-June that, in fact, only about $600,000 in funds would be lost on June 30. Not $50 million.
Moreover, community members questioned the Bureau of Engineering's traffic studies — which look at the way pedestrians, cyclists and motorists use the bridge — saying these numbers shifted when presented to the citizens advisory committee versus the Board of Public Works.
Ward says the Bureau of Engineering was “being disingenuous about the funding deadline and traffic counts. We're bringing this lawsuit to call that to attention.” A BOE representative declined to comment on the lawsuit.
“It's a city where people complain that there's minimal civic engagement,” says Keith Pluymers, a Los Feliz resident and advocate for the pedestrian-friendly plan. “But when people attempt to do so … and have some hastily cooked-up numbers thrown back in our face, it's dismissive.”
Black, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the Environmental Impact Report the lawsuit seeks would consider not just pedestrian and bicyclist safety but also traffic flow and preservation of historic resources such as the belvederes — scenic outlooks — built along both sides of the bridge.
“Why would we restore the historic belvederes and then not let pedestrians experience them on the south side?” asks Deborah Murphy of Los Angeles Walks. A key force in the debate, Los Angeles Walks wants city officials to take more seriously the physical safety of those on foot — as well as access for the disabled.
The city could face a new ADA lawsuit if the City Council's vision goes forward. Under that plan, disabled people will be forced to travel 1,550 feet out of their way to get the same access as able-bodied people, and that's noncompliant, MacDonald says. “It's frustrating that it takes a lawsuit to get the city to comply with ADA law,” he says
Sean Meredith, a Los Feliz resident who has been running the social media arm of the bridge effort, adds, “I think the city was not ready for this fight, but it's great that they know that they can't phone it in.”