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Judge to Hit-and-Run Perpetrator: Don’t Do it Again or it Will Be Considered Murder

Carmen Tellez, mother of hit-and-run victim, speaks to local news outlets following the sentencing hearing for Wendy Villegas. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Carmen Tellez, mother of hit-and-run victim Andy Garcia, tells local news outlets she is disappointed with the outcome of the sentencing hearing for Wendy Villegas. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“If you drink and drive and kill someone again, [this time] it will carry a charge of murder with a minimum sentence of 15 years,” the judge told 21-year-old Wendy Villegas at her sentencing hearing. “Do you understand?”*

Her words had been meant to admonish Villegas — to convey the idea that slamming into a group of cyclists, killing Luis “Andy” Garcia and leaving Mario Lopez and Ulises Melgar for dead, was a very serious offense.

Unfortunately, the judge’s warning that the book would be thrown at her next time only served to underscore the fact that our laws do not yet take drunk driving or hit-and-runs seriously enough.

Fire a gun into a crowd and injure four people at a party at USC, and you’ll get forty years to life.** Get behind the wheel, and you apparently have to kill a second time before the death you cause is legally classifiable as a homicide.

From where I and 40 other members of Garcia’s family and friends sat, staring at the back of Villegas’ head, it was hard to tell if the judge’s words — or anything else, for that matter — made an impression on her.

She never met anyone’s gaze as she walked in and out of the sentencing hearing, never turned to look at anyone as she sat facing the judge, never appeared to show any emotion, and never uttered a word, other than to answer the judge’s direct yes-or-no questions.

It drove Garcia’s friends and family crazy. Read more…

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Local Climate Doesn’t Exert Much Influence on Biking and Walking

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There is no link between colder temperatures and levels of walking and biking to work. Click to enlarge. All graphics: Alliance for Biking and Walking

Which state has the highest share of people who walk to work? It’s not temperate California.

Actually, Alaska, the coldest state in the U.S., has the highest rate of active commuting. About 8 percent of workers there commute by foot and another 1 percent by bike.

That illustrates something that researchers have noticed for a long time — climate isn’t a strong indicator of where people walk and bike a lot, or where they do not.

In its big biannual benchmarking report, the Alliance for Biking and Walking cross-referenced climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with walk and bike commutes rates in U.S. cities. They found only a “weak relationship” between climate and active commuting.

The top chart shows major American cities on a spectrum from the most cold-weather days to the fewest. Note that biking and walking rates are scattered all over the place, even as the cities grow colder from left to right.

When you look at cities that have lots of hot days, though, a relationship does appear. As this chart shows, some of the cities with the lowest bike and walk commuting rates also have some of the hottest days — Forth Worth, Jacksonville, Las Vegas.

Read more…

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Students Re-Envision Their Neighborhood Through Interactive Workshop

Roosevelt students looking for building materials Photo by James Rojas

Roosevelt students looking for building materials. Photo by James Rojas

“Mister, who’s coming to class today?” asked a curious student from Gene Dean’s 9th grade English class at Roosevelt High School.

As the rest of the class began to take their seats, they took notice of the two tables filled with a random assortment of trinkets and knick-knacks, prompting another student to ask, “Are those toys for kids?”

Enter urban planner James Rojas, who excitedly engaged the students by asking them if they knew what an urban planner did.

Although the answers might have fallen into the category of “kids say the darndest things,” the laughs broke up the awkwardness and allowed Rojas to introduce his interactive “Place It!” workshop. Three of Dean’s 9th grade English classes participated last Monday, a change from the normal routine of reading and essays that students clearly didn’t mind one bit.

Rojas describes his approach to workshops as one that offers “an opportunity for individuals to think critically about spatial organization and urban space and how it affects their everyday lives. The workshops are a means by which participants can imagine how their cities and neighborhoods could be organized differently.”

Urban planner James Rojas leads students through his PLACE IT! workshop Photo by Erick Huerta

Urban planner James Rojas leads students through his PLACE IT! workshop. Photo by Erick Huerta

Having participated in several of Rojas’ workshops before, I knew that while his methodology and execution are consistent, no two workshops are ever the same, and therein lies the beauty of the approach.

The workshops started simply enough, with Dean asking his students to write about a favorite childhood memory in their journals. Rojas followed up by having the kids build small-scale models of their memory, using materials found on the tables.

While some of the kids bemoaned that they didn’t have a favorite memory or that they couldn’t remember anything, none seemed to have any problem scrambling toward the tables to rummage around for items to build with.

From happier memories of going to Disneyland, weddings, and holiday celebrations to more somber ones of family separation and painful accidents, students neither held back nor limited themselves. Read more…

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CicLAvia Highlights Need for Better Bike Infrastructure for Cycling to Grow as a Transportation Option

Rides at CicLAvia along Wilshire Blvd. (from last year. I took zero pictures this year). Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Riders at CicLAvia (2013) along Wilshire Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“Stay to the right!” rang out over the megaphone from a passing police car. “That means you, young lady!”

As CicLAvia came to a close and streets were being re-opened to cars, well-meaning police officers did their best to warn folks on bikes that their two-wheeled utopia was subsisting on borrowed time.

And, while I was flattered that they thought I was young, I was rather flummoxed at the notion that they would have directed me to move from an empty eastbound lane of Wilshire to the right side of the dozen or so cars queuing up to turn right onto Hoover.

Who told them it was a good idea to run cyclists in front of cars turning right? I wondered.

This moment — the instant that the streets re-open to motorized traffic — is both the most informative part of CicLAvia and the most depressing.

It’s informative in that you immediately get a sense of how well-equipped your average person is to navigate traffic on a bike and your average police officer to help them do so. And, it’s depressing because the answer to both of those questions is “not very.”

At Hoover, the officers’ admonitions directing bikes heading east along Wilshire to stay to the far right were entirely counterproductive (and dangerous). Those that took those directions as gospel headed straight for the gutter, hugging the curb as closely as possible. But, because there was no room to ride in the car-occupied lane, many soon moved up onto the narrow sidewalk, where they had to walk their bikes.

All those now-pedestrians crossed through the intersection on foot, creating a tremendous bottleneck along Wilshire. Meanwhile, police continued to direct people to ride to the right of the growing line of cars waiting to turn right, despite the fact that the eastbound lanes remained almost entirely car-free.

Along other sections of Wilshire that had been re-opened to cars, some people chose to ride on the sidewalks, wanting no part of car traffic. Others continued to brave it out in the gutters, slowly battling and weaving their way up hills, sometimes completely oblivious to — or utterly panicked by — the line of cars forming behind them. Still others, apparently lost in the bike-fest bubble, merrily blew through red lights with their children in tow.

This is madness, I thought.

Not necessarily because all these inexperienced people were out on the streets — although that can be problematic, too — but because they were there and they were not protected by better infrastructure.

Earlier in the day, I had been talking with cycling advocate friends about the next steps forward from CicLAvia. Read more…

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How Long Will Detroit Residents Have to Wait for More Effective Transit?

Protesters attended the last Detroit RTA meeting, where the board decided to put off seeking additional funding for transit until 2016. Photo: We Are Mode Shift

Protesters attended the last Detroit RTA meeting, where the board decided to put off seeking additional funding for transit until 2016. Photo: We Are Mode Shift

In no major city in the country are transit riders suffering like they are in Detroit. Motor City residents who rely on transit are losing jobs to buses that never show, or waits that last for hours.

There was hopeful news late in 2012, when, under pressure from the Federal Transit Administration, local and state leaders came together to form the area’s first regional transit agency. The system was to replace the fractured city and suburban bus systems, bringing a more coordinated, efficient era of transit service to Detroit.

A little over a year later, David Sands at We Are Mode Shift reports that many transit riders in the region are losing patience with the new RTA:

A palpable feeling of frustration has been hanging over southeast Michigan’s Regional Transit Authority in recent weeks, something clearly on display at the RTA’s board meeting in Detroit late last month.

Transit advocates expecting the postponement of a planned ballot funding measure held a “We Can’t Wait” march from the Rosa Parks Transit Center to the board’s meeting place at 1001 Woodward to encourage board members to take immediate action to improve transit in the region.

During a lengthy public comment session, some stakeholders also expressed dismay over a recommendation by the RTA’s Executive and Policy Committee to push back by two years the ballot campaign that many had hoped would take place this November. Others voiced concern about a lack of visible progress by the regional transit authority as it approaches the end of its first year.

Read more…

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Plea Deal for Drunk Driver that Killed Andy Garcia Does Little to Ease Pain of Victims, Friends, and Families

Ulises Melgar and Mario Lopez (both hit by Wendy Villegas last Sept.) and friend Andrew Gomez in downtown L.A.  Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Ulises Melgar and Mario Lopez (both hit by drunk driver Wendy Villegas last Sept.) and friend Andrew Gomez in Downtown L.A. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Even the judge looked confused when the plea deal offered to Wendy Villegas was read out in court, says a somber Mario Lopez.

Villegas could have been sentenced to up to 15 years for having come tearing up the bridge on Cesar Chavez drunk last September 14th, slamming into Luis “Andy” Garcia and dragging his bike under her car, launching both Lopez and Ulises Melgar into the air, and fleeing the scene.

Instead, she was offered a deal of 3 years and 8 months — a sentence that fit within the window of what she might have gotten just for driving drunk and leaving the scene of a crash. And, because she is young and has a clean record, she will likely only serve a portion of that time.

The deal makes it painfully clear to her victims and their friends and families that she will not be asked to atone for the human cost of the havoc she wreaked that September night. And, they are not happy about it.

“How did it end up wrapping up so fast like that?” asks Melgar.

It’s a good question.

The damage had been severe. Garcia died on the scene, while both Melgar and Lopez had ended up in the hospital. The compression fracture Lopez sustained in his lower back forced him to move back home with his parents and lose three months of work.

And, there was no shortage of evidence linking her to the crime, including a witness — “my personal hero,” as Lopez calls him — who saw what happened and followed Villegas as she weaved her way home that night. Because he had been able to get her license number, the police were to verify that she had been driving drunk when they booked her — still intoxicated — at 7:15 the next morning.

Yet, the young men were not consulted about the plea offer. Nor were Garcia’s parents. The only chance any of them had to participate in the legal process was to read out statements about how Villegas’ actions had affected their lives when she finally entered a “no contest” plea last month.

“It just infuriates me sometimes,” says Lopez, shaking his head over how effectively they’d been shut out of an opportunity to seek justice. “I’d be semi, semi-happy if she did 3 years and 8 months. But she’s not [going to].”

We are sitting in a largely empty IHOP in Downtown L.A. so, as Lopez put it, we could have “something sweet as we discuss[ed] something not so sweet.”

But the smiley-faced pancakes Lopez ordered do little to make the conversation easier as we turn to what life has been like for them since that night.

The first days had been hard, they agree.

They couldn’t accept what had happened, despite having seen it unfold in front of their eyes. Read more…

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Make a Little Noise, Get a Little Bus Stop Love: Random Thoughts on Mobility

A teen walks along Western Ave. toward the Bronco Motel with a john. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

A teen walks along Western Ave. toward the Bronco Motel with a john. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Oh, honey, no… I thought as I watched the obviously strung-out woman yank up her miniskirt and gesture insistently that passersby partake of her unkempt lady offerings.

It is not unusual to see ladies (and girls, unfortunately) of the evening working the streets on weekend mornings along S. Figueroa. It is also not unusual for them to be in questionable states of un/dress. But this level of desperation was a little out of the ordinary.

Ever the nerd, I wondered where curbing prostitution fit into the currently-open-for-public-review Mobility Element and Plan for a Healthy L.A.

Odd as that may sound, those two things were the reason I was out biking up and down South L.A.’s streets that morning. I had to be at a grand re-opening of a now-much-healthier convenience store on S. Vermont (story later this week) and decided a refresher tour of some of South L.A.’s main streets would help me put those plans into context.

As I’ve written many times before (basically, anything listed here), a neighborhood’s context is often more of a deterrent to mobility and health than whether or not the street has a bike lane. Not that infrastructure isn’t important — it absolutely is. But, if you see semi-naked ladies strolling up and down next to your school, rec center, grocery store, or home, all the bike lanes in the world won’t make you feel comfortable letting your kids — especially girls –  near those streets.

And, if they’re seated at the bus stops with their pimps, as several were this past Saturday, you may not feel comfortable letting your child take transit. While the ladies themselves can be quite friendly, their pimps can be volatile and the johns quite reckless. One nearly ran me over as he backed up at full speed without warning to get to a girl he had passed moments before.

All that said, things have apparently gotten better of late, according to one neighbor.

“It used to be like a drive-through here,” he said of the otherwise quiet stretch of 92nd St. in front of his home, where girls used to gather to avoid being seen getting into cars.

Some beautification efforts at the corner and a watchful neighbor who called the police any time he saw girls on the street, coupled with more regular patrols and the efforts of a nearby hall to ensure its parties weeded out the prostitutes that tried to mix in with the crowds has helped to limit unsavory activity in the area.

Which was good to hear, but rather depressing, considering how many girls you still see out and about at any given hour of any given day.

As I write this, I realize that these musings on prostitution don’t actually have that much to do with the reason I sat down to pen this article, which was to tout the fixing of a problem we highlighted last December — the lack of any bus infrastructure at a stop at Vermont and Gage. Read more…

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Pop-Up Plaza Enhances Art Walk, Hints at What Could Be in Leimert

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The blocking off 43rd Pl. in Leimert Park created space for people to play this past Sunday. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

As we watched the group led by female elders drumming their way toward us, Rashida, a vendor of wonderful-smelling body scrubs, leaned over and said, “You can’t get this anywhere else in L.A.!”

She’s so right.

For the last four years, the monthly art walk in Leimert Park has brought together community, culture, art, and African heritage in a truly unique way.

Few places in the city, if any, feel so vibrant and warm as Leimert does on the last Sunday of the month.

Which is why the Pop-Up Plaza event at this art walk was so exciting — it offered a glimpse into the future of what Leimert Park Village could be if 43rd Place (the street running along the base of the village) were to be closed to cars and converted into a plaza.

The idea of making that conversion is one that many in the community have been kicking around for some time.

With the birth of the 20/20 Vision initiative — the strategy to drive the economic development of Leimert Park Village and its creative district in tandem with the arrival of the Metro station — the potential value of creating a plaza space has come more sharply into focus. So much so that the community is currently in the process of putting together a People St. application in the hopes of making that happen sooner rather than later.

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Drummers serenade a woman as they move around Leimert Plaza. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Speak to anyone who has been coming to the area for years, and you will hear stories of the incredible street life Leimert once hosted: chess games up and down the sidewalk, spontaneous poetry performances, live jazz blasting, and a strong sense of community.

The loss of Richard Fulton and his coffee house and jazz emporium, which had played host to much of that joyful noise, helped push that culture into hibernation.

On days like this past Sunday, however, when several generations of Leimert residents and aficionados turn out in droves to celebrate art, music, community, and unity, that culture feels tangible and ready to be revived. It is just looking for a home base.

A plaza might be a good place to start.

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Women serenade the plaza with gospel and love. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

In addition to the existing arts spaces and businesses, the opening of new gallery Papillion (on Degnan), the construction of artist Mark Bradford’s art and community space (on the corner of Degnan and 43rd Pl.), and the renovation of the Vision Theater (still underway), offer the possibility of a packed calendar of events that can draw crowds to spend the afternoon or evening in the area.

Read more…

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Parking Madness Elite Eight Matchup: Dallas vs. Jacksonville

We’re on to round two of Parking Madness, our search for the worst parking crater in North America. And I have to say, the parking craters in this match do seem to have descended to a new level of horribleness.

Dallas and Jacksonville are both such overachieving parking cities, it’s almost a shame they meet so soon. But them’s the breaks. Let’s see which is worse. The winner of this match will go onto the final four competition for the Golden Crater.

First, here’s Dallas:

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We swapped out the picture we used in the last round for one that our readers assure us is more up to date. There has been a little bit of infill development since the last one was taken. But the area can’t attract unsubsidized private development, according to Patrick Kennedy of Walkable Dallas-Fort Worth, because it’s been so blighted by I-345, which you can see on right edge of the photo. Kennedy has been one of the loudest advocates for tearing down the freeway.

Now, let’s look at Jacksonville:

Read more…

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Leimert Takes Steps Toward Re-Branding with Pop-Up Plaza and More this Weekend

The Re-Branding/Marketing panel at the Leimert Design Charrette featuring Armen Ross (President, Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce), Jan Perry (General Manager, EDD), and Darrell Brown (Senior Vice President Consumer Banking, US Bank). Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The Re-Branding/Marketing panel at the Leimert Design Charrette featuring Armen Ross (President, Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce), Jan Perry (General Manager, EDD), and Darrell Brown (Senior Vice President Consumer
Banking, US Bank). Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

As I listened to speakers on the “Creative Industry Business Development, Tourism Markets, Branding, Marketing, Event Management, Business Alliances, and Program Partnerships” panel at the Leimert Park Design Charrette this past January, one question kept bothering me:

Why is so much discussion being directed at marketing Leimert Park to the international arena?

It makes perfect sense that they would be thinking big, of course.

As the area undergoes changes courtesy of the new rail line, the Leimert Park station that will (indirectly) connect the Crenshaw and Leimert communities to LAX, and the new development that will likely follow, there is the potential to draw tourists to the area, deepen relationships with sister cities or communities, or even attract innovative investors looking to build new partnerships with local artists and cultural care-takers.

Make no mistake — all of that is incredibly important. It would be wonderful to see Leimert take its rightful place on the map of must-see destinations for being a powerful creative community, the cultural beating heart of the black community, and an important African marketplace.

But Leimert Park, at least in my experience, is still not a particularly well-known quantity to many Angelenos.

While it is on people’s radar because of the construction of the Crenshaw Line, because it is part of “South Los Angeles,” it is vulnerable to being associated with the many stigmas that unfortunately come with that label. Even for many of those who do know something about the community and its history, Leimert’s location within South L.A. still acts as a deterrent — people are afraid they will have to travel through “dangerous” or “sketchy” areas to get there.

Part of the reason that it has been hard to dispel such outdated notions and create a more positive image for the area is that, until recently, Leimert has not been particularly adept at getting the word about what it has to offer the city.

The heart of Leimert Park Village, the proposed Metro station site, and sites owned by community members. The pop-up plaza will be set up at the corner of 43rd Pl. and Leimert Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The heart of Leimert Park Village, the proposed Metro station site, and sites owned by community members. The pop-up plaza will be set up at the corner of 43rd Pl. and Leimert Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

For residents living in the area or people that regularly frequent places like the independent, black-owned Eso Won bookstore or artistic hubs like the KAOS Network, the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center, The World Stage, or the new Papillion Art Gallery, keeping up with cultural events and happenings probably isn’t too hard.

Someone like myself, who loves the neighborhood but can’t be there all the time, tends to find out about exciting events a week or two after they have happened, when stopping by to see friends or to follow up on a story.

People completely unfamiliar with the area likely never hear about what it has to offer at all. And, despite the fact that so many of the musical, literary, and artistic greats in the African-American community have come through and/or been shaped by the neighborhood, an interested observer would be hard-pressed to find a central source of information detailing that history (although, this documentary and Erin Aubry Kaplan’s work at KCET help fill in some gaps).

That all is beginning to change. Read more…