Community and Cyclists Clash on Ballona Creek Trail Gate

ballona_creek_entrance.jpg
Photo of Entrance by Will Campbell

Last night, Councilmember Bill Rosendahl’s office held a public meeting to help decide whether or not to close the entrance to the Ballona Creek Bike Trail along Culver Drive between Purdue Avenue and Sawtelle Boulevard. The meeting followed a contentious City Council Transportation Committee hearing where the people living adjacent to the entrance and trail users clashed over the effect of closing the opening.

Those living adjacent to the street have been trying to get the entrance closed because they claim it has become a hot bed of gang banger activity. The entrance is used to foment drug deals, grand theft autos, attacks on residents, and other activities that make the community unsafe. One resident claims the problem is so bad that even when there is nobody at the gate, residents can’t live in their community without keeping half an eye on the gate.

Cyclists charge that the bike path actually makes the neighborhood safer and closing access will make both the path and the neighborhood more dangerous. By closing an access point, the trail becomes more isolated and could be a greater breeding ground for illegal activity. Cyclists also pointed out that there are bikers who get attacked on this trail and one such attack occured last week. Besides, just closing a gate would not stop gang members from cutting the fence open. The cyclists’ mantra for the evening could be summed up as, "criminals jump fences, citizens use gates."

Rosendahl hoped the meeting would allow the sides to come together on a compromise, but every compromise position proposed by either side was quickly squashed by either the other side or one of the city’s representatives. Rosendahl himself was not at the meeting, he was at a memorial for one of the fire fighters killed in the line of duty last week. The city was represented by three members of the LAPD, LADOT bike coordinator Michelle Mowery, and Arturo Pina from the Councilmember’s office.

Those living adjacent to the opening seemed flabbergasted that people from out of the area would oppose them on closing the bike entrance. They repeatedly questioned the right of outsiders, which includes people living in the neighborhood but not within a block of the entrance, to oppose them even shouting at people that, "You’re not my neighbor," and "Be quiet you don’t live in my neighborhood!" I should note that the shouting started before we even reached public comment.

Mowery was also a target of the residents’ anger, specifically that of Lou Corbin, who seemed to be an unofficial leader of the residents. Corbin accused Mowery of misleading cyclists and leading the effort to bring cyclists out to these meetings.

The meeting began with the LAPD reading a laundry list of crimes that have occured in the area and explained their inability to do much about it. Budget cuts have left LAPD undermanned to deal with every local issue and while there are some patrols in the neighborhood, they can’t be there all the time. Residents complained that it takes from 45 minutes to 2 hours for police to respond to calls, and by then the gang bangers have already fled.

Next, Mowery explained how the LADOT lacks a process to deal with closing bike path entrances because it’s never come up before. While LADOT has had contact with the LAPD on the issue of closing the Culver Drive gate, none of the people she spoke with were at the meeting last night. LADOT shares the concerns the cycling community that closing the gate will have no impact on local crime.

Mowery also hinted that closing an entrance could impact the city’s ability to compete for funds for other bike projects. "This trail was built with federal funds, and they expect that we will provide consistent and safe access to it."

Corbin was the first called upon to give public comment, and he angrily asked to speak last because of what he perceived to be an unfair bias towards letting the cyclists speak last. Corbin got his way, but then decided to speak in the middle of public testimony. He also continued his harangue against Mowery questioning why she was allowed to sit with the other city officials. At one point, the LAPD even threatened to shut the meeting down if people couldn’t behave like adults.

While the point of the meeting was supposed to be about finding a middle ground, the public comment quickly broke down to those living adjacent to the entrance versus everyone else. In addition to cyclists speaking against the closure, so did environmentalists working on Bellona Creek projects, residents from the larger Del Rey community, including a resident from a couple of blocks away and another from four houses away from the entrance, a representative from the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, and local business people.

The arguments of the neighborhood were clear. Not only does the gate provide a threat to the community, but there’s another gate 200 yards away at Sepulveda Boulevard. Cyclists answered that the Sepulveda entrance is a danger to cyclists because of increased traffic.

Gate closure proponent Bob Thayer did offer some compromises, but those were dismissed by LADOT. Thayer suggested moving the gate to Sawtelle Boulevard where it would be adjacent to a commercial area and not a residential area. When Mowery noted that moving the gate to that area would cost in excess of $1.5 million, Thayer suggested a pedestrian entrance that could be used in safety-related emergencies. Unfortunately, such an entrance would be in violation of the ADA.

Cyclists had some compromise suggestions as well, many of them articulated by Kent Strumpell, Rosendahl’s representative to the Bike Advisory Committee. All of these also had problems that made them unworkable.

First it was suggested that residents could be allowed to lock the gate closed at night, but residents replied that most of the problems occur during the day.

Next it was suggested that a surveillance camera system could be installed. The LAPD representatives replied that such a system would be too expensive to be feasible. The LAPD also rejected having more patrols or bike patrols because of the cost.

Two of the last three speakers were residents who live directly adjacent to the gate. They both spoke about how this particular entrance isn’t used that often by cyclists but by gang members. They described how cars will pull up to the gate and wait for people to walk out before commencing a drug deal. Getting license plates hasn’t been effective because the cars are often stolen.

There is no question that this community is suffering the impact of a lot of gang related crime. The questions that do remain are what impacts will closing this gate have, and with no compromise in sight, what will the City Council do?

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