Dave Pederson has “seen some incredible things” in 23 years as a civil engineer in local government, including a decade previously as a Los Angeles County traffic designer and now as general manager of an area municipal water district.
But the case of the vanishing traffic lanes on Vista del Mar is a new low, said the Manhattan Beach resident in a recent community meeting: “I have never seen a more egregious and brazen disregard for transparency and process in my entire career.”
Indeed, the city of Manhattan Beach agrees, voting unanimously Tuesday night in closed session to have its city attorney explore legal action against the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, demand an environmental impact report and form a subcommittee to seeks solutions.
Mayor David Lesser on Wednesday provided a statement saying that “The City of Manhattan Beach recognizes the roadways are located within the City of Los Angeles and even one pedestrian fatality is too many. In an effort to address concerns for pedestrians and regional traffic impacts, Manhattan Beach, along with other South Bay cities, sought to comment on the re-configurations and suggest alternatives. However, it has become apparent the true objective of the reconfiguration is to divert traffic entirely from Playa del Rey.”
But on Wednesday, District 11 LA City Councilmember Michael Bonin seemed to double down, posting criticism of the South Bay reaction to his changes. The post was widely circulated by interested Manhattan Beach and Playa del Rey residents before Bonin aide David Graham-Cano sent it to The Beach Reporter in response to calls and emails seeking Bonin’s comment for this story.
“With respect to our friends in the South Bay, many of whom have made clear they would rather see a four-lane highway traverse our neighborhood in Playa del Rey, I won’t solve their 405 traffic problem on the backs of the people I represent,” he wrote in a post headed “Preventing the Next Tragedy.”
Manhattan Beach’s Pederson and about 45 other residents gave Mayor David Lesser an earful last Saturday about the lane closures that have a daily impact on 20,000 South Bay commuters in a decades-old traffic pattern. Los Angeles city work crews recently cut a lane of traffic in each direction while eliminating eastbound parking and creating angled parking on the west side of the street that fronts Dockweiler State Beach.
There was no notice to neighboring cities, and even officials at LAX didn’t get a heads up, said Lesser.
“I was mad because none of us got any advance notice,” Lesser said of restriping and other changes that suddenly brought commuter traffic to a standstill after Memorial Day. Locals headed to the Westside counted on that second lane for avoiding clogged arteries such as the 405 and Pacific Coast Highway.
“I think we all care about traffic issues. We’re concerned,” said Lesser. “I mean there was a fatality on Vista del Mar. The issue is could there have been a less draconian measure, series of measures taken because it appears to many of us that they really were not considered.”
Safe streets for PDR
The changes accompany a “Safe Streets for Playa del Rey” initiative sponsored by Bonin. Similar changes were also made to Culver Boulevard and other major local arteries in a related project also without South Bay input, Lesser said. The pilot program is said to be aimed at eliminating dangerous conditions that led pedestrians parking on the east side of Vista del Mar to dart across four lanes of traffic to get to the beach, sometimes with tragic consequences.
While parking was eliminated on the east side of Vista del Mar and 90 new spots painted diagonally on the west side, many residents said Saturday that the huge parking lot at Dockweiler Beach is rarely full. Extensive litter and overnight car camping reported along the west lane suggested for some that the City of Los Angeles is paying little attention to the aftermath. With beach access afforded the driving public at various points south of Playa del Rey, the effort to keep cars out of Playa Del Rey seems “mean spirited,” one Manhattan Beach resident said Saturday.
Bonin’s link to lawsuits
Meanwhile, Court Purdy, a lawyer for one of the pedestrians whose deaths is held out as calling for these changes, told The Beach Reporter this week that the traffic changes are not dictated by the settlement his law firm won in the 2015 death of Naomi Larsen, 16.
“All my clients ever wanted and all they requested was to make the roadway safe for beachgoers and pedestrians. How the city has decided to do that is up to them and was not dictated by the lawsuit,” Purdy said. “It certainly would have required public input to do it in the way that makes the roadway safer but still ensures that commuters have available means to get to and from their jobs.”
South Bay residents have been busy fighting the changes through social media channels set up by Manhattan Beach resident Jessica Borek, such as a Facebook page, a change.org petition with more than 5,600 signatures; and a GoFundMe site that had raised more than $15,000 as of Wednesday.
For Bonin and the City of Los Angeles, the sudden implementation of the changes seems to be related to the pedestrian deaths of Larsen and Michael Lockridge and their legal ramifications. Both deaths stemmed from accidents occurring well over a year ago and around midnight, well outside commuting hours.
Larsen’s family sued after she was struck by a car in February 2015 and the City of Los Angeles settled in April for $9.5 million. Her family’s suit, filed in July 2015, alleged that Larsen died from injuries suffered after she was struck and flung 150 feet by a taxi around 12:15 a.m. Feb. 22, 2015, while crossing an “unmarked crosswalk” amid “zero lighting” at Vista del Mar and Ipswich St. in virtual darkness. A friend in her group had her ankle run over, the suit says.
The Larsen family’s lawyers are now suing Los Angeles over the April 2016 death of Michael Lockridge. The Lockridge suit alleges he was killed and his girlfriend also struck around 11:45 p.m. April 10, 2016, when crossing Vista del Mar after parking on the east side at the intersection with Kilgore, where a “marked crosswalk” had previously existed.
“Safe Streets for Playa Del Rey” originated in part with an August 2015 questionnaire to which Bonin received just 133 responses—but has now led to disruption of perhaps 24,000 commuting vehicles, according to reports.
This was just five months after the tragic accident that claimed Larsen’s life. Yet Larsen attorney Court Purdy points out that Vista del Mar improvements weren’t even mentioned in Bonin’s August 2015 questionnaire.
“Why it wasn’t on there, I never got an answer,” Purdy said in an interview this week.
Purdy attempted to depose Bonin and other Los Angeles officials, but the City government resisted in most cases. “It required court intervention to get one of Mr. Bonin’s staff,” Purdy said. Purdy did depose transportation officials such as LADOT senior traffic engineer Brian Gallagher. Purdy said Gallagher had “made recommendations that were not followed up on,” and in his December filing said Gallagher acknowledged that, as far back as 2013, he had made specific proposals to reduce dangers along Vista del Mar based on the long history of pedestrian accidents and fatalities.
“If we had gone to trial, I would have asked him to testify. He would have been on my witness list,” Purdy says of Bonin.
Bonin’s “Preventing the Next Tragedy” email decries the deaths on Vista del Mar and names Larsen, Lockridge and others: “Too many lives like Brigitte’s have been lost on the streets of Playa del Rey. People you might know: Marc Schacter. Michael Lockridge. Naomi Larsen. And Jack Tawardy, a beloved neighborhood cobbler. Dozens more have been seriously injured by speeding cars. The devastating loss of a loved one to a traffic collision is not a rare occurrence in our city. In fact, it is the number one cause of death for children under 14 in Los Angeles.”
Bonin's safety crusade
But in his filed justification for wanting to depose Bonin in the Larsen case, Purdy said Bonin had long known of the dangers along Vista del Mar and failed to fix them. The December filing included a September 2016 letter to the City of Los Angeles in which Purdy wrote that Bonin in 2013 personally took a bus tour of proposed Vista del Mar improvements and said Bonin was aware of the deadly problems on Vista del Mar and the City’s failure to fix them:
“The fact that the recommendations of the LADOT’s Senior Engineers to make this roadway safe for pedestrians has been abandoned by the City and Mr. Bonin’s office is of primary relevance in this matter and falls directly on Councilmember Bonin’s lap. In short, he was personally aware of this particular accident pattern, the proposal of Brian Gallagher to get the funding to fix that dangerous conditions [sic] and of the City’s failures to do so resulting in more pedestrian injuries and of the resulting and wholly unnecessary deaths of Naomi Larsen and Michael Lockridge. Mr. Bonin has championed pedestrian safety in his District but has seemingly forgotten this project which in 2013, was a ‘High Priority’ to fix.”
Just weeks after the filing, Los Angeles reached a provisional settlement with Purdy that was officially approved for $9.5 million in April.
According to attorney Purdy in the interview, given all Councilmember Bonin and other LA officials reportedly knew about the dangers—before and after the Larsen and Lockridge deaths—he was surprised to hear the LA councilmember suddenly proclaim Vista del Mar “an emergency safety crusade.”
“I thought they took unnecessary credit for something that should have been done 20 years ago,” Purdy said. “Let’s not pretend that this wasn’t a huge cancer that everybody knew and nobody did anything about it until we sued them.” Bonin’s office had not made the councilmember available for an interview as of press time.
LADOT engineering associate Oliver Hou assured The Beach Reporter that the project is “definitely a pilot and changes are coming. It’s something that we’re going to be monitoring one month out, three months out, six months out.”
Hou added that “as far as I’m aware,” the LADOT has complied with all legal requirements, such as for permitting and public notice.
The legal story isn’t over. Purdy and his partner William Paoli are also representing Lockridge’s family in what Purdy said “is actually a stronger case” because it was more than a year after the Larsen tragedy and “again it happened at night and there was literally zero or completely insufficient lighting.” The accident, Purdy said, was “right where Gallagher had recommended in 2013 that traffic controls be installed due to his understanding of high pedestrian volume.”
The case is set for trial July 24, 2018.