A clear road map for 405 emergencies

June 22, 2011

Paramedics on motorcycles. A world-class art facility repurposed as a firefighting staging area. And a 10-mile expanse of the 405 Freeway stretching out, car-free, as an enormous potential helicopter landing pad.

Talk about turning the problem into the solution.

Sure, the 405 Freeway will be closed to all of us for 53 straight hours in mid-July. But for an army of law enforcement and public safety professionals, the freeway has emerged as a key element in a wide-ranging emergency response plan being put into place to cope with whatever may arise during the closure.

Not only will the 405 provide a possible helicopter landing strip, it also stands as a quick response conduit for police and firefighters, and even, in the event of a fire or natural disaster, a mass evacuation route.

“The freeway’s available to us if we need it at any time,” said LAPD spokesman Lt. Andy Neiman. Most of the 405 closure zone—stretching north from the 10 to the 101, and south from the 101 to Getty Center Drive—will be readily accessible to emergency responders during the freeway shutdown. The section immediately under the Mulholland Bridge—where the south side is being demolished, prompting the freeway closure in the first place—could even be made available if needed, although it would likely take several hours of clean-up to reopen a lane under the bridge once demo work had started in earnest, Neiman said.

Community concerns about gridlock on local streets—and about emergency vehicles being able to respond to calls promptly—have been running high as the 53-hour closure approaches. But public safety planners say they’re confident they’ll be able to get through.

“If anything happens in those areas, I would almost expect that people will have a quicker response than normal,” said Los Angeles Fire Department Captain Alicia Mathis. “We want the community to be completely comfortable with our ability to respond.”

Beyond the freeway itself, the Getty Center has offered to make itself available as a staging area for firefighting resources during the closure. Mathis said the facility was built with firefighting capabilities in mind, including an augmented water supply, roadways constructed to accommodate heavy fire trucks, a helicopter landing area and a design that would allow it to be temporarily converted to a command post in the event of a major brushfire or other disaster. “In addition to being an art asset and a beautiful facility, it’s actually very functional,” she said.

In addition to the Getty and the freeway, the department has identified a number of other “helispots” where choppers will be able to land and take off if necessary during the closure. Brush patrol rigs will be continuously moving through the area—including one each for Encino, the Getty Center and the Bel Air Crest and Mountaingate neighborhoods—and an infusion of extra firefighters and other equipment is planned along with full staffing at the existing fire stations in the area, she said.

The fire department also will be fielding teams of paramedics on motorcycles.

While the fire department has deployed paramedic bicycle teams at LAX and during large festivals, “the motorcycle team is really something new to make sure we have quick access” during the freeway closure, Mathis said. The two-wheel paramedics won’t be able to transport patients, but will have a full array of equipment, such as defibrillators, for initial treatment of a medical emergency.

Likewise, LAPD motor officers will be on the frontlines during the freeway shutdown. “For any hot shot or important call, they will be the first responders,” Lt. Neiman said.

To make sure that emergency responders are in position, the closure area is being subdivided into four “branches” located on either side of the 405 and above and below the Mulholland Bridge, Neiman said.

The public safety and traffic response to the closure is being planned and managed by a “unified command” consisting of the LAPD, the Los Angeles Fire Department, the CHP and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. A centralized command post will be up and running at the city’s Emergency Operations Center during the weekend.

LAPD Cmdr. James Cansler said all the agencies would have high staffing levels during the shutdown, including a “heavy deployment of traffic officers and engineers” to adjust street signals and open up intersections depending on the flow of traffic. Cansler added that police and fire helicopters would be keeping tabs on the situation from above.

Metro spokesman Marc Littman said it was “premature to speculate” about what the cost of the public safety and traffic deployment would be during the 405 shutdown. “No doubt the tab will be hefty but ensuring public safety is paramount, and we’re not going to skimp on safety,” he said in an e-mail.

The freeway closure is necessary to protect the public during demolition because the Mulholland Bridge is so steep, Metro officials say. Some ramp and lane closures will begin the evening of Friday, July 15. The entire freeway will be closed all of Saturday, July 16, and Sunday, July 17, and is set to reopen at 5 a.m. on Monday, July 18. (The entire exercise will be repeated some 11 months later, when the north side of the bridge is demolished.)

The $1.034 billion project will add a 10-mile northbound carpool lane to the 405 Freeway and modernize three bridges over it, in addition to widening underpasses and creating improvements such as new “flyover” ramps at Wilshire Boulevard.

A community meeting is scheduled for Thursday, June 23, at the Skirball Center for those interested in learning more about plans for the closure. In addition, an online chat will be held on Wednesday, June 29.

Even with all of the advance planning, though, the best plan will be to steer clear of the area altogether. CHP Lt. Mark Garrett said there was just one word for what the average motorist would be experiencing that weekend: “Frustration. That’s all you can say.”

Posted 6/22/11

Relax with dad at Descanso

June 15, 2011

Give Dad the peace and quiet he always begged for amid the natural splendor of Descanso Gardens.

Father’s Day entertainment begins with the Jet Set Quartet, a quasi-barbershop group of musicians who play tunes from the Atomic Age. They start their set at 1 p.m., which will give dads just enough time to settle down to barbecue from Patina Restaurant Group. There are limited tables and chairs, so bring lawn chairs and picnic baskets if you have them.

Take some time to smell the roses–5 acres of them are in peak season for the holiday. Also make sure to visit the Japanese Gardens, stop by the bird observation station, or tour the grounds on the “green” tram. For kids, an enchanted railroad takes a shorter route through the gardens.

Admission to the gardens is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and students, $3 for children ages 5-12 and free for kids under 5. The band is free, but the barbecue will be sold at additional cost. Directions and other logistical details are available on Descanso’s website.

Posted 6/15/11

New beach rules could be game-changers

June 15, 2011

It’s harder than people think to set a trend in Southern California. Take the quest to establish beach tennis at, well, the beach.

Five years ago, a small group of South Bay tennis pros picked up the sport, a cross between beach volleyball and regular tennis that has long been popular in South America and Europe.

“It’s a natural,” says Donny Young, a Hermosa Beach early adapter, who heard about the sport from a fellow tennis pro, who had learned it from a European player. “Easier than tennis, easier than volleyball, you’ve got the sand and water and sun, and it’s inclusive.” Within a few months, Young says, he had regular matches and friends and onlookers were clamoring to play.

But since 2008, Young and his fellow enthusiasts have been struggling to find spots on Los Angeles County beaches where they can reliably volley their extra-light balls and swing their extra-short racquets. The reason? A combination of old rules and new competition for coastal space. 

“Beach tennis is just one piece of it,” says Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors. Beach attendance, she notes, has risen to record levels during the past five years. According to the latest figures from the county fire department’s lifeguard division, some 50 million people so far have come to the county beaches during the 2010-11 fiscal year, even with the chilly weather that dampened attendance last summer; that’s more than a 25% increase over 2005-06 beach attendance.

Part of it has to do with the economy, which has kept locals close to home during summer vacations, she says, but part is simply population growth and California lifestyle.

Ask Silverstrom to elaborate, and she’ll offer a litany of the many interests that, in recent years, have come to vie ever more intensely with swimmers and sunbathers for space on the county’s 80 or so miles of coastline: beach soccer, beach volleyball, surfers, bodyboarders, skimboarders, paddle boarders, hang gliders, kiteboarders, surf skiers, triathletes, bicyclists, filmmakers, surf camps, boot camps, cheerleading camps, day camps, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, memorial ceremonies—“you name it,” she says. And that’s not including the non-human beachgoers from grunion to protected shorebirds who can’t be disturbed in their roosts.

As a result, the county’s Beach Commission and the Department of Beaches and Harbors have been working on an overhaul of the county’s beach ordinance, a wide-ranging set of new rules expected to come before the Board of Supervisors in a couple of months.

The idea, says Silverstrom, is to make the existing ordinance more flexible and inclusive. “Most of its sections,” she says, “have been in place since 1969.” 

Rules about watercraft and beach ball sizes are being reconsidered, she says, as are special requests from the film industry and other important economic interests.

“It’s a balancing act, though,” she says, laughing. For example, a recommendation giving beach authorities leeway to give certain privileges to film crews—letting them drive on the sand under certain circumstances or launch personal water craft from the sand that are otherwise banned from operation within 300 yards of the shoreline—had to be rethought when the beach they had in mind turned out to be home to the threatened snowy plover.

Few have followed the give and take more closely, however, than the beach tennis constituents.

Popular for at least 30 years on the beaches of South America and Europe, beach tennis is played on the sand by 2-person teams who volley a soft, low-pressure ball over a high net. Players wear board shorts and bikinis; polite tennis applause is less common than rock music. 

The sport began to garner publicity in the U.S. when a New York real estate developer began promoting it in 2005 on Long Island. Young and other local enthusiasts say the sport spread to Southern California when South Bay tennis pro Joe Testa took it up and recruited Young and another tennis pro, Marty Salokas, the following year.

By 2008, beach tennis had enough West Coast players to justify a tournament and some media attention. “But once the tournament was over, there was nothing,” says Salokas. “It just didn’t have the grass roots here.”

So the group began putting up flyers, sending out emails and—crucially—organizing meets on South Bay beaches, using vacant beach volleyball areas or portable nets and equipment that they would buy from the East Coast promoters and set up in the sand themselves.

The impromptu courts worked well in some spots—Hermosa Beach, for example. “But anyone who tried to play in Manhattan or Redondo or El Segundo or other places was told, ‘Hey, you just can’t set that up anywhere you want’,” Salokas says.

Moreover, they discovered that the existing beach ordinance makes it illegal to throw, kick or roll anything on the sand that is smaller or denser than a 10-inch inflatable rubber playground ball. So the group began lobbying beach cities and the county for an exception.

They scored in Hermosa, where last year two beach tennis courts were designated by the city. But Lucy Streeter, a private swim instructor and former professional high diver from Rancho Palos Verdes who helped organize the grassroots efforts, says their pleas to the county initially got lost in the larger beach ordinance revision. So several months ago, the group launched a petition drive and a letter writing campaign. 

Now, officials say, they are definitely on the radar, and stand to benefit from the new rules, if they are approved later this summer.

“We have staff currently looking for locations where we might put a permanent beach tennis court or two,” says Silverstrom, suggesting Malibu’s Zuma Beach or Dockweiler State Beach near Marina del Rey.

That’s good news to people like Streeter, a mother of three who took up the sport because it seemed so easy. 

“The hardest part about it,” she says, “has been finding a place to play.”

 Posted 6/15/11

Watch your words—and hands

June 7, 2011

Hey, L.A. County employees, listen up. In case you had any doubts, there’ll be no leering, pinching, cat calls, unwelcomed advances or behavior that’s sexually, racially or ethnically degrading in the workplace. And those are just a few warnings specifically spelled out in the county’s new “Policy of Equity” for the first time.

“Everyone is going to be held accountable,” says Lynda Castro, who, after three decades with the Sheriff’s Department, was lured out of retirement to oversee the county’s newly revamped approach to workplace harassment and bias. “If the employees treat each other with respect, then they’re more likely to treat the public in the same way.”

Hopefully, the public will also benefit by having to pay less in rising legal costs from lawsuits filed by employees, who’ve alleged sexual harassment or discrimination because of their gender, age, race or sexual orientation. “For risk management and liability concerns,” Castro says, “we have a policy with real teeth.”

At the heart of the new policy and process is the soon-to-be created County Equity Oversight Panel, comprised of four employment-law attorneys who’ll have full access to complaint investigations and, if need be, order further interviews. The panel will recommend discipline or other corrective actions and make sure there’s follow-through by the individual departments—sometimes a problem under the county’s previous, less centralized approach.

Between 2007 and 2010, the Office of Affirmative Action Compliance, which was previously responsible for ensuring compliance with the county’s harassment and discrimination policy, reported receiving 3,370 complaints. Of those, the office determined it had jurisdiction to pursue 2,110 under state and federal statutes.

The new county program, which will go into effect next month, was modeled after one that’s been in place since 2003 in the Sheriff’s Department, where complaints have been cut in half. Castro was a natural pick to serve as the oversight panel’s executive director because, until her retirement in 2009, she a key player in the sheriff’s efforts to reduce harassment and discrimination, including serving two years as chairperson of the department’s equity panel.

“This is a passion for me, an opportunity put a policy in place for 100,000 employees,” says Castro, 61, who was willing for now to sacrifice a life of traveling with her husband and catching her grandchildren’s soccer and basketball games. “There’s not a lot of things that would cause a retired person to come back to work.”

Posted on 6/7/11

This beach beauty’s a bargain

May 25, 2011

If you’d like to splash and lounge like a Gilded Age big shot on Santa Monica’s Gold Coast this weekend, have we got a tip for you.

The Annenberg Community Beach House, owned and operated by the City of Santa Monica for public use, will be opening its pool for the long Memorial Day weekend. The pool’s actual season runs June 25-Labor Day, so this is a three-day chance to get an early jump on summer—while savoring one of the choicest beachfront locales anywhere.

The pool is just one amenity at the 5-acre oceanfront property, once the site of Marion Davies’ fabled beach mansion and playground for the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and, naturally, William Randolph Hearst, who built the humble 100-plus-room beach shack in the 1920s for Davies, his longtime mistress.

The property opened to the public two years ago, after previous incarnations as a grand hotel and the Sand & Sea Club. (The mansion was torn down in 1956, but Davies’ guest cottage is still on the site and tourable.) Funding from the Annenberg Foundation enabled the city of Santa Monica to clean up hazardous materials on the property, restore the pool and create an architecturally significant compound with some serious environmental cred. The Beach House has LEED Gold certification and runs on wind-generated power, while water for the pool and “splash pad” area are heated by solar collectors.

Beach real estate this choice doesn’t come along often, and pool admittance is on a first-come, first-served basis. So if you’d like to secure a place in the sun this weekend, a little advance planning may be required. Same-day pool passes will go on sale starting at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 28, Sunday, May 29, and Monday, May 30. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for seniors over 60, $4 for children under 18. Reservations also are available online starting three days in advance.

The Annenberg Community Beach House is located at 415 Pacific Coast Highway, north of the Santa Monica Pier. (Directions are here.) Parking is $8 on the weekends, but you can avoid the charge—and get into the eco-friendly spirit of the Beach House—by getting there on bicycle, via the Pacific Coast Bike Trail.

Nan Friedman, the Beach House manager, said a number of “summer-inspired” classes are coming this year, exploring everything from stand-up paddleboarding and open ocean swimming to sand games such as disc golf.

That ever-evolving list of featured classes and cultural attractions is another reason to discover the facility. “Oddly enough,” Friedman said, “there are people from all over the world who know about the Annenberg Beach House and we also have people who live locally who say, ‘I drive by every day and I never knew what it was.’ ” If you’re one of them, this just might be your weekend to find out.

Posted 5/25/11

Horseplay at the aquarium

May 25, 2011

You dads out there might be feeling pretty good about yourselves with Father’s Day just around the corner. But sorry, Pops, the seahorse has you beat.

The male seahorse is so devoted that he carries as many as 1,000 offspring deposited by the mom in a brood pouch for 14 days, until they hatch. At that point, with the fry fully formed, the father is pretty much done with parenting chores. But for those two weeks, he’s as attentive as they come.

The seahorse, like the giant panda on land, is one of those iconic creatures that seem to naturally capture our affection and pique our curiosity. Maybe it’s the odd shape, maybe it’s that comic snout they use to suck in food, who knows?  It’s hard to even remember they’re fish.

For Randi Parent of the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, the attraction of seahorses is in the way they move.

“They kind of have that vertical thing going for them,” she said. “Their locomotion is just so different from other marine animals – it’s captivating.”

Also like the giant panda, these creatures, especially the native Pacific seahorse, can serve as a symbol for conservation efforts.

“Pacific seahorses live close to the shore in tall marine grasses,” said aquarium Director Vicki Wawerchak, “which makes them very susceptible to coastal development and subject to capture and overfishing. Never buy dried seahorses at novelty shops.”

Why buy a lousy dried one, anyway, when you can see a whole herd of them live at Santa Monica Pier Aquarium’s new exhibit? The Pacific seahorse featured in the exhibit grows up to 12 inches and is the only species found along California’s coast.

As part of a special aquarium promotion, seahorses are also available for “aquadoption” at a cost of $50 (it goes to $250 after July 1). Adoptive parents make an investment in the animal’s care and, in return, receive an adoption certificate photo, free aquarium passes and a year’s membership to Heal the Bay, along with the satisfaction of contributing to the preservation of marine life.

More than 100 other species are also on display at the Aquarium, which is Heal the Bay’s forum for educating the public about marine life. Heal the Bay is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep coastal waters and watersheds of SoCal clean and safe.

The exhibit opens this Saturday, May 28. Aquarium hours are 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 12:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. on the weekends. There is a suggested donation of $5 for admission (or a $3 minimum entry fee). Kids 12 and under get in free. The Aquarium is located at the beach level of the Santa Monica Pier, 1600 Ocean Front Walk.

Posted 5/25/11

Bugging out at Natural History Museum

May 12, 2011

Bugs make up about 5/6th of all species on the planet, and not all of them want to invade your pantry. This weekend you can learn all about these magnificent creatures as L.A.  County’s Natural History Museum holds its 25th annual Bug Fair.

Brent Karner, entomologist and head organizer, says the event may be the museum’s best attended of the year, with an anticipated weekend turnout of  more than 14,000 bug enthusiasts. It’s the largest bug event in North America, attracting scores of entomologists, educational groups, environmental groups, bug product purveyors and more—each with their own exhibition.

“The biggest draw of the event,” Karner says, “is the synergy between all those groups and what the museum itself has to offer.”

If you go to the Bug Fair, expect all sorts of bug-related madness. There will be a bug origami specialist, a cockroach race, tarantula feedings, bug performance art and live animal displays where you can hold the insects. Learn to pin bugs for your own collection and watch as bedbug-sniffing dogs show off their skills. The Natural History Museum is also home to an Insect Zoo and the popular Butterfly Pavilion.

New to the event this year is the Bug Chef “Cook-Off.” Four of the top insect chefs from across the country will take the stage to compete for culinary supremacy. Visitors will be chosen to judge the contest, and all are invited to sample the dishes (if you dare).

The Bug Fair is this Saturday and Sunday, May 14 and 15, during museum hours—9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Fair is free with the price of admission, although there is a small additional cost of up to $3 for admission to the Butterfly Pavilion. Visit the website for directions, and avoid the $8 parking fee by planning your trip with Metro.

Posted 5/12/11

Even Topangans get the blues

April 28, 2011

It might be tough to feel the deepest “blues” while immersed in the lush nature of Topanga’s Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, so maybe just shoot for a bittersweet feeling instead.  

The Topanga Blues Festival has presented legends and upstarts alike at the Theatricum for 28 years. This year it’s headlined by Blues Hall of Fame inductee Chick Willis, a.k.a. “The Stoop Down Man,” who brings his upbeat and humorous version of the blues all the way from Atlanta. The lineup also includes the Lynwood Slim Blues Band, Gregg Wright and Sean Lane. Of course, nothing goes better with blues than barbecue, and there will be plenty available for purchase at the festival. 

The organizer and beneficiary of the event is the Southern California Blues Society, a non-profit group dedicated to promoting American Blues tradition in Southern California. 

The Theatricum Botanicum is a natural outdoor auditorium and a sanctuary for performance arts. The theater seats 300 in an intimate, park-like setting. Visit their website for a summer schedule of plays, events and educational programming

The Topanga Blues Festival takes place May 1 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are available online and cost $28.50 for Blues Society members and $38.50 for non-members. Organizers recommend buying tickets in advance because they are limited. 

The Theatricum is located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Parking is available in the lot for $5 or on the street for free. 

Posted 4/28/11

Meanwhile, back at the science ranch

April 14, 2011

The National Park Service and the L.A. County Natural History Museum partner this weekend to present the 2nd annual Science Festival at Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The events take place on Friday evening, April 15, from 7 p.m.-10 p.m., and on Saturday afternoon, April 16, from 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

The events offer something for everyone, with activities including talks, hands-on demonstrations, nature walks, live animals, and a chance to schmooze with the scientists. Exhibitors include the UCLA Stunt Ranch Reserve/Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden and the UCLA La Kretz Center for Conservation Science, the UCLA Institute for the Environment and Sustainability—and yes, there will be refreshment booths, too.

It all happens at Paramount Ranch, located at 2813 Cornell Road in Agoura Hills. Aprils are warm and beautiful in the Santa Monicas, but it can sometimes get cool, so best to dress in layers.

Full information from the National Park Service is here, or you can call NPS at (805) 370-2301.

Posted 4/14/11

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