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28
Jun 2011
Westside and Valley businesses are preparing for Carmageddon
Oscar Morel, manager of Spumoni Italian Cafe & Pizzeria, prepares the Brentwood restaurant for the lunch hour. During the 405 closure the Canoga Park resident will be sleeping at a friend's house a few blocks from the cafe so he can make it to work. (Mariah Tauger, Los Angeles Times / June 28, 2011)

Oscar Morel, manager of Spumoni Italian Cafe & Pizzeria, prepares the Brentwood restaurant for the lunch hour. During the 405 closure the Canoga Park resident will be sleeping at a friend's house a few blocks from the cafe so he can make it to work. (Mariah Tauger, Los Angeles Times / June 28, 2011)

For three nights on a mid-July weekend, Oscar Morel will be away on business. The Canoga Park resident, however, won't be traveling out of state or to a faraway country.

His destination? Just 19 miles away in Brentwood.

The closing of a 10-mile stretch of the 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass will shut down the commute of many employees and force businesses - especially restaurants and hotels that rely on weekend customers - to operate with fewer workers, offer greater discounts to attract customers and still face the prospect of losing thousands of dollars in revenue.

Westside and Valley businesses near the 405 are reshuffling work schedules and seeking other accommodations for employees to keep operations moving during the July 15-18 weekend.

And some shopping emporiums are putting out the welcome mat especially for residents in their areas. Santa Monica Place and the city of Santa Monica are declaring the weekend a time to "stay local," urging area residents to take advantage of the city's attractions.

Officials hope that 70% of the 500,000 motorists who travel on the freeway through the Sepulveda Pass on a typical July weekend will stay away from the area during the 53-hour shutdown. But whether they will is unknown.

"The truth is we just don't know the answer to that," said Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA. Traffic "could be devastating or it could be shockingly mild."

For Morel's part, the father of three plans to stay at a friend's home in West Los Angeles instead of battling the doomsday gridlock predicted when his normal route from home to work closes. Conversations with his wife and children, he said, will be by phone.

"It's kind of like camping out," said Morel, manager of Spumoni Italian Cafe & Pizzeria on San Vicente Boulevard. "I have to be here.... The weekends are when we are busy."

George Chammaa, who manages Sunnin Lebanese Cafe, his family's Westwood restaurant, is taking a more straightforward approach: "Anyone who takes the 405 won't work."

The bustling establishment plans to trim staffing by a third during the closure weekend, which has earned the foreboding moniker "Carmageddon." Slow business, Chammaa said, could translate into at least $10,000 in lost revenue.

"We're pretty much going to treat it like an average weekend, even though we expect a 30% to 40% decrease in business," he said. "There is not much we can do. They need to expand the freeway."

The closing is part of a $1-billion freeway improvement project by the county's Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the California Department of Transportation. Half the Mulholland Drive bridge will be demolished over the weekend and rebuilt over the next approximately 11 months, after which the scenario will be repeated for the other half.

Starting late July 15, northbound lanes of the 405 will be closed for 10 miles between the 10 and the 101 freeways; southbound lanes will be shut down for four miles between the 101 and Getty Center Drive. The 405 is expected to reopen at 5 a.m. July 18.

At Spumoni, Morel is planning for congestion: Any restocking will be done before the freeway closes, he said. The manager expects a busy weekend, possibly better than usual if local residents stick to businesses close to home.

"Most of our clients always tell me they live just around the corner," Morel said, lounging at an outdoor table at Spumoni while pedestrians strolled along San Vicente Boulevard. "So for us, I don't think we are going to have less business. Probably we are going to have more."

On the other side of the hills, Valley employees of Cucina Bene will replace those who live on the Westside, but overall staffing is likely to drop for the weekend anyway, said Barry Jay, co-owner of the Sherman Oaks restaurant.

"It is going to be hell," Jay said, predicting that he could lose at least $3,000 because his Westside customers won't be coming to eat.

Hotels also are taking action to combat the closure's possible negative effects.

Hotel Carmel in Santa Monica will offer its employees a bed for the weekend if vacant rooms exist, said Mario Dichoso, executive manager of operations.

Courtyard by Marriott Sherman Oaks will provide a "405 Freeway Closure Special" - rooms for those who must work in the Valley that weekend but live elsewhere. The rate will be as low as $109 a night, discounted from $159, said David Cornish, the general manager.

"We actually have seen some pretty good booking for that weekend because they need to be here to work," Cornish said.

For his own employees, Cornish said he expected those who live on the Westside to work. If needed, they may sleep in the hotel's rooms - even if that means losing potential customers.

"I can't take the risk of providing poor service if somebody is delayed in traffic," Cornish said.

To try to generate business, cities and trade groups are coming up with efforts to get folks to go out in their own communities.

In Santa Monica, area residents are being urged to bike during the closure with the promotion: "Stay Local - Shop, Eat and Play Local." Restaurants are offering discounts and specials, such as a four-course meal for $40.05 in a nod to the weekend. Local theater companies also are providing discounts to lure locals.

"I think people will really embrace the local community," said Adrienne De Vore, senior marketing manager at Santa Monica Place. "They still need to eat and shop and have some form of entertainment for that weekend."

The Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce also is encouraging people to stay and shop near their homes. The group plans to publish a list of Valley businesses providing local activities and discounts, said Nancy Hoffman Vanyek, the chamber's chief executive.

"We want people to stay local and not get on the freeways - not just the 405 but the alternative routes too," she said.

Farther south, Los Angeles International Airport is taking steps to reduce the number of vehicles at the airport and adjacent freeways during peak hours. It plans to switch its own employees - about 1,200 a day during the weekend - to two 12-hour shifts from three eight-hour shifts, LAX spokeswoman Nancy Castles said.

Some essential LAX employees may be put up in nearby hotels, but no decision has been made because of cost, Castles said.

About 19,000 additional employees, including those at airlines, customs and security services, work at the airport each Saturday and Sunday. Castles said LAX was encouraging other employers to devise a plan to ensure that they arrive on time.

"If a significant number of airport-wide employees do not make it to work on time, passengers who did make it on time may encounter delays because of lack of staffing," she said.

The weekend will be painful for some, but the project will benefit businesses in the future by unclogging the extremely congested freeway corridor, said Christine Cooper, an economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

The project, which will add a 10-mile northbound carpool lane and make other improvements, also could open up better job opportunities that traffic congestion has put out of reach for some people, Cooper said.

In Bel-Air along the south side of that stretch, Mabel Escoto's dog-grooming business already is suffering. Related work on Sepulveda Boulevard periodically reduces the road to one lane in each direction, cutting her sales about 20%, she said.

With the 405 closed and Sepulveda intended only for local traffic, Escoto fears that sales could plummet 50% to 80% for that mid-July weekend.

"Customers are worried how they are going to get in," Escoto said as three Yorkshire terriers yapped playfully in the background.

Many customers already have canceled appointments for that weekend, and some have shifted their pet's grooming to another date, requested at-home service or scheduled their pooches for pickup service.

But it's still going to be a nightmare for Escoto.

"We are just going to have to call everybody to say we will be late," she said. "Maybe one hour late, maybe two hours late."

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