Thursday, July 14, 2011

For Los Angeles, 53 Hours Without The Freeway Spells 'Carmageddon'

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LOS ANGELES—To help anxious Angelenos survive this weekend's shutdown of a chunk of one of the nation's busiest freeways, Kim Rodgers is offering to photograph their pets—at a discount.
"You've got to be crazy to try to drive anywhere," says Ms. Rodgers, co-owner of Bark Pet Photography, which takes pet portraits at customers' homes. "So if you're stuck, why not have your cat or dog photographed?" The Santa Monica company is offering 20% off on account of the planned closure of Interstate 405. The "4-0-fido" deal extends to all pets.
For 53 hours starting Friday night, the 405 will be closed for a 10-mile stretch through the Sepulveda Pass on the western side of Los Angeles so the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, can partially demolish a bridge to create a new lane for high-occupancy vehicles. The project won't be complete until 2013.
The closure of a major artery already notorious for daily gridlock is expected to produce a traffic jam of epic proportions. Locals have dubbed it "Carmageddon" and "Carpocalypse."
Officials fear it will bring Los Angeles to a standstill. The 250,000 vehicles that normally use that part of the 405 daily are expected to overwhelm smaller highways and surface streets.
The ensuing snarl will effectively cut off the San Fernando Valley in the north from shoreline communities like Santa Monica and Venice.
"It will be an absolute nightmare," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at a press conference last month. "Avoid the area, or stay home. Go on vacation that weekend."
City officials enlisted the help of celebrities to spread the word, tapping "CHiPs" star Erik Estrada ("Ponch") to film a public service announcement. "LAPD asked me 2tweet: 405fwy btwn 10 & 101 will be closed July16-17," actor Ashton Kutcher told his seven million followers on Twitter. "In xchange I would like a free pass on that stoplight tickt IT WAS YELLOW."
Amid the pre-emptive panic, a cluster of Carmageddon capitalists is emerging to combat the shutdown's impact on the local economy.
Fearful that the traffic will slow business, scores of merchants—from hotels and bars to florists and jewelers—are offering deals to lure spenders from their homes. Those located on shutdown-friendly thoroughfares, or neighborhoods with captive residents, see an opportunity to profit.
"It's the perfect time to get a tattoo. You can say, 'I got a tattoo the weekend they closed the 405.' It'll make it more special," says Howard Teman, owner of T-Man Tattoo on Ventura Boulevard, which is expected to clog during the 405 closure.
Mr. Teman is offering 15% off "any piercing or tattoo." He's not only hoping to attract people who live in his neighborhood, but also those stuck in the anticipated traffic crawl outside his location. To lure weary drivers out of their cars, Mr. Teman says he's thinking of hiring a man dressed in a chicken suit to stand on the sidewalk.
On Wednesday, JetBlue Airways Corp. announced a "Fly Over the 405" deal with a $4 one-way flight from Burbank to Long Beach, 40 miles away. For $150, travelers fearing Carmageddon can fly over the snarl in the same luxury helicopters that ferry celebrities like Will Smith and, most recently, England's William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, during their Los Angeles visit.
"We're trying to make something good out of this," says Lance Strumpf, the chief pilot of Briles Wing & Helicopter Inc. in Van Nuys. The company usually charges at least $5,000 for a minimum two-hour charter flight in an Agusta copter, which features Italian leather seats, sound-proof interiors and subtle lighting.
The price gets passengers a 15-minute flight (one-way) from the Van Nuys Airport, in the San Fernando Valley, over the 405 to the Los Angeles International Airport or the Santa Monica Airport. For no extra cost, passengers "can look at all those people stuck in traffic down below," Mr. Strumpf says.
"Brave the 405 closure with a four-course dinner for $40.05," declares the Wilshire Restaurant on Los Angeles' west side. In Santa Monica, Harvelle's bar is offering $5 for an "Irish Car Bomb" or a "Cadillac Margarita."
The shutdown has spawned, a website that has become the regional clearinghouse for shutdown events, deals and commentary. It sells T-shirts for $20 that read "My gridlock is bigger than yours."
On the upside, Angelenos can thank the closure for lowering the price they pay for diamonds.
Fifth Generation Readers Fine Jewelers is offering 20% off all merchandise except single diamonds over half a carat.
Avo Guerboian, whose family owns the Santa Monica shop, says he has offered discounts for Rose Bowl games and holidays, but never for a road closure. To distract potential customers from the nonromantic side of combining a gift of jewelry with the freeway shutdown, Mr. Guerboian says he will encourage clients to "Think of it not like 'Oh, the highway is closed, and I got this necklace.' But like 'Oh, you're getting 20% off, why don't you get me the matching earrings?'"
Many businesses privately are worried the deals won't be enough to pry spenders from home.
"The idea of the 405 being closed for a critical weekend in the summer is unfortunate timing for us," says Jeff Klocke, marketing director for Pacific Park, the amusement park on the Santa Monica Pier. About 60,000 to 80,000 people visit the pier on a summer weekend day, Mr. Klocke said, most of them from outside Santa Monica.
The park is offering 53 hours of free rides to anyone with a San Fernando Valley zip code on their driver's license. It also ordered special "traffic-cone orange" cotton candy for the weekend—free with a day pass. Hard pressed to find an orange variety, the park got a local novelty food vendor to whip up the shade on short notice, using a banana-flavored base and experimenting with color and heat.


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