North Figueroa Street bikeway signals opportunity to rethink the road

Ivers department store closed in 1984. Decline had set in well before that. Time to rethink North Figueroa Street?

It was at last month’s Bicycle Plan Implementation Team (BPIT) meeting that I saw the first sketches of what bikeways on North Figueroa Street in Cypress Park and Highland Park might look like. This corridor has been in decline as the automobile has risen to prominence from the mid-20th century onward – perhaps this bikeway project is the best opportunity in several generations to re-think transportation in the area?

The Figueroa Street Improvement Project Report, compiled over a decade ago, concluded that a rise in automobile-oriented streets in the area led to the commercial decline of businesses on North Figueroa Street:

“Since World War II, the Northeast Los Angeles region has continued to be bypassed with the development of the freeway system, which fostered commercial and industrial decentralization and the growth of peripheral suburbs. Commercial life on Figueroa Street declined with the emergence of the Eagle Rock Mall, which was itself superseded buy other shopping malls and pedestrian commercial zones in Glendale and Pasadena.”

This decline is symbolized with the closing and razing of Iver’s department store at Avenue 58 and N. Figueroa around 1984-85. This is documented in a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times from that period, among them is “Ivers: The End of an Era” by Greg Braxton published on May 27, 1984.

LA’s Bike Plan, passed in March of 2011, included a North Figueroa Street bikeway after a lot of lobbying from community members and advocacy groups. Since then, the N. Figueroa bikeway has been placed on a “Top 10” list of projects to be fast-tracked through the necessary environmental review process – which brings us full circle to last month’s BPIT meeting, when several preliminary design sketches were displayed and discussed.

The LADOT engineer that did the designs presented his first pass of options after a cursory study of the width of N. Figueroa as it bends down from Eagle Rock, through downtown Highland Park, and flattens out through Cyrpess Park and towards the LA River. There was, he said, much more study to be done until they come up with a satisfactory design – but some of his preliminary sketches looked inspiring, with one set including the removal of a car travel lane for bikeways.

There are some great reasons to do this on North Figueroa, among them is the historical form of the street with trolleys running in both directions, and a single car lane on each side. The urban architecture on N. Figueroa is still oriented towards this type of traditional lower speed commercial and residential activity – but the street has been turned into a speedway with the removal of the Los Angeles Railway tracks. The City has designated Highland Park from Avenue 50 to Avenue 60 as part of the Avenue 57 Transit Oriented District – which has since failed to materialize as anything other than hopeful planning.

In 2008, Livable Places performed the “Making Connections” study of improvements to better connect the area to the Gold Line – included among their findings were recommendations for bikeways in and around the intersection of N. Figueroa and Avenue 26.

Now, at the Cypress Park end of N. Figueroa, a bike bridge is being built alongside a refurbished Riverside Drive bridge.

With the bike plan passed, and some form of bikeway slated to be installed on North Figueroa Street, it is time for us to leverage the Riverside Drive bike bridge and all of the studies done of this corridor to be brought to bear on the the one thing left untouched since the construction of the 110 and the removal of the Los Angeles Railway sunk the areas business prospects – it is time to reform our vision of North Figueroa Street.

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