By Cory Bilicko
When Eighth District Long Beach Councilmember Rae Gabelich scheduled Wednesday night’s community meeting, along with Seventh District Councilmember James Johnson, she’d assume its purpose would be to discuss the safety issues surrounding Los Cerritos Elementary students’ use of the Del Mar Pedestrian Tunnel/Walkway, which connects the Wrigley Heights neighborhood and Los Cerritos Park in Bixby Knolls.
When the meeting began shortly after 6:30 at Bixby Knolls’ Mirage Coffeehouse, it didn’t take long for some of the more than 40 people in attendance to voice other concerns, including: Wrigley residents’ desire for pedestrian access before and after Bixby’s summer concerts in the park; safety for those who want to use the tunnel for exercise; and the fact that the walkway serves as a convenient hideaway for criminal activity, including graffiti vandalism and the use of illicit drugs.
Gabelich began the meeting with a brief introduction about how two principals of Los Cerritos had contacted her office in the last three years to inform her that budget cuts prevented the school from affording staff to escort the 12 students to and from Wrigley in the walkway. “Fast-forward to the beginning of this school year, and October rolls around, and they are not escorting anybody,” Gabelich said. “I notified our mayor, the city manager, the superintendent in the spring and in the early summer, that, ‘what are we going to do about this?’”
She explained that she asked Public Works to ascertain whether or not the passageway is safe for children and the department concluded that it was not. She said she spoke with Los Cerritos Principal Donald Beaver about the matter and he notified the parents of those students who use the tunnel about Gabelich’s decision to close access to the tunnel. “I asked [Public Works] to lock it off so that we wouldn’t have kids crossing there,” Gabelich said. “I never really realized that the folks that live in Wrigley Heights were using it to get to Los Cerritos Park, but my concern still remains: what do we do about the kids? What I’m concerned about is not if someone has to walk an extra half a mile [to get to school], but what happens if there’s a child who is assaulted on their way to or from school? I don’t want that on my conscience. So tonight I hope that we can come up with some ideas about how can we make it safe and available to everybody.”
After presenting the background information on the walkway, Gabelich, along with Johnson, Deputy City Manager Reggie Harrison, North Division Police Commander Galen Carroll and Lt. Randy Allen from the West Division, opened the floor to community members at the meeting.
Some residents suggested that the police department coordinate volunteers who would escort the children. Carroll and Allen explained that, although the police department appreciates and values volunteers, it is difficult to find enough of them and problems arise when they don’t show up for their shifts. Gabelich added that a Los Cerritos teacher had informed her that another teacher was assaulted in the tunnel last year after escorting students home.
Dan McKee, who is president of Countryside Lane Homeowners Association, indicated that reclosing the tunnel would necessitate the hiring of several crossing guards to monitor students on their way to school along surface streets, so having just one paid guard in the tunnel would be more cost-effective and safer. “You’ve got a train there, which someone was just killed [by] the other day,” McKee said. He also recommended that the gates to the tunnel be locked at dusk. When he later suggested that the issue might be one of “class,” implying economic differences between the two neighborhoods, Gabelich was quick to rebut the notion and asked that the focus of the meeting remain on safety concerns.
Other suggestions from the residents in attendance included: making the tunnel compliant to the Americans with Disabilities Act by removing the turnstiles at each end; installing better lights in the tunnel; using cameras to monitor activity in the walkway; and posting a panic button. Caroll and Allen said that cameras can be expensive and that a panic button becomes problematic when curious or mischievous people press it when there isn’t an actual emergency. “Please be realistic about what you’re asking from city government,” Allen said.
Johnson closed the meeting by announcing that the subject of the walkway will be further discussed at the Feb. 9 Wrigley Association meeting.
Photo by Linda Ivers