Thursday, May 1, 2008
MacDonald’s Client Fares Poorly in Olvera Trial
By ROGER M. GRACE
Coming before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Caryl M. Sheldon on Jan. 9, 1931, was a case in which an Olvera Street property owner, Constance D. Simpson, was seeking to enjoin implementation of a city ordinance which closed the street to vehicular traffic. Her attorney was J. Wiseman MacDonald.
Had the ordinance failed to pass judicial scrutiny, a sure halt would have come to the transformation of the narrow 520-foot street into a pedestrian tourist attraction—a project which had commenced, with the street having been paved and shops already opening.
Information on what transpired in the courtroom is derived from the Los Angeles Times archives.
MacDonald told Sheldon that the closing of the street impermissibly impeded access to his client’s building, used by tenants for business and light industry. He insisted that the City Council had taken an action in excess of its police power, and that the plain intent was to benefit private, rather than public, interests.
David Faries, arguing for the non-profit Plaza de Los Angeles Corporation, which was funding the project (through donation) and managing it, questioned why Simpson was raising a fuss. He stressed that Olvera Street ran north and south along the east side of her building; there was still vehicular access on Main Street on the west side, as well as on a street (now non-existent, and part of the plaza area) on the south.
Sheldon spent the day hearing arguments—then ordered that testimony begin the next day.
Admissions damaging to Simpson’s case came on the first day of testimony. Deputy City Attorney Richard Kitzmiller asked Simpson’s purchasing agent:
“Isn’t it a fact that the pedestrians now attracted to Olvera street have a greater purchasing power than those who used it before the improvement?”
“They represent a different purchasing power,” the witness said, his obvious evasion being akin to “yes.”
“Wouldn’t these improvements increase the value of the priority fronting there?”
The witness: “Ordinarily yes.”
“Before and after” photos were introduced into evidence on Jan. 15, identified by a man whose Main Street business exited on Olvera Street.
“Nobody used Olvera Street before the improvement,” the witness said. “Trucks blocked the south entrance and automobiles passed by the entrance to the street, because it was so dirty. Much of the time, there was rubbish piled against the rear of property fronting on Olvera Street.”
The director of the city health department testified that before the revitalization efforts, Olvera street was typically littered with dead animals. He testified that occupants of the Avila House, on that street, had been evicted because it was unsafe.
(That 1818 structure—the oldest residence in the city street, where General John C. Fremont made his headquarters in 1847 during military occupation of California—had, in fact, been condemned by the city…spurring the preservationist activities spearheaded by Christine Sterling.)
A Jan. 20 headline in the Times reads, “OLD MEXICO ENTERS COURT.” The article recounts that 25 “Olvera-street folk” came to Sheldon’s court, clad in “early California costumes.”
Wiseman had subpoenaed them, hoping to draw from the witnesses whether they had paid city peddlers’ licensing fees. Kitzmiller and Faries objected (presumably due to lack of relevancy) and Sheldon disallowed the testimony.
The article notes: “City Public Defender [Frederick M.] Hall was present to represent the picturesque witnesses but was not called into action.”
That same day, he court heard argument. MacDonald said:
“To the esthetic eye there is no question that Olvera Street is better today than it was before it was paved by popular subscription. That is not the question. The question is the right of the city to bar my client from driving to her door on Olvera Street.”
From that quote, it would appear that the contention that the public good was not a competing interest had been abandoned.
The next day, oral arguments concluded, and 20 days were allotted for written memoranda, The 90-day rule (requiring court decisions within that time) was not to go into effect for some decades, and Sheldon’s ruling did not come until Dec. 24.
Next time: a look at Sheldon’s ruling and to the reference in the Times article to a “city public defender.”
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company
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