During the three years I was a transportation planning student living in Los Angeles (I completed the final two years of my degree remotely), I had fairly consistent access to a car, but I generally only used it as a transportation mode of last resort since I preferred to travel by walking or transit, and I lived in very walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods (with terrible traffic and limited parking).
I lived in three different apartments during that time. The first was within a marginally reasonable walking distance to the temple; the second was on a transit line that served the temple; and the third was within a very reasonable walking distance to the temple. In those characterizations, I’m referring to what it takes to get to the edge of the temple grounds, without regard to where any of the entrances to the grounds are.
Here’s the problem: The Los Angeles Temple is basically a perfect example of a missed opportunity to accommodate pedestrians and transit patrons. There are other temples that are less pedestrian- or transit-friendly through the circumstances of their locations [fn]. The Los Angeles Temple stands out in my mind as a place where it could have excellent pedestrian and transit access, but it doesn’t.
There is a transit stop right in front of the temple, which is great. What isn’t great is that you can’t get to the temple from the front. There’s an imposing fence around the temple grounds with two big gates leading to sidewalks that go right up to the entrance of the temple building, but those gates are locked at all times, so those sidewalks are mostly decorative. The only way to get onto the temple grounds is through a gate on the east side of the block, which is about a five-minute walk from what looks like the main entrance at the front of the temple grounds — and it’s only as short as five minutes if you know where that open entrance is and go directly there rather than wandering around the neighborhood trying to figure out how to get in. Over the course of that kind of wandering, you’d come across enough other locked gates that you might give up after getting the impression that the temple grounds aren’t open to the public at all.
This isn’t just an issue for those arriving at the temple by transit. If you live or work within a mile or so of the temple, and you want to walk there, you’re most likely to be approaching the temple from the south or west sides (those are the sides where the adjacent neighborhoods have the highest density of homes and businesses). Again, this would work well, since that’s the corner of the block where the temple building is actually located, but all of the gates on those sides of the temple are closed and locked at all times. A substantial portion of your time walking to the temple might actually be spent walking around the block to get to the temple driveway.
Why does any of this matter? Los Angeles is a famously car-oriented city (though it isn’t as car-dependent as its reputation would suggest). “Nobody walks in LA,” and moreover, nobody walks to the temple. The temple was designed as a regional destination rather than as a local neighborhood amenity. I believe when it was first built, it not only served all of California and a couple of adjacent states, but also all of South and Central America (correction: This is not true – the Mesa, Arizona Temple served South and Central America – but the LA temple still served a lot of distant areas for a long time). Today, it serves members of the church as far as three and four hours away by car (I know this because I’m preparing to move to a city that’s three hours from LA, and we’ll be in back the Los Angeles Temple District). Of the thousands of temple recommend holders in the temple district, I’m guessing well under one hundred live within walking distance of the temple (not including those who actually live on the temple grounds) [fn2].
Still, when the access points to the temple are such that it’s inconvenient to arrive by foot or by transit, are we sending a subtle message to potential temple patrons —even the small minority for whom walking and transit could be the best way to get to the temple— that the correct way to get to the temple is by car? Or as Boromir might put it:
Perhaps more importantly, are we discouraging curious neighbors who live and work near the temple from visiting the temple grounds? In addition to the temple itself, the temple grounds are home to a visitor’s center and a family history center. Neither of these public-oriented centers is visible from the street; you’d need to already be on the temple grounds to just happen upon them if you didn’t already know they were there.
There’s an easy solution to this: Just open up all the gates so that people in the surrounding neighborhoods can walk onto the temple grounds from all sides. Maybe if we did that, the local community would start to use the temple grounds as a public park or garden: a nice place to take a walk or to sit and enjoy the flowers or the reflecting pool on a sunny afternoon. Those that do would likely have better awareness of the public events that the visitor’s center occasionally hosts. Maybe they would wander into the family history center. Perhaps they would be more likely to value the temple as a neighbor rather than just as a landmark.
I assume the gates are locked for a reason. Probably security. There’s a fair amount of homelessness in some of the adjacent neighborhoods. Perhaps the locked gates help dissuade people from sleeping on the temple steps. Maybe it’s about keeping people from walking their messy dogs on the temple grounds. But I think we need consider whether we have a stronger mandate to invite people in or to keep the wrong kind of people out.
I’m thinking about literal, physical access to the temple grounds, but maybe there’s a metaphor in there as well. Are there ways of accessing church participation and membership —gates that already exist and were even built into the institution— that have been closed and locked for no good reason?
[fn] Temple and meetinghouse siting is a separate and important topic, but this post is focusing just on site access.
[fn2] That’s a guess. I obviously don’t have access to the actual numbers for how many temple-recommend holders live in the temple district, much less how many live with a given radius.