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Goodbye Westside Traffic, Hello Purple Subway

Paige Brettingen |
April 5, 2012 | 10:24 a.m. PDT

Special Projects Editor

LACMA's Urban Light-- the view from the potential Orange Grove subway stop along the Purple Line subway (Creative Commons)
LACMA's Urban Light-- the view from the potential Orange Grove subway stop along the Purple Line subway (Creative Commons)

Hotel owner Aaron Tomaszewski awaits the day when he no longer complains about-- or hears complaints about-- the traffic that continually clogs his West Los Angeles neighborhood.

"We had hotel guests who said it took their son longer to drive and meet them than for them to walk the [same one mile distance] down Wilshire [Boulevard]," said Tomaszewski, recalling one of the many traffic stories that has come to define his Miracle Mile neighborhood off Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.  Tomaszewski and his family have owned the 34-room Wilshire Crest Hotel at 6302 Orange Ave. for 36 years.

A board member of the Mid City West Community Council, Tomaszewski is in support-- along with fellow community members and business owners in the Miracle Mile-- of the Los Angeles Country Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) moving forward with the Purple Line Westside Subway Extension.  Starting at Union Station in downtown L.A., the Purple Line would branch out nine miles west with stops at Miracle Mile, Beverly Hills, Century City and the UCLA Campus in Westwood.

For Miracle Mile, the subway would serve the 2.2 million visitors to "Museum Row" along Wilshire Boulevard that hosts the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Page Museum and La Brea Tar Pits.

"By 2035, it is projected that of our 1 million [LACMA] visitors, 20 percent will take public transit… We think it's a safe assumption our attendance will grow by a couple hundred thousand a year," said Fred Goldstein, the vice president and general counsel for LACMA.

At the Mid City West Community Council's transportation, parking and streetscape committee meeting on Thursday evening, Tomaszewski, Goldstein and four others-- a group of board members, business owners and community members-- listened to the most recent updates as the project inches toward its start date.  A few complaints about how long it took to get to the meeting also found their way in.

America Fast Forward's Impact

The first phase of the Purple Line Westside Subway Extension would be completed by 2020 with stations along Wilshire Boulevard at La Brea and Fairfax Avenues and La Cienega Boulevard.  Rodeo Drive and Century City subway stops would follow by 2026, and the final phase of stops at Westwood/UCLA and the Veterans' Hospital would be complete by 2035.

But the process could move quicker if the "America Fast Forward" Initiative-- or the 30/10 Initiative-- created by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) gets passed.  With this initiative, 30 years of construction and transportation work aim to be completed in 10 years including the Purple Line, which would be finished by 2022.  The project's $5.6 billion price tag would be covered by federal loan money where California would then repay the debt with Measure R revenues: The voter-approved tax increase that was passed in November 2008.   

President Obama has also reserved $50 million in the 2013 federal budget for the Purple Line Westside Subway Extension out of the $74 billion being put toward national Department of Transportation projects.

However, though the "America Fast Forward Initiative" passed through the Senate with a 74-22 vote, it still has to get through the House of Representatives. 

While the initiative waits for approval, the businesses along Museum Row that would be most affected by construction of the Westside subway focus on how to navigate setbacks.

Evan Kaizer is one whose business, Sieroty Real Estate Co. at 6022 Wilshire Blvd., will have to be partially removed depending on the location of the subway portal sites. 

"Between us and LACMA, we're 60-plus percent of the land mass on that block… and we're very supportive.  We're a fourth generation family company… and we have plans to be a sixth generation family company.  We're not going anywhere," said Kaizer.  "We've had conversations with Metro as well as with LACMA and with other officials in town about trying figure out a way to maintain our presence on the block."

While Kaizer works with Metro to figure out how his business can stay, he said others may not have that choice.  Kaizer mentioned that the building being rented by the Architecture+Design Museum at 6032 Wilshire Blvd. may have to be completely removed if the subway portal is constructed on Orange Grove Avenue. 

"They have a lease through --I believe-- 2014, and they're concerned because they realize they're going to have to leave," he said. 

Neither A+D Museum nor Metro could be reached for comment.

Subway Entrance Opposition

The Miracle Mile subway station was the main agenda item at Thursday's meeting in which the council focused on the pros and cons of the two potential locations: One on the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue (nestled between the 99-Cents-Only Store and Johnie's-- a former 1950's-style coffee shop now rented out for movie shoots) or another location east of Fairfax between Ogden Drive and Orange Grove Avenue across from LACMA.  Though Metro is in favor of the Johnie's portal, the Mid City West Community Council favors the latter location.

"We think the [Metro] staff's recommendation doesn't take into consideration the area's worth as a cultural destination that a stop at Wilshire/Fairfax directly serves LACMA, the Page Museum, Hancock Park and other cultural institutions in the Miracle Mile on Museum Row," said Goldstein, who has been serving as the liaison between Metro and the Mid City West Community Council.

According to Goldstein, Metro maintains that there are environmental concerns for not wanting to place the portal at Orange Grove Avenue where it would be across from the La Brea Tar Pits.

"They thought it would be a little closer to the swampy ground of the La Brea Tar Pits although I don't really know if the geological conditions at Johnie's or further west are that much better, but they did express concerns about that.   The [LACMA] board overrode those concerns and chose the east option… because it more directly serves the museums," he said.

In addition to the Orange Grove's proximity to tourist landmarks, Goldstein argued that the portal would be an obvious choice both aesthetically and financially.

"When you leave the Orange Grove station, you'll see [Chris Burden's] ‘Urban Light’ [exhibit at LACMA] right next to you; you'll be in a plaza of some kind that let's you know exactly where you are.  When you leave the Johnie's station, you're… going to see an office building across the street," said Goldstein.

"Treat this as a destination- as a cultural destination for Los Angelinos and for tourists who are coming here.  Other great cities that have museums and subway systems have identified their stations with those cultural stations," he said.

Goldstein also argued that based on projected figures in Metro's Environmental Impact Statement and Environmental Impact Report, the Orange Grove portal site would cost $2 million less than the Johnie's portal.

A 27-Year-Long Setback

With so much push by community members to keep the project going forward, it may seem curious why a subway to the Westside hasn’t happened sooner. 

Yet, nearly 27 years ago, it had been going through the same proposal phases.

Board member Jeff Jacobberger recalled how all progress on the subway stopped in 1985 after a gas explosion at the Ross Dress For Less clothing store that injured 21 people and prompted Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) to raise concerns over lingering methane.  Waxman insisted that the Fairfax area be avoided.

"There was a federal and county ban on funding for a Wilshire subway.  And now, there's still some unease, some trepidation-- I think there's always trepidation with a big project, but there's really not a loud voice in opposition in the way that there was 25 years ago. It's a 180 in terms of the public voices," said Jacobberger in an interview after the meeting.

Jacobberger said he wonders if many long-term residents remember the incident. Or perhaps fears have subsided since Metro conducted an in-depth, four-year-study done with its Environmental Impact Statement and Environmental Impact Report.

A More Far-Reaching Goal

As the project moves steadily toward its next phase-- a meeting with the Metro Board on Apr. 26 for final approval of the subway portals-- community board members and business owners see a variety of possibilities that the subway line can bring.

For Tomaszewski, he anticipates better business as hotel patrons rely less on cars.

"I definitely see business improving.  We get a lot of tourists from all over the world and if they don't have to deal with parking… the parking signs in the area are so confusing," he said.  "Even for people who speak English fluently, it's a nightmare."

Looking beyond transportation ease and traffic-free streets, Goldstein envisions public transportation accomplishing an even more far-reaching goal for the city.

"I come from New York [that] has an old, old subway system and everybody uses it.  And that's what's great about it.  It changes the social fabric of the city because you have people from all social classes, economic classes and ethnicities using the system,” he said after the meeting.

“It really changes how people relate to each other in what I think is a very positive way.  Speaking for the museum, we think it's a fantastic thing to bring in more people and expand our audience."



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