Plans to move forward with the long-anticipated subway extension in West Los Angeles have barely been approved, but a conflict over the location of the line's Century City stop is already pitting businesses and property owners against riders.
The two main options for the stop are at the intersection of Avenue of the Stars and Constellation Boulevard or at Avenue of the Stars and Santa Monica Boulevard. The Constellation stop would be in the center of busy Century City, near the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel.
However, it would also require tunneling below Beverly Hills High School. The Santa Monica alternative stop would be only two-tenths of a mile away, but along Santa Monica Boulevard at the edge of the Los Angeles Country Club, perhaps drawing fewer riders. The club's policy is to not issue statements regarding outside businesses, and its personnel would not comment for this article.
Since Constellation and Santa Monica boulevards run parallel to each other, it is not possible to tunnel under Santa Monica Boulevard to a stop at Constellation, as the route would have to turn, according to Dave Sotero, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's senior public information officer.
The MTA board voted on and approved proceeding with the Westside Extension on Oct. 28 and will spend the next several months reviewing environmental reports. A decision on where to construct the Century City stop is expected in the next 10 months.
"We've been discussing the subway for 50 years, one way or another," said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who also serves as the MTA board vice chair. "People said it wouldn't happen. Now, the only question is when."
Century City property owners are adamant that a Metro station at Santa Monica Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars is poorly located, will negatively impact their businesses and produce low ridership.
"If you're going to have a subway, you want to put it in a location where you get the most passengers to use it," said Susan Bursk, president and CEO of the Century City Chamber of Commerce.
With about 50,000 workers in Century City, proponents claim a stop at Constellation would attract more passengers, even enough of them to make the extension more cost effective, based on government funding models.
The chamber's board of directors is working with the MTA and representing Century City. It's mostly made up of property managers and employees of companies with offices in Century City, and has more than 50 members.
"I know some people think, 'Well, it's only one block," but it's not just one block, it is a huge mega-block…you have people who will drive one block," Bursk said. Making it as easy as possible for potential riders to use the subway will also make a Constellation stop more cost effective, she said. "People want to be able to go where they want to go, and if you have to take them someplace much farther from where their destination is, I think they're less likely to use it," Bursk said.
Additionally, she said that Century City employees could use the subway during the workday instead of driving to downtown meetings.
Some experts agree. "It's probably, from a ridership perspective, the most ideal because it has the most access," Lisa Schweitzer, a sustainable transportation expert at USC, said in an interview.
But building a stop at Constellation and Avenue of the Stars requires drilling under Beverly Hills High School, where 2,200 students are enrolled. Many Beverly Hills residents and its board of education are adamantly opposed to any tunneling under their homes or the school. Their main concern is safety for their children, and they cite MTA's past construction accidents as reasons to tunnel under Santa Monica Boulevard instead. While tunneling to build the Red Line, the MTA ran into trouble. There was the 1985 methane gas explosion; then, in 1995, an 80-foot sinkhole developed on Hollywood Boulevard.
They also note the school is the city's emergency preparedness center. These centers are fully equipped in case of a natural disaster or terrorist attack and can be used as a shelter or for emergency response. The high school is the largest such center in Beverly Hills.
It is common worldwide to have subway lines running under entire cities, and the MTA says it will continue studying potential safety hazards, including oil wells' subsurface gases in order to ease citizens' concerns about construction. "It is possible to tunnel and operate a subway along the Wilshire Corridor safely," a 2005 American Public Transit Association Peer Review Panel concluded.
Yet many Beverly Hills residents remain unconvinced. "The MTA has not shown us, the Beverly Hills School District, and has not demonstrated to the community through the multiple means they've had, why the Century City route is a better route," said Brian Goldberg, a Beverly Hills School District board of education member.
As a result, Beverly Hills residents are mounting fierce opposition. They hired an attorney from Best Best & Krieger to review the MTA's environmental report and contacted state Attorney General Jerry Brown about imminent domain rights to the land under the school. At the time of this story's posting, the school board had not received a reply from him. They are also considering sending lobbyists to Sacramento and possibly Washington, D.C. The board of education is leading this effort. Money to cover these costs, which are estimated at $500,000, will either come from fundraising or it will be taken from the board's general fund.
The issue has galvanized residents more than any other in recent years, Goldberg said. "In the time that I've lived in Beverly Hills and the time that I've served on the school board, I have never seen the community rally around an issue and bring together a community in the way the MTA's plan to tunnel under our high school and homes has," he said.
The school board supports three construction alternatives to the stop at Constellation. The first is building an entrance from the Santa Monica stop in the direction of Constellation. Another is building a moving sidewalk to shuttle riders to Constellation, and the third is tunneling under Santa Monica Boulevard, but building the stop at Constellation, according to Goldberg.
"There really is no justification for tunneling under a high school, except that wealthy developers in Century City want it in the middle of Century City in front of their buildings, said Goldberg. "Unfortunately I think this comes down to money, instead of what's in the public's best interest."
"We can't let this discussion stop the development of public transit to the Westside of L.A.," said Schweitzer of USC. "You do not want wealthy, very mobile homeowners on the Westside of L.A. deciding where all the transit users in the region are going to be able to go, and where they're not going to be able to go."
By 2035, it is estimated the project will generate almost 53,000 passenger boardings at new stations along the extension, the MTA's Sotero said. The projected cost is $4.2 billion in 2009 dollars. Construction could start as early as 2013, and if Metro secures advance federal funding, the extension to the Westwood area may be completed by 2022.