As the day draws nearer for work to start on Metro Rail's subway underneath Hollywood, concern is growing among those who live and work there: Will the project help revitalize the blighted area or will the years of construction speed its downward spiral?
That question was the central topic of discussion last week as more than 100 area merchants and residents attended a meeting at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on the subject of the Metro Rail Red Line project.
A Metro Rail representative and a Los Angeles city transportation official said they would do their best to ensure that construction planners are sensitive to the concerns of area merchants and residents. They vowed to lessen the effects of excavation and construction as much as possible and avoid some of the problems that have arisen during construction of the first leg of the subway downtown.
Construction is tentatively scheduled to start in late 1992 on the 6.7-mile second segment of Metro Rail. By then, the first leg, running through downtown from Union Station to MacArthur Park, will be nearing completion. The next segment will run from MacArthur Park through the heart of Hollywood to Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. Eventually, plans call for the $4-billion line to stretch 17.4 miles from downtown to North Hollywood.
The Hollywood segment is expected to cost $1.4 billion, with completion planned for 1998.
The meeting in Hollywood Wednesday night was sponsored by the Hollywood Boulevard Community Council. Many residents were openly skeptical of Metro Rail's plans, in the wake of reports of large cost overruns, management problems and the devastating underground fire at a construction site last summer.
Two merchants with businesses along 7th Street, in the heart of the downtown construction area, had dire warnings to offer those expecting an unobtrusive Hollywood project.
"It was a war field," Laurent Quenioux, owner and chef of 7th Street Bistro, told those in attendance. "I can go on and on and on, but the effect is that (the construction) has been devastating to my business."
Quenioux and bookstore owner Siegfried Lindstrom warned of open excavation pits, blocked streets, unbearable noise, shaking buildings and monstrous cranes and other machinery blocking their entrances. They also said construction and transit officials had been chronically insensitive to their complaints and concerns during the last three years. Quenioux has sued transit officials, saying the construction work nearly killed his business. He said at least three other stores, including a sushi restaurant and cookie store, shut down because of the construction.
"You guys on Hollywood Boulevard have a right to be concerned," added Lindstrom, president of Fowler Brothers Bookstore at 717 W. 7th St. "You should band together and get all the leverage you can so you can be heard."
Lindstrom said downtown merchants formed an association to address issues of concern in July, prompting transit officials to widen sidewalks to improve access to businesses and become more sensitive to other complaints.
During the three-hour meeting, much of the criticism was leveled at the Rapid Transit District, which in July relinquished control of the project to the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission because of at least $135 million in cost overruns and other problems.
Ellen Gelbard, project manager for the transportation commission's Westside area team, told the audience that the agency had learned from the downtown construction experience and from complaints of downtown merchants.
She also said merchants should give the new management a chance. Once, when Quenioux complained about insensitive bureaucrats, Gelbard interjected: "That was RTD, though, not LACTC."
"We realize it is not going to be painless," Gelbard said. But she added that the commission and its construction subsidiary, Rail Construction Corp., plan to contact every merchant in Hollywood who might be affected by the project to address their concerns.
Gelbard and city transportation engineer James Okazaki also said that, in contrast with the first segment procedures, construction equipment will be placed out of the way of pedestrians and merchants whenever possible.
The transit officials said construction would amount to nothing more than an inconvenience. The attraction and marketability of living and working near a subway, they said, will be worth it.
Many of the details of the Hollywood leg of the subway have yet to be worked out. Plans for the Hollywood segment are still in the design stages, and the transportation commission plans to release a "construction mitigation" blueprint in early 1991, according to Steve Lantz, director of the transportation commission's Westside team.
That plan, Lantz said in an interview, will outline how transit officials hope to shelter the surrounding community from excavation, traffic tie-ups and other problems. After that, officials will seek even more input from the community to make sure the project is a boon, not a hindrance, he said.
"This is the beginning of the revitalization of Hollywood," Lantz said, "not the ruination of it."
Construction on the 6.7-mile second segment of Metro Rail's Red Line, running from Alvarado Street at MacArthur Park to Hollywood and Vine, is scheduled to start as early as 1992, with completion tentatively planned for 1998. The segment will include a one-mile spur along Wilshire Boulevard to Western Avenue.