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Q&A / LOCAL GOVERNMENT

Are voters ready to pay for a subway-to-the-sea ride?

January 22, 2007|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

This columnist had to drive from City Hall to Venice on a recent evening for a 6:30 meeting. Using a combination of the Santa Monica Freeway and Venice Boulevard, the trip took only an hour.

So let's begin there ...

Any progress on the subway-to-the-sea front?

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office has been polling to see whether county voters would support a tax increase to help pay for the subway and a slew of other transit projects in the city.

Of course, there's a caveat. The mayor and many other politicians frequently conduct polls on a variety of topics: (Do they like me? If so, why? Should I pour the ketchup on the fries or on the side?) A poll doesn't mean anything will happen.

But City Hall sources say the mayor is exploring the idea of a ballot measure next year that could come in the form of a bond measure or sales tax increase.

With federal dollars in short supply, the idea is to get some money for the subway to the sea and also fund other projects in the county to make a tax hike palatable to non-Westsiders.

County voters in 1980 and again in 1990 passed half-cent sales tax increases to fund mass transit programs. The question is whether they would be willing to do it again to fill remaining holes in the region's budding rail system.

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Switching gears, is there going to be a new boutique hotel along MacArthur Park?

A group of Korean businesspeople purchased the Park Plaza Hotel on Park View Street a block north of Wilshire Boulevard last year and are in the process of remodeling. They hope to reopen the hotel in the next two to three years.

Built as an Elks Lodge in 1925 at the northwest corner of MacArthur Park, the massive structure later became a YWCA and then a hotel. In recent years it has been mostly used for film shoots and as a banquet hall.

"We're close to the subway, we're near downtown and we're 15 minutes from Museum Row," hotel spokeswoman Victoria Federico said. "MacArthur Park has been cleaned up tremendously in recent years. We've got the location."

The bottom three floors still have many of the Beaux Arts building's original touches, while floors 4 through 11 have been stripped to the bone recently for conversion to hotel rooms. The owners also plan a new restaurant and bar on the fourth floor, with an outdoor deck overlooking the park.

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Boutique hotel? Next to MacArthur Park?

Yes. The area around the Park Plaza is not easily mistaken for, say, Paris' 5th Arrondissement, and the park, in particular, has to overcome the image of once being a convenient place to buy cocaine, a gun or a fake Social Security card.

But the city is spending $4 million renovating the park -- the band shell is due for a face-lift soon -- and deploying more police officers to patrol the neighborhood. Violent crime is down 46% in the area since 2003, according to police statistics.

The City Council even held a meeting in a tent outside the park last summer to prove how safe it was. Of course, the elected officials also had about 100 police officers as escorts.

Other fixes are in the works for the Westlake neighborhood. One block over from the Park Plaza, the American Cement Building has been turned into lofts. A new sit-down restaurant, Chichen Itza, has opened on 6th Street across from the Park Plaza, and the Community Redevelopment Agency plans to build an affordable-housing project next to the Alvarado Street subway stop.

Make no mistake: The neighborhood is poor and heavily Latino. The median income in the census tract that includes the hotel was $16,209 in 2000.

Still, street life is thriving, particularly on Alvarado. Part of the scene is the former Westlake Theater, which is now home to a swap meet. Although much of its interior has been stripped away -- the city intervened in the 1990s to stop further damage -- some of its history remains. The ticket booth is a tiny locksmith shop. The painted ceiling is still there. And, if you walk all the way to the back of the swap meet and turn around, there's the projection booth and the balcony, without seats.

It's certainly an interesting contrast to the Park Plaza. Here are two historic buildings on opposite sides of the park. One is gentrifying, the other a reflection of life these days in the neighborhood.

Mulling over the changes he thinks are coming, Councilman Ed Reyes said his hope was that revival wouldn't push longtime residents out.

"On the other hand, we don't want this to be an economic ghetto either," Reyes said. "A hotel there creates a different sense of what could be."

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What's new with Metergate?

While perusing Los Angeles' budget last week -- no, this columnist has not yet been formally diagnosed -- we couldn't help but notice that, according to the city's Department of Transportation, there were 3,275,845 parking tickets issued in fiscal year 2003-04 and 3,275,845 parking tickets issued in fiscal 2004-05.

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