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Streetcar line called downtown's missing link

Approval of a $125-million project is hailed as the way to finally make cars optional in the city center — but skeptics say the money would be better spent elsewhere.

December 04, 2012|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times
  • A streetcar heads south on Broadway in early 1963. The proposed streetcar line would make a loop along Broadway, and Hill and Figueroa streets.
A streetcar heads south on Broadway in early 1963. The proposed streetcar… (Electrical Railway Historical…)

In a city that is often derided for its lack for public transportation, downtown L.A. is the one exception.

The city center has light-rail lines, a subway, a maze of bus routes and shuttles, links to commuter rail and even a tiny funicular that trudges up and down Bunker Hill.

But many residents and developers say that it can still be difficult to get around the far-flung city center without a car. So urban planners and downtown boosters have spent considerable time on what may have once been considered impossible: creating a truly car-optional neighborhood in the center of a region defined by its car culture.

Voters in downtown Los Angeles this week approved key financing for a $125-million streetcar project that might finally put this theory to the test. The streetcar would run mainly along Broadway, and Hill and Figueroa streets, three of downtown's main arteries, connecting various neighbors, including the old banking district, South Park, Civic Center and the fashion district.

Developers — and some residents — see the streetcar as a missing transportation link.

"If you're in New York, or San Francisco or Portland, you forget about your car. You walk, you take public transportation, and you get a much richer experience," said Scott Denham, vice president at Evoq Properties, a downtown developer. "The whole concept of being in L.A. and not having to drive to have a whole Saturday or Sunday to experience downtown… It's really not that far off in reality."

The streetcar is one of two major transportation infrastructure projects planned for downtown. The other is the so-called regional connector, a $1.3-billion, Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway line that would run beneath 2nd Street, linking trains from Pasadena and East L.A. with the Blue Line from Long Beach and Expo Line from Culver City.

Both projects have won support from city officials and business leaders, but there remains skepticism about whether downtown can truly break away from its reliance on the automobile.

Some note that downtown still lacks many of the chain stores and specialty shops found at regional malls. Others question why transit officials should spend so much on improving downtown mass transit when services are so much worse elsewhere in the region.

Jim Moore, professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC, noted that only 2% to 4% of the total jobs in Los Angeles County are based downtown. Instead of building more rail downtown, he said, planners would be better off using the resources to revamp bus service across the region.

"No number of streetcars or connectors is going to cause jobs to re-centralize," Moore said. "The economic forces pulling us in the other direction are just too strong."

The projects also face opposition from some property owners. Two major property owners have sued Metro over the effect of building the connector line, and some landlords have complained over the election process used for the streetcar, which only gave votes to residents but will tax property owners exclusively.

The streetcar ballot measure won with more than 70% of the vote in a special vote-by-mail election by downtown residents. Its passage Monday creates a special tax assessment district to raise up to $85 million. The tax will not be levied on property owners unless the project receives matching funds from the federal government and completes an environmental review. If all goes well, the streetcar could start running by 2015.

The streetcar is seen as a centerpiece of the city's efforts to revive the once-bustling Broadway corridor, which includes revitalizing the street's historic movie palaces and converting some of its old office buildings into housing. The streetcar, backers argue, would reestablish Broadway as a transportation spine connecting various parts of downtown, as it did when Los Angeles had an extensive streetcar system decades ago.

Downtown's recent revitalization has occurred in pockets, with distinct neighborhoods forming within a five-mile area stretching from Chinatown and the 10 Freeway to the Los Angeles River and 110 Freeway. Getting from a Little Tokyo sushi restaurant to Staples Center, or from a French eatery in the warehouse district to Disney Hall would be a half-hour walk.

It's a problem that Gerry Ruiz deals with many days: There's no quick way for him to get from his apartment complex on Cesar Chavez Avenue at the northern edge of downtown Los Angeles to the gym on Flower Street where he works as a personal trainer.

"My walk is 30 minutes or my drive is 30 minutes, when you've got to deal with the hassle of finding parking," Ruiz said of his 1.2- mile commute. "And you think about it, all over downtown, there's places to eat popping up, places to go, but everything is spread out."

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