As you read this, our train has arrived. After years of anticipation (and some dread), the Expo Line of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has reached close enough to the Pacific Ocean for a conductor to be wary of a high surf advisory. Yes, our train has arrived and with it comes a tsunami of change to our beachside city.
Three light rail stations are now open and at each there is both excitement and a little anxiety. What will the train bring to Santa Monica? Will the changes be positive? Can our city’s residents cope with the adjustments that need to be made? Will the increased connectivity be the end to the vision of those that think Santa Monica should be a sleepy beach town?
The return of light rail service after decades of absence brings stories of the long deceased red cars and the connectivity that the Los Angeles Metro area used to possess. My mother told me about catching the Red Car (our previous incarnation of light rail) all the way from Santa Monica to Hollywood to go dancing on a weekend night. In fact, until the mid 1950’s you could travel practically everywhere in Southern California without putting a pedal to the metal at all. As the car culture grew, our streetcars disappeared, driven into oblivion by auto and tire manufacturers. In a “Back To The Future” moment, the Red Car has returned. It’s got a new name, shiny new tracks and different routes, but our children and grandchildren will now be connected to over 106 miles of existing light rail service in Los Angeles.
First, let’s confront the dread. Two of our stations and the corresponding tracks are at street level on Colorado rather than elevated over the center median of Olympic Blvd as Metro had suggested. The Expo Line bifurcates our city on Colorado and could make north/south street crossings even slower than before. The potential for accidents has increased, with two accidents having already occurred during the testing period. Delays at intersections from 20th Street westward could slow our residents’ crosstown journey. The accidents, traffic delays and added congestion on our streets could have been avoided by keeping the train running above street level to its terminus in Santa Monica. The experience of Metro’s Blue Line (the most dangerous light rail line in America) should have educated us on the perils of street level light rail in a major city.
Also, our city leaders forgot about parking. If Santa Monica’s three stations weren’t going to be the magnet for Malibu, Venice, Pacific Palisades and Mar Vista residents, we wouldn’t have as much concern about the less than 70 dedicated parking spaces for Metro in our city. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti touts Santa Monica’s 7,000 parking spaces as ample parking for the Expo Line. He neglects to mention that those parking spaces are already filled. Residents, visitors and our incoming workforce all fight for parking. In fact, we have so little available parking that residents have to obtain permits to park on the streets they live on, park-goers now have to pay parking kiosks at Memorial and Stewart Street Parks, and the parking rates at the Santa Monica Civic parking lot are about to double. The failure to establish park-n-ride lots in Santa Monica was a critical mistake. It may mean that while the Expo Line to Santa Monica will be a huge magnet each day, it may be less so for the 45,000 of our city’s residents who commute to Los Angeles each weekday morning. And, even with the new routing schedules of the Big Blue Bus, many parts of the Westside have no easy access to the train. The Big Blue Bus may get you to your destination but it may not get you home that night.
There’s been a lot of talk about gentrification in our city. With the train comes extreme pressure for further development schemes. Institutional speculators see the area around each train station as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Most residents consider the large upticks in rent and the pressure to redevelop their neighborhood to be a symbol of unwanted change. Taller buildings, more people and increased traffic congestion are a sign that the city they love is fading away. Speculators walk the streets of the Mid-City and Pico neighborhoods offering to buy apartments and houses knowing that the train will bring even more money to their pockets.
There is much we won’t be able to fix. We will not be able to build enough parking spaces, and the Expo Line won’t be re-routed. We’ll have to be careful at intersections and add even more patience to our already taxed emotions. All of us must advocate for more public, subsidized connectivity options in Santa Monica. Four north-south routes of a DASH type system are essential for our residents to be able to use our light rail system and access our central business district without driving. A subsidized shared ride system from the stations to your home is also needed. We can add bathrooms at Expo stops. The city must find a better method to help park-goers access our parks without charging them for parking. Perhaps, it’s time to think about a resident parking card with privileges.
The little things count. No bathrooms at any station west of downtown Los Angeles will aggravate some. The noise from the train maintenance yard at Stewart and Exposition and in the Mid-City neighborhood will disturb neighbors who live adjacent to the tracks. The fear exists that the increased connectivity will bring added crime to our city. Emergency vehicles will lose precious seconds as they wait for trains to cross our streets. And, there is real angst ahead for residents who feel that their city has slipped away from them.
Santa Monica must resist the development pressures that are ubiquitous to our city’s location. These pressures will only increase with the arrival of the train. Increased height and density that arrives without sensitivity will bring further discord and anger. On the positive side, Expo will be a valuable means of exploration for developers. They can seek areas of Los Angeles that are depressed and need their investment more. It’s interesting that some of these developers say that they must build higher and denser to find our city’s character. There’s one problem they didn’t anticipate: our city already has character, history and residents who love the sunny, breezy quality of their surroundings.
Has Santa Monica really slipped away or are we facing an exciting future? We’re no longer just the “beach” of Los Angeles. We have become a world-class city in our own right. The arrival of Expo is really a birth. It’s not about what that baby is now, but the adult it will become. While each baby causes some discomfort and a lot of teething fits, eventually you become proud of that child, as we will with Expo. Future generations will laud the foresight of voters in taxing themselves to pay for a more connected future. Even if Expo doesn’t go where you may want it to today, future riders will see it as their freedom to go where they want and need to go.
There is another positive addition the train brings to Santa Monica. Los Angeles is a vast place, full of mystery and reward. Your challenge is to hop onboard the Expo Line and exit at a stop you have never explored before. Find that neighborhood joint, have a bite, shop a little and explore a new part of town. Do that every weekend for a while. Venture to Pasadena, Chinatown, North Hollywood, The Aquarium Of The Pacific, the Rose Garden at the Coliseum and more. There’s only one rule – take the train. Follow my mother’s lead and take the train to the Palladium for a night on the town. Stop in downtown Los Angeles for great theater or grand music. Explore the history of our neighboring city, all by train. Exit for a French dip at Phillippe’s, a steak and martini at Musso & Frank’s, dim sum in Chinatown or some taquitos on Olvera Street. The train opens your life to a whole new world if you let it.
After a few weekends of exploration you’ll start to forget about our parking mess, the constant gridlock and the presence of the 8.3 million tourists who love to visit our town each year. Buy a Breeze Bikeshare pass, begin to use ridesharing, walk our streets, become enchanted with our city and region and look forward to your next adventure!
Phil Brock for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects or a Responsible Tomorrow)
Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Ron Goldman FAIA, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission