Where Is this Bridge Going?

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The old Sixth Street Bridge is gone. It was torn down early in 2016. The demolition was necessary because the concrete in the original structure was decaying. Work has begun on constructing a new Sixth Street Bridge, and right now it looks like it will be finished in 2020. (For the record, the formal project title is the Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project.)

Bridges are about making connections. The original structure was built in 1932, and was one of a series of bridges that spans the LA River. This ambitious infrastructure project started in the 20s and continued through the 30s, eventually allowing numerous crossings between Downtown and East LA. Here are a few photos of the old Sixth Street Bridge.

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A shot from the base of the bridge.

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A truck coming down the west side.

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A view of the bridge facing west.

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Downtown in the distance.

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A view of the San Gabriel Mountains from the old bridge.

The renderings of the new bridge are striking. It was designed by architect Michael Maltzan, but the project is a team effort, and the goal is to produce something much more than a bridge. Here’s a quote from Maltzan’s web site.

The design team including Michael Maltzan Architecture (Design Architect), HNTB (Engineer and Executive Architect), Hargreaves Associates (Landscape Architect), and AC Martin (Urban Planning) began with the fundamental understanding that the Viaduct is more than a simple replacement thoroughfare crossing the Los Angeles River. The project instead foresees a multimodal future for the City, one that accommodates cars, incorporates significant new bicycle connections. It also increases connectivity for pedestrians to access the Viaduct, not only at its endpoints, but along the entirety of the span, linking the bridge, the Los Angeles River, and future urban landscapes in a more meaningful relationship.

The project also includes a park and an arts center. You can see some images here.

Sixth Street Viaduct/PARC from LA Bureau of Engineering

Here are some shots of the project site from March 2017, when work on the new bridge was just beginning.

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For the time being, this is where Sixth St. ends.

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Lots of machinery on the project site.

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Looking across the river toward East LA.

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A shot of the riverbed when construction was just starting.

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Another angle.

And here are some shots from August 2017.

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A little more progress has been made.

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A closer view.

For the team involved with the design, this project is all about bringing things together, creating connections and offering new ways for people to experience this space. One of the chief goals is to link the Arts District with Boyle Heights and the LA River. That sounds pretty cool in the abstract, but in actual fact there are a lot of reasons to worry about the downside. I’m sure Maltzan and his team see this project as a positive thing, but that’s not surprising. They’re architects and engineers engaged in creating a spectacular new piece of infrastructure. And of course the City’s website  is all about the upside.  But really, the City’s glib promo materials don’t begin to describe what’s happening here. By itself, the new bridge may sound great, but if you look at it in the larger context of the area’s culture and economy, you start to realize that this project could have serious negative impacts.

Any large scale infrastructure project, any attempt to remake the landscape, is going to affect the surrounding communities. These impacts can be good or bad, and often it’s a mix of the two. In this case, the biggest issue is one that never gets mentioned on the City’s web site. It’s the same issue that communities all over LA are dealing with. Displacement. Downtown LA has been going through a massive construction boom, with high-end housing and high-end retail largely transforming that community into an upscale enclave. Now developers are eyeing neighborhoods on the other side of the river.

The residents of Boyle Heights are already feeling the effects of gentrification, as real estate investors looking for cheap land and big profits have been buying up parcels in the area. Evictions are already happening, and many people who live in this largely Latino community are afraid they’ll be next. You may have read about the protests that have taken place in recent years. Here are some shots from an action staged by East LA residents in September 2016.  Protesters met at the intersection of Whittier and Boyle, where the old bridge touched down on the East Side.

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“Boyle Heights Is Not for Sale.”

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Families are worried about losing their homes.

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Many people on this side of the river see gentrification as violence.

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New art galleries are seen as harbingers of displacement.

The protest movement in Boyle Heights has gotten a fair amount of media attention, partly because in some cases the protesters have used aggressive tactics in trying to shut down a new coffee house and some local galleries. They see these businesses as the first outposts of coming gentrification. There are people who have questioned the protesters’ methods, complaining that they’ve gone too far. But let me ask you this. If you were in danger of losing your home and being driven out of your neighborhood, how far do you think you’d be willing to go?

It’s no accident that communities like Boyle Heights have been targeted by real estate investors. Land is cheaper there than in Downtown, and they know that the completion of the bridge and the accompanying amenities will make the area more desirable to upscale residents. We’ve already seen something similar happen in the Arts District. A largely low-income community has been rapidly transformed by a massive influx of developer dollars, and the people who had lived there for years, in fact, the people who actually built the community, have been driven out.  A similar scenario has been unfolding in Hollywood, and with the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX line you can see the same thing happening in communities like Leimert Park.

Investment in a community can be a good thing, but not when it drives out the people who have spent their lives there. And these days it’s not a gradual evolution. City Hall works with developers to target areas for rapid growth, almost all of it geared toward affluent new residents. When the City or County lays plans for new infrastructure, like light rail or parks or, in this case, a bridge, real estate investors move in quickly.  Often these investors are well connected at City Hall and already have possible projects in mind.  In other cases they’re speculators just snapping up parcels that they know will rise in value. They don’t plan to build anything, since they know they can make a profit just by sitting on the property until new infrastructure is in place.  And Mayor Garcetti gleefully promotes the aggressive transformation of these communities, apparently without giving a thought to the real suffering that displacement is causing for thousands of Angelenos. It seems he feels he was elected just to serve the affluent.

These days I hear so much talk about making LA a “world class city”, and I’m really sick of it. Garcetti’s idea of creating a “world class city” is about pouring billions into new infrastructure so that developers can cash in by building upscale enclaves for the affluent. Personally, I don’t care what class LA is in. If we can’t help hardworking people stay in their homes, if we can’t support communities that people have invested their lives in building, then this city is a failure.

You can spend all the money you want on bridges and parks and rivers and rail lines. All that stuff is meaningless if at the same time we’re dismantling our communities, the human infrastructure that really holds this city together.

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Glendale Puts Hold on Grayson Repowering

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On Tuesday night protesters gathered in front of Glendale City Hall to oppose spending $500 million on rebuilding the Grayson Power Plant. Glendale Water and Power (GWP) has put forward a plan to replace obsolete generating units with newer ones, increasing the plant’s output significantly. The process is called repowering, and the GWP says it’s necessary to provide a reliable supply of electricity for the city.

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Speakers talked about the problems with the current plan for Grayson.

But there are many who feel that upping Grayson’s output is a bad idea, since it means a big increase in the plant’s fossil fuel consumption. Debate over Glendale’s plan has been intense, with environmentalists claiming that the GWP has failed to explore clean energy alternatives. They point out that repowering Grayson would mean significant increases in CO2, ozone and particulate emissions.

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The media showed up to cover the protest.

The Grayson plan was on the City Council’s agenda that night, and council members would be deciding whether or not to approve the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The rally broke up as the meeting was starting. I went home and watched the proceedings on my laptop. It was long night. I wanted to hang on until the Council voted, but at 10:00 pm they were still taking public comment, and I finally gave up.

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Volunteers manning the table.

The tone of the meeting was civil, but tense. Evan Gillespie spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club, and he questioned some of the claims made by GWP. The utility had initially said that Grayson needed to produce 250 megawatts or there was a danger of power shortages, but then later said they might be able to do with less. He also was skeptical of the claim that the cost of the current plan wouldn’t mean raising rates down he road.

Angela Johnson Meszaros, a staff attorney with Earth Justice, stated that the EIR had serious problems. The EIR says that the project’s emissions woudn’t be significant because of offsets provided by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). How does this work? Polluters can bank credits for emissions they don’t produce, which in turn can be traded to polluters who produce more than they should. But wouldn’t Grayson still be pumping a lot of dirt into the sky over Glendale? You bet, and Johnson Meszaros pointed this out. The idea that emissions offsets will somehow even things out across the LA area sounds good in theory, but if you live anywhere near the power plant you’ll still be breathing a lot of dirty air. She also said that the biggest problem with the EIR was that it didn’t present enough viable alternatives, especially with respect to clean energy.

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Sometimes you just can’t find a sturdy surface to write on.

Like I said, I bailed before the end of the meeting, but this morning I sent a message to the folks at Stop Grayson Expansion. They responded with the news that the Council voted 4 to 1 to put a hold on things for 90 days and issue a Request for Information (RFI). This means they’re going to look for alternative solutions for Glendale’s energy needs, including clean energy options. Stop Grayson had been hoping for an independent study of possible alternatives, but they believe that if the RFI is prepared carefully it could be a step in the right direction.

Bottom line, we need to get away from fossil fuels. This isn’t going to happen right away, but it’s never going to happen if we don’t push aggressively for alternatives. Thanks to all those who showed up at the rally on Tuesday, and thanks to all the groups who worked so hard to change the discussion about Grayson. This isn’t over yet, but things are looking a whole lot better.

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Talking to the MTA

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time slagging the MTA, so I want to make sure I don’t overlook the things they do right. Recently I learned about the agency’s NextGen Bus Study, which is an effort to redesign the bus network with an eye toward building ridership. This is an important step. Ridership has been declining for years now, and the MTA really needs to rethink what it’s doing. I was glad to hear that they were taking a good, hard look at the bus system, and I was wondering what kind of public outreach they’d be doing.

That outreach has taken the shape of Telephone Town Halls, so far two of them, held earlier this month. It’s a virtual town hall meeting where people can join using their phone or their computer. MTA staff members were on hand, and they took questions directly from callers. At intervals they asked the audience to take quick surveys, and the results were revealed wihin minutes.

I thought it was great. While I still think public meetings in physical spaces are important, I loved the fact that I could participate while sitting in my living room. I was afraid most of the meeting would be about bureaucrats explaining spreadsheets, but my fears were unfounded. The bulk of the time was given to answering questions from participants. And it was interesting to learn from the surveys what other peoples’ priorities were.

Two of these virtual town halls isn’t nearly enough. This one was actually split between the NextGen Bus Study and a discussion of budget issues. I hope the MTA schedules more of these focussed specifically on redesigning bus service. I think the decline in ridership is in large part due to the fact that the agency has lost touch with its core ridership. They really need to find out what people want, because otherwise the declines will continue.

And along those lines, I hope the MTA plans to reach out specifically to the low-income immigrant communities that depend on busses to get around. I noticed they did provide Spanish translation at the town hall I attended. I hope they were also providing translation in other languages. Many of the people who ride the MTA don’t speak fluent English, and their voices need to be heard.

But this was certainly a step in the right direction. I’d definitely log on for another one of these.

NextGen Bus Study

 

 

To Have and Have Not

Bilt Where Will

I was so bummed. I desperately wanted to go to UCLA’s 32nd Annual Land Use Law & Planning Conference. Unfortunately, the $535 registration fee was a little too pricey for me. But just the thrill of being close to all the movers and shakers who were attending the conference drew me to Downtown. Even though I couldn’t afford to go in I just stood on the sidewalk across from the Biltmore, gazing up at the windows where I knew the attendees were debating lots of heavy issues.

Bilt Angle

The conference brochure definitely made it sound cool. They had a bunch of high-powered attorneys and consultants on hand to talk about CEQA reform, the housing crisis, infrastructure and other important stuff. And beyond all those big, heavy issues, they even found time for a session entitled Community, Health, and Planning for Environmental Justice. I mean, okay, they kind of jammed that into a half hour slot along with about half a dozen other topics, but I’m sure they covered everything they needed to.

Unfortunately, my reverie was interrupted by a bunch of noisy protesters who were standing nearby, holding signs and chanting slogans. What were they complaining about? Well, they were angry because one of the speakers was Sacramento superstar Scott Wiener, the Senator from San Francisco. The protesters had a problem with a bill the Senator just introduced, SB 827, which takes zoning authority away from cities. Wiener says if we override local zoning to allow developers to build housing up to eight stories along transit corridors, we can solve both our housing problems and fight climate change. Doesn’t that sound great? According to Wiener, his bill will let developers build tons of new units so housing prices will definitely go down. And because the new units are close to transit, everybody will dump their car and jump on the train.

I wonder if anybody at the conference asked Wiener about a recent report from UCLA that shows transit ridership is way down in Southern California, even though local officials have been approving pretty much any crazy project developers propose as long as it’s near transit. If so, I really would’ve liked to hear his response. I’m sure Wiener had a ready answer for the cynics who point out that in New York housing is still outrageously expensive even though the city has been building tens of thousands of new units every year. And so what if cities like Vancouver and Toronto have thousands of units sitting empty while middle-income and low-income families struggle to pay the rent? Foreign investors need homes, too, although, okay, maybe they don’t always really need them.

Bilt Speaker

At lunch all the power players adjourned to the Gold Room, where they heard the keynote address from Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Rothstein apparently talked about how federal, state, and local governments have implemented and upheld racist policies to create and maintain segregated communities since this country’s inception. Of course, he’s absolutely right. I wonder if he spoke about the fact that many of these policies were formed as a result of intense lobbying by development and real estate interests that wanted to protect their investments? Kind of like the development and real estate interests that are pouring money into Sacramento right now. It would’ve been nice to hear what he had to say about research from the Urban Displacement Project, which shows that current government policies promoting transit-oriented development have resulted in gentrification, pushing low-income people of color away from transit hubs in LA and the Bay Area.

Bilt Hand

Even though I was standing across the street, I could feel the soothing vibrations emanating from the collective wealth and wisdom gathered inside the Biltmore. So what if most of these people make six figures, live in single-family homes, and drive nice cars? So what if most of them rarely ride transit and never had to worry about getting evicted? They’ve got college degrees and lots of money and they go to a lot of conferences. They’re well qualified to tell the rest of us what to do about housing and transit.

But the protesters kept disrupting all the good vibes I was getting from the Biltmore. I guess some of them are facing eviction, or they’ve already been evicted, and they’re ticked off because they’re losing their homes. Yeah, okay, that’s a bummer. But they need to trust the folks inside the Bltmore. All we need to do is listen to people like Scott Wiener and let developers build tons of new housing around transit. Just because the median income for people living around rail lines in LA is mostly between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, and they could never afford the new units, which usually start around $2,000 a month, is no reason to keep the developers at bay. I’m sure at some point we’ll have such a housing glut that these new units will lose 50% of their value, and then the families that were kicked out could return to their neighborhoods.

So, okay, it could take decades. And yeah, it might never actually happen. But that’s no reason to rethink policies that are displacing the poor and destroying communities.

Is it?

Bilt No Nos

 

Headworks Update

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Anybody who’s used Forest Lawn Dr. over the past few years has seen the massive construction site running along the LA River. This is the Headworks project, which involves building two giant underground reservoirs to replace the DWP’s Silverlake complex. I posted about it back in 2014, when phase one, Headworks East, was under construction, and it was completed in June 2015. At that time it was reported that the second phase would be finished in 2017. That didn’t happen. Though the City held a groundbreaking ceremony for Headworks West in 2016, progress since that time has been slow. Apparently this is because of unusual soil conditions at the site, which required extensive remediation.

When completed these two huge concrete tanks will hold a combined total of 110 million gallons. The plan is to cover them with soil and native vegetation, creating a park and wetlands with areas for hiking, cycling, and riding horses.. The project also involves the construction of a hydroelectric power plant.

Now and again I ride my bike along Forest Lawn Dr., and I’ve taken some photos of the site over the past couple years. Here’s a shot from June 2016 that was taken from the edge of the site near the entrance to Griffith Park.

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You may be wondering why I’m bothering to post a picture of a low hill covered with weeds. Now let me show you a photo taken from roughly the same perspective during the first phase of construction.

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The tank that was completed in 2015 lies beneath the soil you see in the first photo. Eventually a park will cover the entire site. Here’s another shot of from a different angle that shows the road which goes around the perimeter of the tank.

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Moving on to the site for the second phase of the project, Headworks West. You can see a huge mound has been formed by displaced soil.

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Here’s a shot of the site as preliminary work was being done.

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The following images show the site a couple months later, in August 2016.

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In this photo you can see the exposed side of the first reservoir.

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And here are some images from November 2017, when the structure was actually starting to take shape. In the first one you see the side of the completed reservoir again.

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Here it looks like they’re laying out frames.

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I’m assuming the wall at the left marks the perimeter of the new reservoir.

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The rebar starts to define the shape of the reservoir.

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The date for the completion of Headworks West is a little murky. One fact sheet published by the DWP says it’ll be done in 2018. But another, more detailed, fact sheet from the DWP says they’ll wrap it up in 2022. It also says they’ll finish the power plant in 2023, and the ecosystem restoration in 2024. So it could be some time before you’re able to ride your bike through the park.

A few links. The first is a video about the project from the DWP.

Headworks Video from DWP

The second link gives some background, and offers a detailed timeline.

Headworks Background, Fact Sheet and Timeline

And this last link shows a map of the completed project.

Map Completed Project

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They Work by Night

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There was a night, maybe a couple years ago, when I was going home after visiting a friend. I was at a Red Line station, waiting for the train to come. There were probably about twenty or thirty people standing on the platform. But before the train showed up, an interesting procession emerged from the tunnel. A group of vehicles rolled slowly out of the darkness and into the light. One of them was a flatbed truck with a few guys in orange and yellow vests riding along. The people on the platform called and waved to them. They waved back. The truck kept rolling along, and so did the rest of the vehicles in the caravan, and in a minute or two they were out of sight.

Don’t ask me why, but after that happened I kept hoping I’d catch another glimpse of these workers and their machines. It’s probably a sign of how dull my life is that I get excited about seeing an MTA maintenance crew. But I guess part of why this caught my attention was that I’d never really thought about who kept the subways running. The city we live in is woven together by massive infrastructure networks, but most of us rarely think about how they’re maintained. We just want things to work, and we get ticked off when they don’t. But most of us are completely clueless about the massive effort it takes to keep LA running day in and day out.

So I kept hoping I’d catch another glimpse of the workers who maintain the trains. And since then, whenever it happened I snapped a few photos. As far as I can tell, most subway maintenance is done at night. These people spend hours rolling around in shadowy tunnels doing the many large and small jobs it takes to keep the trains running.

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A caravan of maintenance trucks.

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Another shot of maintenance trucks.

One night I got a shot of this….

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A rail grinder.

I’d never seen a rail grinder. I didn’t even know they existed. But they’re routinely used by rail lines all over the world to maintain tracks and increase their lifespan. I went looking on YouTube and found a video. Interestingly, there are dozens available. (I guess there are a lot of folks out there whose lives are as dull as mine.) The model you see here is different from the one I saw, but it gives you an idea of what these things look like in action.

Loram Rail Grinder

And if you want to find out more about what rail grinders are and how they work, here’s the article from Wikipedia.

Rail Grinders

Last weekend I was making my way down the stairs at the North Hollywood station and saw a couple of trucks on the track and some workers hanging out. I pulled out my camera and started taking pictures. Then I thought, why not ask them what they’re doing? Turns out they weren’t doing maintenance, they were installing the hardware to make cell phone access available on the subway. I asked them if I could take their picture, and they said yeah.

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Here are the rolls of cable they’re installing.

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The point of all this being, this stuff doesn’t happen by magic. So many of the things we rely on every day, subways, cell phones, roads, sidewalks, TVs and water taps, are only there because people put them together and people keep them maintained. Most of the time the folks who do all these jobs are completely invisible to us. But I think it’s good to remind ourselves that they’re out there. They make the city work.

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Traffic-Oriented Development

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For over a decade people at City Hall have been talking about transit-oriented development (TOD). In theory, if we create high-density residential and commercial developments near transit centers, people will be encouraged to take busses and trains instead of driving their cars. Makes sense, right? So for years the City has been telling us we have to build up instead of out, that we need to go vertical instead of horizontal. And they’ve approved a slew of high-rises, all the while insisting that this will get people out of cars and onto transit.

Before I go any further, I’d like you to watch a video. It lasts about twelve minutes, and it was shot during rush hour not too far from Hollywood and Vine.

I hope the video makes my point clear.* The City keeps approving high-rises, and when communities complain that congestion will get worse, planners and politicians invariably say that the people who live and/or work in these buildings will surely take transit. But they’ve been saying that for over a decade now, and it ain’t working. The MTA station at Hollywood and Vine is a hub for a number of bus lines, as well as the subway. But these people are all driving right past it.

I’m not against TOD, but to make it work, you’ve got to do some planning. Instead of creating a well thought out framework for all this development, the City keeps dumping project after project in the Hollywood area. Mayor Garcetti will tell you that the City did produce the Hollywood Community Plan Update (HCPU), and residents sued to overturn it. That’s true. Among the HCPU’s many shortcomings, the population figure it was based on was inflated by about 10%, in spite of the fact that US Census numbers were readily available. The judge who threw the plan out called it “fatally flawed”.

To give you an idea of how little City Hall cares about planning, let’s go back to those two buildings in the video. The residential high-rise on the southwest corner is just getting started, and the hotel on the northeast corner isn’t quite finished. But look at how bad traffic is already, long before these projects are completed. Unbelievably, the City is considering approval of a third high-rise at the very same intersection. How clueless can you get?!

As I said in the video, I don’t own a car and depend on transit to get around. I support planning to encourage transit use. But TOD isn’t working in LA. Why? I think primarily it’s because that’s not really what the City is building. If our elected officials were really interested in building TOD, they’d be pushing high-density housing made up mostly of affordable units. But instead, the City has been encouraging developers to build high-priced housing by offering them generous entitlements.

I got on the Department of City Planning web site and took a look at multi-family projects in Hollywood and North Hollywood that have been built near Red Line stations since the subway was completed. The Lofts and The Gallery at Noho Commons combined contain 724 units. Eastown, when the second phase is completed, will have over 1,000. The Jefferson has 270, and is the only one that offers any affordable housing, 27 units. So out of about 2,000 apartments, only 27 are accessible to people in lower income brackets. And if you’re not one of the lucky few to snag one of low cost units, you can expect to spend at least $2,000 a month for a one bedroom. Let’s not even talk about what it might cost to live at The Vermont, which sits just across from the Vermont/Wilshire station. And call it a hunch, but I don’t think the massive Wilshire Grand Tower, which is rising up next to the 7th/Figueroa station, will be offering any affordable units at all.

According to a story published by the LA Times earlier this year (Measuring Income along LA’s Metro Stations, March 4, 2016), the median income in almost all communities served by the Red Line is well below the County median of $55,870, ranging roughly from $22,000 to $46,000 a year. (Universal City is the lone exception, with residents there making well above the County median.) For the people in the lowest income bracket, renting an apartment at the newer “TOD” buildings would consume pretty much all their earnings, and even at the higher end of the scale it would mean spending over half what they make in a year. The City says these high-density projects encourage transit use, but most transit riders couldn’t afford to live in them.

Could this be one of the reasons that transit ridership is lower now than it was back in 1985? There may be many reasons for the decline, but you’ve got to wonder why the MTA is serving fewer people than it did three decades ago. The drop in ridership is even more disturbing when you realize that the population of LA County (the area served by the MTA) has grown by over a million since 1985. Does anyone see a problem here? City Hall has been telling us for years that their policies will get people off the road and onto transit. Instead, we’ve seen a net loss in transit ridership since the eighties, in spite of the fact that the population has continued to climb. And the traffic that used to just clog the main thoroughfares is now spilling over onto side streets.

The City’s claim that they’re promoting transit-oriented density is bogus. What they’re really doing is allowing developers who spend a fortune lobbying City Hall to cash in on projects that don’t serve the majority of Angelenos. They’re backing projects geared towards the affluent, which is what developers want because that’s where the highest profits are. Meanwhile lines of cars sit on our streets and freeways at rush hour, burning fossil fuels and spewing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

You call this transit-oriented development? I call it a disgusting sham.

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*
Just in case you’re thinking traffic is bad because it’s a Hollywood Bowl night, it’s not. The video was shot on Tuesday, October 25. Nothing was on the schedule that evening. But I can tell you the back-up on these streets can get way worse when something is happening at the Bowl.

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