Death by a Thousand Cuts

MTA 4

Not too long ago I was riding the bus and saw a pamphlet on display. The title was Public Hearing on Proposed Service Changes. Even before I picked it up, I more or less knew what it was about. The “service changes” are mostly service cuts, yet another round of reductions by the MTA.

This isn’t surprising. Last I checked, the MTA was running an operating deficit of over $30 million a year, and that deficit will continue to grow. One solution would be to raise fares, but the last time they did that there was a decline in ridership. Of course, ridership has been going down for a while now. Some argue that the decline may be reversable, and point to the rail extensions that are currently under construction. New rail stops will bring new riders, but they will also increase operating costs. And actually, fares don’t nearly cover what it takes to run the system. I really doubt that increased ridership from these extensions will make a serious difference in the budget picture.

There’s no simple solution here. While I’m not happy about further cutbacks, I know Metro is probably doing the best they can to balance their budget under challenging circumstances. But I’ve gotta say, it’s getting harder and harder to get around LA on public transit. A number of the lines I use regularly run only once an hour. The Rapid busses, which were great to start with, don’t run as often as they used to. I don’t read when I ride the bus, but I’ve started taking a book with me when I’m going somewhere because I never know how long I’ll be waiting to make a connection.

What I’m leading up to here, is that I’m really starting to question the MTA’s long term strategy. For years now we’ve been told that we need to invest in rail to solve our transit problems. Well, we’ve built a lot of rail, and things don’t seem to be getting any better. Looking at the budget issues and the trend in ridership, I don’t believe the rail we’re building now is going to make a huge difference. At some point we have to ask ourselves if this approach is working.

That brings us to Measure R2, the ballot initiative we’ll be voting on in November, which will increase the sales tax to raise billions for transit. About 40% of the projected revenue will go to rail projects, and looking at the results we’ve gotten from rail so far, I’m increasingly skeptical about whether this is the right way to go. Trains are great if you’re travelling in a straight line from point A to point B, but as soon as you get away from that straight line, things start getting complicated. Rail works great in New York, where the system is centered on a very dense urban core. LA is much more spread out, and even though Downtown is attracting more residents and businesses, it doesn’t function as the City’s center the way Manhattan does. There are those who argue we need to build high density hubs along transit lines, which sounds good, but City Hall has been pushing that policy for years and it’s not producing the promised results. Transit ridership is down. If our leaders had pursued a policy of building affordable housing that would make job centers easily accessible by rail, it might be a different story. But renting near rail stops is pretty pricey. A studio at Noho Commons goes for $1,777. Digs at the Jefferson in Hollywood start at $2,238. And I don’t know what they’ll be charging at the Wilshire Grand, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be more than the average transit rider can afford.

MTA 5 a

Measure R2 will deliver other things besides rail, and I don’t want to say I’m opposed to it, but at this point I can’t say I’ll vote yes. It seems like there are others who have doubts as well. This post on StreetsBlog breaks down the MTA’s 2016 budget, and raises some important issues. The comments are worth reading, too.

A Preview of Metro’s $5.6 Billion Fiscal Year 2016 Budget from StreetsBlog LA

I also came across this article in the Daily News that talks about how the Valley has gotten less than its share of transit infrastructure in the past, and how leaders on that side of town are worried about getting shortchanged again with R2. One of the points the author makes is that with big infrastructure projects, the longer they’re delayed, the more expensive they become.

What the Valley Would Get, and Not Get, in New Transportation Tax from Daily News

LA County is promoting R2 in order to fund a massive expansion of our rail network. Basically I’m asking if rail is really worth the money, time and trouble. Busses are much cheaper and much more flexible. Also, investing in busses won’t saddle the MTA with a huge debt load the way these infrastructure projects will. Debt service already accounts for a significant portion of the agency’s budget, and expanding the rail lines will make that burden even heavier.

You’re going to be hearing a lot about R2 in the coming months. City, County and State officials are already making an aggressive push to promote it. Again, I’m not saying I oppose it, but as you listen to our elected officials give their spiel, ask yourself if our public transit policy is taking us in the right direction. And if not, is it time to change course?

MTA 1

1939 Meets 1984

US Wide

Not too long ago I was taking the train to visit some friends. I got to Union Station a little early, so I thought I’d buy a paper to read on the trip. But as I was walking in the direction of the newsstand, I got a small shock. It wasn’t there any more.

The place where the newsstand used to be.

The place where the newsstand used to be.

Now, I know people don’t read papers like they used to, so maybe I’m just a dinosaur living in the past. This newsstand did have a pretty good selection of newspapers and magazines, but it’s not like it was a historic landmark. It was just a tiny little shop that sold the kind of stuff you buy when you’re waiting for a train.

But that isn’t the only thing that’s changed at Union Station. In fact, the whole feel of the place is changing, and I can’t say I like it.

Completed in 1939, Union Station was designed by a group of architects led by John and Donald Parkinson. It brings together a number of different styles that were popular at the time, including Streamline Moderne, Mission Revival and Art Deco, and it has the feel of a massive museum devoted to a bygone era. It used to be a great place to chill. I liked hanging out there. I’d show up early if I was taking the train and relax in the old leather chairs. Read a paper. Have some coffee. Watch the sunlight streaming down through the huge windows.

These days it doesn’t feel so relaxing. In the first place, the chairs are now cordoned off and there are guards making sure that only people with a ticket get in. I know there have been problems with homeless people camping out there and asking travellers for spare change. And I still remember the time I was waiting for a train and there was a guy who kept screaming really loud. He sat on the floor against one of the columns while two guards tried to talk to him, and he just kept on screaming. So I know there’s a reason for maintaining some restrictions, but it makes the place feel a whole lot less inviting. And let’s be honest, this approach is typical of the City of LA. Rather than actually trying to deal with the homeless, the addicted and the mentally ill, the City just shuts them out. Putting up another barrier doesn’t solve the problem. It’s just a way of avoiding it.

Waiting areas are now cordoned off.

Waiting areas are now cordoned off.

And what about the bagel shop? There used to be a little mom and pop place that sold a wide variety of bagels, and often when I was taking the train that’s where I’d stop to pick up some breakfast. It disappeared a while ago. What do we have in its place? You guessed it. Starbucks. We lost a little independent business that sold good bagels, and now we have another corporate coffee house. In fact, more and more Union Station has been taken over by chains.

Corporate coffee...

Corporate coffee…

...corporate sandwiches...

…corporate sandwiches…

...corporate snacks.

…corporate snacks.

I used to like hanging out in Union Station, but not so much any more. These days it’s kind of like spending time in a detention center that’s attached to a strip mall. The vibe of the place has changed. It feels colder. More corporate.

But I shouldn’t be surprised. Isn’t that what’s happening to the whole country?

Is the MTA Sending Mixed Messages?

Ford Woman

I was kind of surprised some weeks ago when I walked into the Hollywood/Highland Metro station and saw that the place was plastered with ads for a new line of cars from Ford. Not that I was surprised to see advertising in a Metro station. That’s become pretty routine, and even though I think some of the ads are intrusive and obnoxious, I’ve accepted it because I know the MTA needs the revenue

But advertising cars at subway stops? Isn’t that sending mixed messages to Metro riders? I thought we were supposed to be discouraging Angelenos from driving and encouraging them to take public transit. I don’t know how many subway riders will go out and buy cars because of this campaign, but Ford must think they can line up some customers or they wouldn’t have spent the money.

Ford Bike

This seems especially troubling at a time when transit ridership is dropping. Nobody’s sure exactly why this is happening, but with many MTA lines seeing a decline in the number of riders, do we really want to be tempting the people who do ride the subway with ads for affordable cars?

I know the MTA is dealing with an operating deficit, and the ad revenue is probably really helpful, but I still have to question the wisdom of this strategy. It used to be the MTA was telling us, “Dump your car. Ride public transit.” Now it seems the message is, “Go ahead and get a car. We give up.”

Ford Blur

Talking About Displacement

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

MTA construction along Crenshaw Blvd.

Speaking at a recent Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, MTA CEO Phil Washington talked about how the growth of LA’s transit network has been accompanied in some areas by gentrification and displacement. Washington is concerned about the fact that low-income residents are being pushed out of the communities they call home, and he wants the MTA to do more to address the problem.

It’s good to hear somebody at the MTA talking about this. The question is what can actually be done. Earlier this year the MTA Board agreed that when new residential units were built on the agency’s land their goal would be to set aside 35% for low-income renters or owners. That’s fine, but it’s not nearly enough. What we really need is to have the City and the County commit to changing their planning practices. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas serve on the MTA Board. They should both support Washington and take a public stand against displacement. Then they should push for the City and the County to create policies to address the problem.

While gentrification is happening all over the city, the growth of LA’s transit system definitely seems to be a catalyst. Downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood, and Highland Park have already seen thousands of low-income residents displaced. Leimert Park and Boyle Heights seem to be next on the list as the MTA continues its rapid push to expand, bringing an influx of developer dollars to neighborhoods near rail stops. As property values skyrocket, rents go up, too, and low-income tenants who can’t afford to pay must find somewhere else to live. Tenants in rent-controlled apartments can be forced out by landlords who use the Ellis Act to convert their units to condos.

I’m really glad to hear Washington talking about displacement, and I hope others back him up on this issue. This is a conversation we need to have, and it should have started long ago.

MTA construction in North Hollywood

MTA construction in North Hollywood

More About Housing and Transit

Post Final

As a follow-up to my last post, I wanted to share this article from LA StreetsBlog. It’s a summary of a panel discussion, Rescuing the California Dream: Policies for an Affordable Future, sponsored by KPCC and the Milken Institute. The participants talked about the challenges posed by LA’s affordable housing crisis, and offered some possible solutions.

Nobody was saying there’s an easy way out, but there are things we can be doing to address the situation. Two things I got from the article were that we need to do a better job of planning, and we need to create local funding sources to support affordable housing. But the panel offered lots of ideas, and the consensus seems to be that we can change things for the better.

Can High-Density Housing Solve Our Regional Housing Crisis? The Answer: It’s Complicated

A New Vision or Another Con?

A view of the Hollywood Freeway from Franklin

A view of the Hollywood Freeway from Franklin

A while ago I was walking down Franklin around rush hour, and I came across a sight that’s becoming way too familiar. Looking down Vine, I saw a line of cars that extended all the way down the block.

Looking down Vine at rush hour

Looking down Vine at rush hour

I pulled out my camera, because I’ve kind of gotten obsessed with documenting traffic in LA. You probably think this is a pretty weird pasttime, but it keeps me off the streets. Oh, wait. No, actually it doesn’t….

Intersection of Vine and Yucca

Intersection of Vine and Yucca

Anyway, I walked down Vine taking pictures, and guess what I saw when I got to Yucca?

Cars lining up in the left turn lane on Yucca

Cars lining up in the left turn lane on Yucca

If you guessed another long line of cars, you were right. If you don’t live in the area, this may not seem like anything remarkable. But having lived in Hollywood for a while, I can tell you that this is a pretty recent phenomenon. Yucca used to be very quiet. I’d say up to three or four years ago Yucca was empty even at rush hour. Obviously that’s changed.

I kept on walking, and you’ve probably already guessed that when I got to Argyle, I saw yet another line of cars crawling along.

More cars backed up on Argyle

More cars backed up on Argyle

But the thing that surprised me was, traffic on Argyle was backed up all the way to Hollywood Blvd..

Still more cars backed up on Argyle

Still more cars backed up on Argyle

I walked up Argyle, shooting more photos as I passed underneath the bridge.

Traffic crawling north on Argyle

Traffic crawling north on Argyle

Then I was back at Franklin, and by now everybody knows what I found when I got there.

Westbound traffic on Franklin

Westbound traffic on Franklin

You may be asking, where were all these cars heading? Well, they were all trying to get on the northbound Hollywood Freeway. And traffic on the freeway was moving pretty damn slow.

Northbound onramp for the Hollywood Freeway

Northbound onramp for the Hollywood Freeway

I think we’d all agree that LA’s streets are way too congested, and we’ve got to start thinking about transportation in new ways. Cars are a dead end. We’ve got to stop building to accomodate them. The recent expansion of the San Diego Freeway showed what a waste of time that is. We can add as many lanes as we want, and they’ll all end up choked with traffic.

So some people see the City Council’s adoption of the Mobility Plan 2035 as a major step in the right direction. It sure sounds swell. With chapters titled “Safety First”, “World Class Infrastructure” and “Access for All Angelenos”, the MP 2035 paints a picture of a utopian LA, where everybody can get everywhere they want without ever needing a car.

But a lot of people are skeptical about the benefits the plan will actually provide, and I’m one of them. I totally support increased access to all modes of transportation, and if you take the MP 2035 at face value, it sounds great. The question is, will the plan deliver what it promises, and to answer that question you have to look at what our elected officials have actually been doing for the last several years.

Under the heading Key Policy Initiatives, the plan includes the following goal….

Consider the strong link between land use and transportation

No doubt about it, land use and transportation have to be considered together. For years now the Mayor and the City Council have been pushing transit oriented density (TOD). In theory, planning for higher density near transit centers will create a new dynamic where people will find using public transit preferable to driving a car. Now, if we were building affordable housing near transit centers that allowed easy access to the areas where jobs were concentrated, this might actually work. But that’s not what the Mayor and the City Council have actually been doing. Instead, they’ve been pushing relentlessly for high-end, high-rise housing that caters to people with six figure incomes. Check out the proposed 8150 Sunset, Horizon Hollywood and Shenzhen Hazens project in South Park for three examples. There are many more in the planning stages. Do the rich ride the subway? I’m sure some of them do, but let’s be honest. In LA, this is the demographic that is least likely to use public transit, while people at the lower end of the economic spectrum often have no other choice.

This is not transit oriented density. It’s profit oriented density. The Mayor and the City Council can tell us they’re linking land use to transportation to make transit more accessible, but recent history shows that this is mostly a con used to push through projects that only benefit developers who are looking to make a pile of money. Not only have our elected officials’ efforts to create affordable housing been pathetic, but by pushing gentrification in areas that used to be affordable, they’re actually forcing low-income workers farther away from job centers.

So if you ask me whether the MP 2035 will deliver what it promises, I can’t say I’m optimistic. Even before Garcetti became the Mayor, when his council district covered much of central Hollywood, he pushed through a number of “TOD” projects, telling residents that this would solve our transportation problems. Take a look at the video below and let me know if you think it’s working.

Losing a World of Inspiration

Leimert Park

Leimert Park

All over Los Angeles neighborhoods are changing. Developers with deep pockets are buying up real estate in the hope of making a bundle. New projects are transforming the landscape from Venice to East LA. We need development, but there has to be a balance between business interests and community interests. The community needs to be involved, and that involvement has to be based on trust. The only way you can build trust is through honesty and transparency.

Unfortunately, we’re not seeing much honesty or transparency in LA these days. Many developers are doing their best to shut the public out by keeping their activities secret, and our elected officials often seem to be willing accomplices. As a result, communities across the city have suffered some terrible losses. Buildings have been demolished. Businesses have been driven out. Thousands of renters have lost their homes. People and places that defined our neighborhoods are disappearing.

The Vision Theatre

The Vision Theatre

In the last few years Leimert Park has drawn a lot of attention from investors. Built as a planned community in the 20s, Leimert Park was predominantly white up til WWII. After restrictive covenants were declared illegal in 1948, the demographics started shifting and by the 60s the area was largely African-American. For decades it’s been a center for black culture in LA, figuring prominently in the local jazz and hip hop scene. In Leimert Park you can find a beautifully preserved remnant of the past like the Vision Theatre sitting right next door to a cutting edge media lab like KAOS Network.

KAOS Network

KAOS Network

And just around the corner you can also find the World Stage, although that may change in the months to come. This is one of the saddest casualties of the redevelopment frenzy that’s sweeping across LA. Founded in 1989 by drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daáood, the World Stage has been a major part of the neighborhood’s cultural life for over 25 years. Back in the 90s it was an important part of the renaissance that breathed new life into Leimert Park. Even when the recession hit and neighboring shops and restaurants were closing down, the World Stage remained an anchor for the community.

The World Stage

The World Stage

But it looks like the World Stage will be leaving Leimert Park. The building it’s housed in changed hands a while back, and the new owners will not renew the lease. In fact, World Stage Executive Director Dwight Trible says the new owners have refused to even meet with him. Trible says that after months of discussion, the Board of Directors has decided that it’s best to look for a new location. So while the World Stage will still go on, it will be cut off from the community that has been its home since the very beginning.

The story of who’s been buying up property in Leimert Park and why is complicated, and if you’re interested in the details I recommend reading this piece that appeared in the LA Weekly a few months back.

Who’s in Control of Leimert Park’s Future? It’s Hard to Tell.

Papillion

Papillion

Briefly, the local real estate market started heating up back in 2012 when the MTA decided that the new Crenshaw/LAX line would have a stop at Crenshaw and 43rd. Since then a number of buildings have been purchased by limited liability corporations that seem to be controlled by Allan DiCastro. DiCastro is associated with artist Mark Bradford and philanthropist Eileen Norton, and together they’ve made a serious commitment to investing in the local art scene. To their credit, they’ve brought the non-profit Art + Practice and the contemporary art space Papillion to the neighborhood. That’s all to the good. Leimert Park has been struggling in recent years, and could certainly use a shot in the arm.

Shuttered businesses on Crenshaw Blvd..

Shuttered businesses on Crenshaw Blvd..

But DiCastro and his associates have not been open or honest with the community about their plans, and that’s a problem. People who’ve lived and worked in Leimert Park for decades can’t get straight answers about what the new owners have in mind. Unfortunately, this is a scenario that’s playing out all over LA these days. Investors with deep pockets and connections at City Hall move into a neighborhood and work behind the scenes to push their own agenda. Residents are told they should be happy about how their community is being “transformed”, but they find they have no voice in the process.

Music is one of the fundamental things that binds a community together. It’s a powerful, immediate way for people to connect and share their experience. For years the World Stage has been a place where musicians and audiences come together, where the distance between the people who come to play and the people who come to listen disappears. Leimert Park isn’t just its physical home, but also its spiritual home. If the World Stage ends up having to leave, it will be a terrible loss for the community.

Future site of the Leimert Park stop on the Crenshaw/LAX Line.

Future site of the Leimert Park stop on the Crenshaw/LAX Line.