Downtown Artists Fight Eviction

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Artists are being forced out of the Arts District. This isn’t news. It’s been happening for years. The news is that now the artists are fighting back.

On Saturday, November 4, two groups of artists facing eviction organized a parade to bring attention to the rampant displacement that threatens their community. Earlier this year the residents at 800 Traction were told by the new owners of the building that they’d have to leave. Also this year, the people behind the Artists’ Loft Museum Los Angeles (ALMLA) were hit with a steep rent increase that seems intended to force them out. So the two groups have gotten together to let the world know that they’re not going quietly.  On Saturday, November 4 they staged a parade through Downtown.

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The parade started in Little Tokyo.

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Took a right on Alameda.

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Then the protesters headed down Alameda toward Fourth.

The parade started in Little Tokyo, cut down Alameda to Fourth, then wended its way along Seaton, Fifth and Hewitt, finally winding up at 800 Traction. It was an interesting walk. Protesters waved signs and displayed artwork. Two giant skeleton figures towered over the crowd. A few cars honked to show their support.

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A momentary pause on Alameda.

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Marching along Seaton.

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And then up Merrick.

We passed in front of the building that holds ALMLA, which is actually a brand new enterprise. Michael Parker and Alyse Emdur have lived in this space, along with other artists, for 16 years. Parker says that in just the last 6 years their rent has risen by 200%. The latest increase is beyond what they can pay, and Parker believes it was designed to force them out. So the artists at 454 Seaton decided to create ALMLA, which they hope will draw attention to their situation, and to the larger wave of displacement that’s sweeping across Los Angeles. Just before the museum’s opening, the landlord went to court to shut the event down. Fortunately he failed.

I used to hang out in this area back in the 80s and 90s. It’s depressing to see some of the changes that have taken place. While most of the buildings remain, with the onslaught of gentrification many of them now house chic boutiques and pricey restaurants. Anonymous LLCs have bought up a lot of the real estate, and investors seem bent on turning this part of Downtown into something very close to a suburban mall.

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Shop in the Arts District.

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Eat in the Arts District.

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Gentrify the Arts District.

Like I said, we ended up back at 800 Traction. A number of the artists who live in this building have been here for decades. Some were among the first wave of artists to move to the area back when it was more or less a decaying industrial ghost town. And most of the current residents at 800 Traction are part of the Japanese-American community, which is crucial to this story. This community has hung on in spite of successive waves of forced displacement going back to WWII. In the early part of the 20th century, Little Tokyo stretched far beyond its current boundaries. There were numerous Japanese-owned businesses and Japanese cultural institutions in the area between Alameda and the LA River. The first assault was the internment of Japanese-Americans after Peal Harbor. Since then City Hall has carved out one piece after another. And now these artists, after years of working within the community, are threatened with eviction.

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A performance featuring two of the Downtown elite enjoying a round of golf.

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They seemed to agree that gentrification wasn’t happening fast enough.

Hanging out with the other party guests, I felt like the room was filled with a kind of giddy energy, but there was also an undercurrent of tension. I spoke with Nancy Uyemura and Jaimee Itagaki, and they gave me the latest news about 800 Traction. The building’s new owners, DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners, had hired a property management firm, Pearson, that seemed intent on sabotaging the gathering. Pearson had called the cops before the party, apparently believing they could shut it down, but it went on as planned. They also sent security guards to keep an eye on the tenants and guests. Harrassment in situations like this is commonplace, and Pearson is doing their best to make things uncomfortable. Uyemura said that the tenants at 800 Traction were told in May that they had to leave, and they were supposed to be out by August. Recently they received an unlawful detainer notice. Their hearing date is in December.

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Protesters gathered at 800 Traction after the parade.

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I hope the security guards enjoyed the party.

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Artists sketched their take on what’s happening Downtown.

The attempt to evict the artists at 800 Traction is bad enough, but there’s another layer to this story that makes it even more disturbing. DLJ has decided to go through the process of designating the building a Historic-Cultural Landmark, which will enable them to get significant tax breaks for renovating the structure. They hired GPA Consulting to do the research for the nomination. GPA’s report talks at length about the building’s architect and Beaux Arts revival style and the food processing industry. They even mention Al’s Bar and LACE. But somehow they completely avoid any mention of the Japanese-American community that thrived in the neighborhood for decades. They also neglect to mention that the current residents have deep ties to the current Japanese-American community, and that some of them were among the first artists to move to the neighborhood back in the 80s.

In other words, GPA’s report completely whitewashes the community’s history. At the Cultural Heritage Commission (CHC) hearing where the nomination was considered, some attendees pointed this out, among them Dorothy Wong, herself a preservation consultant. Wong was baffled by the fact that the report didn’t refer to Little Tokyo once, and made no mention at all of the Japanese-American artists who had lived and worked at 800 Traction for decades. To their credit, the CHC agreed that the report was incomplete and chose to defer their decision until further work was done.

This may seem like a small victory, but it goes to the heart of what’s happening in Downtown. Ruthless investors are kicking artists and others out of the area so they can turn it into a sanitized, upscale urban destination. The Mayor and the City Council are doing everything they can to help make that happen. The people who have lived and worked in the area for much of their lives, the people who built communities and kept them going through tough times, are being told to leave. And while City Hall makes a great show of preserving historic structures, they’re destroying the communities that gave those structures life.

It’s hard to say whether the artists at 800 Traction and ALMLA will win this battle. They’re a determined group, and they seem committed to fighting til the bitter end. But LA has become increasingly hostile to artists, and the Mayor’s vision for Downtown is all about handing the area over to developers.

What have real estate investors put into this community? Money. What do they want out of it? More money.

What have the artists put into this community? Their lives. And what do they want? To continue working with and for the community, as they’ve been doing for years.

Find out more by following these links.

800 Traction

ALMLA

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Commemorating Japanese Internment by Evicting Little Tokyo Artists

Little Tokyo Artists

It’s been 75 years since the US Government issued an order to intern all residents of Japanese descent. DLJ Real Estate Capital Partners is going to commemorate that event in a special way.  The company will soon be evicting the tenants at 800 Traction, another reminder to the residents of Little Tokyo of just how little their lives really mean.

Of course, you hear about evictions all the time in LA, and City Hall has let us know repeatedly that renters are completely disposable when their lives are weighed against investor profits. Mayor Garcetti has used the Department of City Planning like a sharp knife in carving out his radical gentrification agenda, and tenants from Boyle Heights to the beach communities know they have a target on their back.

But still, this case stands out, because of the history involved….

You see, Little Tokyo used to cover a lot more territory than it does now. While 800 Traction is no longer considered part of the district, prior to WWII it fell well within the bounds of the Japanese community. Many Japanese residents lost their homes and businesses because of the internment. City Hall took more land away in the 50s to build Parker Center. More land, more housing, more businesses were lost when (ironically) Japanese corporations moved in during the 70s and 80s. And so over time Little Tokyo has been reduced to a shadow of what it once was.

But there’s another layer to this that makes it even more disturbing. A number of the residents at 800 Traction are Japanese-American artists who’ve been living in the community for decades. They’ve worked with local cultural institutions, creating art for the people who live in Little Tokyo. They have deep roots in the neighborhood and helped create the Downtown art scene when nobody wanted to live there. Many people have pointed out the horrible irony in the fact that real estate interests have spent a fortune on branding the area as the Arts District, all the while kicking out the artists who made the place happen.

The tenants could be forced out by the end of this month. It’s hard to say whether they have any hope of keeping their homes, but it can’t hurt to raise your voice to support them. Please write to Councilmember Jose Huizar, and ask him why he isn’t doing more to protect the artists of 800 Traction against the soulless vampires at DLJ Capital Partners.

Here’s a clear, straightforward subject line.

STOP THE EVICTIONS AT 800 TRACTION!

Councilmember Jose Huizar
councilmember.huizar@lacity.org

And don’t forget to copy Mayor Garcetti, so he understands the damage his gentrification agenda is causing.

Mayor Eric Garcetti
mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

If you want more details, here’s an excellent piece from the Rafu Shimpo.

They Say Gentrify – We Must Unify!

 

How Will Communities Stay Connected?

Rafu Shimpo staff circa 1920.

Rafu Shimpo staff circa 1920.

Recently a friend sent me a link to a story about the Rafu Shimpo, a Los Angeles-based newspaper that serves the Japanese-American community. Publisher Michael Komai released an open letter explaining that the paper has been losing money for years and is in danger of closing. Not a big surprise, but still sad news. Newspapers everywhere have been struggling to survive in a world awash in new media options. Technology offers more ways for people to get their news than over before, although I’m often surprised at what folks call “news” these days.

Newspapers may not disappear altogether, but they’re going to occupy much less space in our culture than they did thirty years ago. LA’s major English-language papers, the Times and the Daily News, have seen their circulation and their staff shrink drastically. Our Spanish-language daily, La Opinión, is a shadow of what it used to be. Many of the smaller publications that serve specific communities or cultures have gone on-line or gone away.

The disappearance of these small community papers is troubling. It seems to me we’re losing something important here. These little, independent publications came into being to give a voice to people who didn’t have one. They covered events and issues that were often underreported or completely ignored by the mainstream media. And even with stories that got lots of play in the media, these papers sometimes offered perspectives that weren’t being heard anywhere else.

No question, the internet also gives people a chance to make their voice heard, sometimes far beyond the boundaries of their community. But even though you can reach a huge audience through social media, sometimes it’s hard to figure out who you’re talking to. Two of the key factors that used to bind groups together were place and race. The internet can render both of those things meaningless, or at least effectively obscure their meaning. Is this a good thing? Nowadays people can create their own cyber communities based on the music they like, their sexual orientation, or TV shows they watched as children. You can make friends with people on the other side of the planet, and you don’t even need to speak the same language.

All of that’s great, but every once in a while we have to drag ourselves away from the net and get back to our lives in the physical world. Even if we’re not crazy about the place we live or the people we live with, we still need to deal with that reality. You may be able to fly in cyberspace, but if the sidewalks on your block are buckling, you could fall flat on your face when you go for a stroll. There are a zillion amazing musicians to be found on the net, but the musician who plays at the local bar, who may even be your neighbor, would probably really appreciate your support. And if your community is threatened by neglect or crime or overdevelopment, your only hope of turning the tide is by connecting with the people next door.

The internet can help with that. It’s one more tool we can use to create connections. But small papers like the Rafu Shimpo exist to keep people connected to what’s happening in their own community. Their whole purpose is to bring people together. It may be that advances in technology and market dynamics will slowly bury them. But we will be losing an important resource. Don’t kid yourself that social media is going to fill the void. Sharing kitty videos with a million strangers may be loads of fun, but in the long run you’ll be better off if you take the time to learn what’s happening in your own neighborhood.

Here’s a link to the letter from Michael Komai.

Open Letter from the Publisher of the Rafu Shimpo

Pros and Cons of Expanding Transit

It’s hard to even keep track of all the different projects that the MTA is working on throughout the county. New rail lines are being constructed, old ones are being expanded, and improvements are being made to increase safety and ease of use. The photos below represent just some of the projects that are currently under construction.

In Little Tokyo, work is beginning on the Regional Connector. This will be a 1.9-mile underground light-rail system that connects the Gold Line to the 7th Street/Metro Station. It will also make it easier for passengers to transfer to the Red, Purple, Blue and Expo Lines.

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

First and Central, future site of a stop for the Regional Connector

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Material and equipment stored on the site at First and Central

Construction on the Crenshaw/LAX Line started last year. This will be 8.5 miles of light rail running from the Expo Line to the Green Line, with below-grade, at-grade and elevated segments.

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Crenshaw/LAX Line construction site at Crenshaw and Exposition

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

Another shot of the site from Crenshaw and Rodeo

This project could provide a huge boost to businesses along the line, although there are already signs that it could encourage gentrification which may drive long-time residents and business owners out of the area. Click on the link below to see what may be in store for the community once the line is finished.

Plan to Turn BHCP into a 24-Hour Community

There are smaller projects going forward, too. In North Hollywood, a subterranean tunnel will connect the Red Line station to the Orange Line station just across the street. This is a great idea, and hopefully will reduce the number of riders dashing across Lankershim against red lights in order to make a connection.

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Construction of subterranean tunnel in North Hollywood

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

Another shot of construction at the North Hollywood site

The photos below are a few months old, but they show MTA crews working on the Purple Line expansion at Wilshire and Fairfax. By day, traffic flowed through the intersection as usual. But at night, construction crews would show up with barricades, heavy machinery and blinding lights. This project highlights the problems of constructing a major transit line in a dense urban area.

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Crews working through the night at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

Another shot of construction at Wilshire and Fairfax

All this sounds great in theory, but this kind of rapid expansion brings plenty of problems with it. I don’t have a car, so I use public transit almost every day. If you ask a simple question like, “Are you glad that the MTA is expanding its transit network?”, I can give you a simple answer like, “Yes.” But if you ask, “What long-term impacts will this expansion have on the City of LA?”, the answers are much more complicated.

In my mind, the biggest thing to worry about is whether or not we can afford all these projects. The MTA is facing a long-term budget shortfall, which could seriously impact its ability to function. Last year they raised the cost of the day pass and the monthly pass by 40% and 30% respectively. But there are almost certainly more increases to come, and it’s uncertain whether riders will pay the higher prices. Here’s an article that LA Streetsblog published in January of this year. It explains that while last year’s fare increase brought revenue up, it may have brought ridership down. If that trend continues, we’re in deep trouble.

MTA Revenue Up, Ridership Down

The MTA is receiving tons of federal funding for these projects, but those funds depend not just on increasing ridership, but also on increasing the share of operating costs covered by fares. If we see a decrease in ridership and/or revenue, we may not be able to count on the money from the feds.

Some people will point to the fact that the LA City Council just voted for a huge increase in the minimum wage, saying that this will enable low-income riders to afford future fare hikes. I don’t buy it. First, the cost of living in LA is increasing at a phenomenal rate. The amount we spend on housing is skyrocketing, DWP rates could easily double or triple, and food is getting more expensive as the impacts of the drought become more pronounced. A significant rise in the cost of public transit will be just one more blow to the bank accounts of minimum wage workers. And there are thousands of MTA riders who don’t even earn minimum wage. LA is the wage theft capitol of the country. Lots of people who work in the restaurant and garment industries are already being paid below the minimum, not to mention the undocumented workers who will take whatever they can get. Many of these people need public transit to get around, and none of them will earn a nickel more after the minimum wage rises.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t extend the reach of public transit, but I do question whether this massive expansion is sustainable. I guess all we can do is wait and see.

A Patch of Green in the Grey

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Week before last I went downtown to attend a meeting at City Hall. When I got there, the room was packed. It was hard to even find a seat. The zoning administrators started off with the obligatory preliminaries, which went on for quite a while. I looked around me and realized that there were dozens of people besides me who wanted to speak. I knew I was in for a long, dull morning.

So I split. They didn’t need me, and it seemed crazy to sit there waiting for a chance to talk when I knew there were other people who would cover everything I had to say, and probably say it better than I could. I decided to grab some breakfast and find a quiet place to chill. I got some food and some coffee and headed over to the plaza by the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC).

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I love to hang out there. It’s spacious and usually pretty peaceful. Unless there’s an event going on, it’s unlikely you’ll find more than a handful of people on the plaza. One side is shaded by tall trees.

Opposite me I could see people coming and going at the JACCC. They do a lot of interesting programming. They even offer ukulele lessons.*

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Take a look at the web site to find out about upcoming events.

JACCC

I spent a while looking at the kites on the west side of the building, as they rose and fell with the breeze.

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Then I was ready to go. But as I was leaving I saw a grove of trees off to one side. I’d never really noticed them before, so I walked over to take a closer look.

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And as I neared the trees, I realized that they were part of a garden that rested just below the level of the plaza.

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As I stood there by the locked gate, an elderly woman walked past and told me that the garden was open to the public. All I had to do was go to the JACCC and sign in. So that’s what I did.

It was so cool to discover this peaceful patch of green in the middle of downtown. I walked around snapping photos and enjoying the quiet.

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I’m sure the sound of traffic was all around me, but I was more focussed on the sound of the stream that runs through the middle of the garden. I would’ve loved to spend a while just sitting on a rock and gazing into the water. Unfortunately, I had other stuff to do, so I moved on after about fifteen minutes. But I will be back.

LT X50 Gdn Water

*
In surfing the net, I noticed this comment by a woman who’s apparently a regular at the JACCC. “It is ukulele heaven in DTLA.” An amazing claim, which I can’t verify. You’ll have to check it out yourself.

Boom Town

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Downtown is exploding. There’s so much construction going on I can’t even keep track of it. Massive new office and residential buildings are springing up all over the place. There are also efforts underway to revitalize a number of older buildings. Some of this stuff is cool, some of it is dumb, but I’m less concerned about the quality of the individual projects than I am with the cumulative impact of all this construction. More on that later.

Let’s start by sampling a few of the projects currently under construction….

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This is the Blossom Plaza, which combines retail and residential, including a fair number of affordable units. It took years for this to get off the ground, and there was a recent hitch when workers uncovered remnants of the original Zanja Madre, but things are moving forward. Curbed LA has been following the story for a while, and you can read more about it by clicking here.

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I had a harder time finding current info about this project. The most recent report I read said this was a 240 unit complex being developed by the Irvine-based Sares-Regis Group. Whatever it is, it looks like it’s going to be huge. The site is located at Second and San Pedro, right next to….

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….the recently completed AVA Little Tokyo, another massive mixed-use structure. Apparently young people are flocking to Downtown LA these days, and developers are doing everything they can to capture that crowd. Check out this ad, seen in one of the windows on the ground floor.

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The way I read this is, “If your highest priority is mindless self-indulgence, this is the place for you.”

And since we don’t have enough luxury rental units in Downtown LA already, Carmel Partners has generously agreed to build 700 more. As you can see in the photo below, it’ll be a while before the project is complete.

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You may want to put a deposit down soon. Given the list of amenities, I don’t doubt that the Eighth & Grand complex will be popular. I was sold when I heard about the rooftop pool surrounded by cabanas. For more details, click here.

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But let’s talk about a project that might actually benefit the people of Los Angeles. Here’s the new federal courthouse, which is finally going up after being delayed for years. The courthouse is just one component in a larger scheme to revitalize this part of the civic center. Building Los Angeles offers a rundown on some of the related efforts.

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Honestly, of all the projects under construction in Downtown LA, the only one I can really get excited about is The Broad. It’s still a long way from completion, and the web site just says that it will open in 2015. But it’s something to look forward to. And they’re already doing some cool programming. Click here to find out what’s going on.

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And let’s wrap it up with the New Wilshire Grand. It’s said that when the project is completed, this will be the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Who cares? I’m so tired of this kind of development. Does this really have anything to do with making the city a better place to live? Or is it just another monument to greed and vanity?

There’s a lot of talk right now about how LA has to embrace higher density development. Fine. There are good reasons to create a more compact city, and certainly sprawl has been a major problem throughout our history. But can anybody demonstrate a need for skyscrapers of this size? And looking at the bigger picture, do we really have the infrastructure to support development on this scale? I’m thinking especially of water, since we are in the middle of a drought. The projects I’ve highlighted here are just a few of the dozens that are either currently under construction or in the permitting process.

When I look at the avalanche of development that’s hitting Downtown LA, I have to ask if anybody at City Hall is thinking about the future, because I don’t see any evidence of rational planning. Instead, I see an onslaught of construction driven by developers who are falling all over themselves to get in on the gold rush. I really question whether the Mayor or the City Council have given any serious thought to how this massive growth spree is going to affect LA down the road. I wish I could believe they were really concerned about the well-being of the people of Los Angeles. It seems more likely that their chief concern is keeping their developer buddies happy.

The Devil Is in the Details

Aerial view of Regional Connector station at First and Alameda.

Aerial view of Regional Connector station at First and Alameda.

To show you how clueless I am, I hadn’t heard anything about the MTA’s proposed Regional Connector project until a few days ago. This is a major undertaking, and it has major implications, not just for the downtown area but for all of LA. Briefly, the purpose of the project is to link together the Gold Line’s Little Tokyo Station with the Red Line’s 7th & Metro Station, which could make things a lot easier for transit riders. For a more complete explanation, here’s a link to the Regional Connector page on the MTA’s web site.

MTA Regional Connector

And if you’d like to see what the completed project would look like, click the link below to see proposed designs, as well as maps laying out the location of the stops. I thought some of the comments were interesting, too. A lot of people are less than thrilled with the way the stations are laid out.

LA.StreetsBlog

As with any project of this size, there are pros and cons. Overall, I think the Regional Connector could be tremendously beneficial. But there are also potential problems, and three different groups are suing the MTA over the project. One issue is that a number of local businesses will be displaced. Even businesses that don’t have to worry about being demolished are very concerned about being able to function during construction. Many of these are family-run enterprises, and a significant loss of customers over a period of years could kill them.

I spent some time this morning checking out a number of articles on the Regional Connector, and often the comments were the most interesting part of the story. A lot of downtown residents are totally gung ho on this project. Many of them dismiss the concerns of the local businesses as though the owners are worrying over nothing. A few of the commenters are so angry about the lawsuits that they suggested a boycott of the businesses involved. I wonder how these commenters would feel if an enterprise they’d worked for years to establish was threatened with extinction.

I also wonder if the people who are so enthusiastic about this project remember the last time the city built an underground rail line. I’m referring to the construction of the Red Line, which ran way behind schedule and way over budget, and caused massive problems when they were tunnelling under Hollywood Boulevard. The street actually sank six inches during this period, and the digging also affected water lines. There was also evidence of massive corruption and sub-standard work by the contractors. Here’s a link to some of the comments posted at the LA Times during this period.

LA Times – Red Line Comments

I do think the Regional Connector could be really good for LA, but we have to show a healthy skepticism about any project of this size. The picture the MTA paints makes it all sound great, but there’s a big difference between creating digital renderings and actually getting it done. Don’t forget, they’ve burned us before.