Are Downtown Residents Really Dumping Their Cars for Transit?

The pandemic wasn’t really over in April, but a lot of people, including me, were tired of being shut up at home. I wanted to get out into the world again. I’d been thinking for a while about paying a visit to Los Angeles State Historic Park on the outskirts of Downtown. I finally just got on the train and headed down there.

The park has been a work in progress for over a decade. I wrote a post about it in 2014, when many people still called it The Cornfield. Back then it was mostly just grass and dirt. Since then, it’s been transformed into a well-manicured open space….

It certainly seems popular. On the day I showed up there were plenty of folks enjoying the park, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s impeccably landscaped, with gently curving paths winding through the grass, and rows of beautiful trees. There’s a good-sized field for those who want to get a game going. It seemed like the crowd was mostly younger, with a number of moms and dads and little kids.

It also seemed like the crowd was mostly made up of relatively affluent millennials. I have no hard data on where they came from, but I suspect that many of them live in Downtown. If that’s the case, they’d have to be making fairly good money. The listings on show that most of the studio apartments in the 90012 zip code start around $2,000, with one-bedrooms going for between $2,500 and $3,000. Rents at the Llewellyn, a fairly new building just across the street from the park, go from $2,450 to $5,155.

The City has had a good deal of success in luring people to Downtown, but let’s face it. Downtown is not open to everybody. If we go with the standard assumption that you’re supposed to spend about a third of your income on housing, you’d need to make $72,000 a year to afford a studio apartment in the area. A small family would probably have to have a combined income close to six figures just to get into a one-bedroom.

Back in March, I was listening in on a meeting of the City Council’s PLUM Committee where Director of Planning Vince Bertoni boasted about how proud he was of the City of LA’s Transit-Oriented Development program. I can’t imagine why. While City Planning has approved numerous residential skyscrapers near transit stops over the last decade, transit ridership has been declining steadily since 2014. Even in 2014, LA Metro was actually serving fewer people than it did back in the 80s, and it’s only been downhill since then.

If you want to know how successful LA’s attempts at Transit-Oriented Development have been, take a look at the parking area next to the State Historic Park. It was packed with cars on the morning I was there. And Spring St., which is on the park’s perimeter, was also lined with cars.

Please note in the last photo above that the L Line (Gold Line) Station is visible in the background. I’m sure some of the folks who showed up at the park that day rode the train, but obviously a lot of people decided to drive instead, in spite of the fact that the station is just a few hundred feet from the park entrance.

LA City Planning talks a lot about revitalizing LA’s urban centers, but we need to ask what they actually mean by “revitalization”. The cost of renting an apartment Downtown makes it clear that living there is mostly for the affluent. While thousands of new units have been built in Downtown over the past decade, the vast majority of them are for the upscale crowd. The same is true citywide. According to LA City Planning’s Housing Progress Dashboard, of the more than 184,000 new units that have been approved since July 2013, only about 26,000, or 14%, have been for middle-income, low-income and very low-income households. To be clear, these three categories COMBINED make up just 14% of the new housing approved.

As I said before, the City has been successful in luring people to live in Downtown, and I’m glad of that. Looking at US Census data for the 90012 zip code, which covers much of central Downtown, it’s clear that the area has seen substantial growth. According to the American Community Survey (ACS), the population in 90012 has grown from 29,298 in 2011 to 37,268 in 2020.

Unfortunately, even as Downtown’s population has grown, ridership on transit lines serving the area has been dropping steadily. The graph below shows the changes in ridership on lines serving Downtown in 2014 and 2019. It includes all rail lines serving the area, but only selected bus lines.

You can see there’s been a significant drop. It’s important to point out that the biggest decline was on the A Line (Blue Line), and much of this was due to the fact that portions of the line were closed during 2019 for repairs and upgrades. (They didn’t do much good. Problems arose soon after the line re-opened.)

But even if we pull the A Line out of the chart, we still see a loss in ridership. If the City’s Transit-Oriented Development program is such a success, then why is transit ridership declining in Downtown, even as the population grows. (If you don’t trust my numbers, and you want to do your own research, visit Metro Ridership Stats. Under the heading Systemwide (Bus and Rail), click Details.)

I think the answer has to do with the kind of people who are moving to Downtown. While I hear a lot of hype about young urbanites who love walkable neighborhoods, the crush of cars I saw crowding around State Park leads me to believe that many of Downtown’s new residents own some kind of vehicle. Of course, that’s just my personal view based on my personal experience. To get a more accurate idea of how many Downtown residents are car owners, let’s take another look at the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.

Looking again at the 90012 zip code, let’s check out the stats for vehicle ownership in 2011.

2011 ACS Data on Vehicles Available to Population in 90012
Workers 16 Years and Over in Households

No vehicle available 10%

1 vehicle available 42.9%

2 vehicles available 36.4%

3 or more vehicles available 10.7%

Now let’s look at the stats for 90012 in 2020.

2020 ACS Data on Vehicles Available to Population in 90012
Workers 16 Years and Over in Households

No vehicles available 6.6%

1 vehicle available 42.4%

2 vehicles available 40.0%

3 or more vehicles available 11.0%

You can see that the number of workers 16 years and over with no vehicle available dropped from 10% to 6.6%. The number with one vehicle available is basically unchanged. Those with two vehicles available went up from 36.4% to 40%. These are not huge changes, but they do show that percentages of workers 16 years and over with access to a vehicle has gone up, not down. And when we consider that the population in 90012 rose from 29,298 in 2011 to 37,268 in 2020, this seems to indicate that there are a lot more cars than there used to be in Downtown. Put this together with the drop in transit ridership, and it’s hard to understand why the City thinks its efforts at Transit-Oriented Development have been a success. (If you believe there are a lot more people walking and biking in the central city, feel free to show me the data. I’ve looked, and I can’t find anything less than six years old.)

I want to emphasize that I’m a transit rider and I don’t own a car. I also want to say that I believe we need to focus new development around transit hubs, in areas where jobs and businesses are close by. In theory all this is great. In reality, though, the City of LA doesn’t seem to have achieved anything. In fact, it seems like the numbers are going in the wrong direction. And if we’re going in the wrong direction, shouldn’t the City assess the situation, find out what’s wrong, and try to do better?

Unfortunately, rather than being used as a strategy to create a more sustainable city, Transit-Oriented Development seems to have become an excuse to approve residential projects that are far too expensive for the average Angeleno. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at hearings held by City Planning where staff and/or Commissioners claim that big, new residential projects geared toward the affluent are exactly what the City needs to get people out of cars and onto busses and trains. When I present data showing that transit ridership has been going down since 2014, they don’t seem to hear. I’ve never gotten a response. The projects are always approved.

I think the State Park is cool. I’m glad people are spending time there. But I don’t buy the story that young urbanites are ditching their cars for busses, trains and bikes. The cars lined up across the street from the park seem to tell a different story, one that City Hall doesn’t want to hear.

Money Talks, and the City Council Listens

Hills on the west side of Coldwater Canyon

Hills on the west side of Coldwater Canyon

This post was updated on March 14, 2016.

I saw an article on CityWatch today about Harvard-Westlake School’s continuing efforts to expand their campus on Coldwater Canyon. I’ve posted about this crazy project before, but reading the article made me want to do a follow-up. For those of you who haven’t been following the controversy, here’s a brief summary….

Harvard-Westlake, an elite prep school located in the hills just above Ventura Blvd., wants to build a three story parking lot that would hold 750 cars just across the road from their campus on Coldwater Canyon. But that’s not all. The structure would be capped by an athletic field, with the perimeter ringed by powerful lighting to accommodate night games. And to facilitate access, they want to build a bridge across Coldwater to connect the structure to the campus.

There are a lot of reasons to oppose this. The fact that the project would mean the removal of over 100 protected trees and 100,000 cubic yards of soil from the hillside is scary enough. Plus the loss of habitat for wildlife that lives in the hills. But we should also ask why, at a time when the City of LA is constantly telling us we need to reduce our carbon footprint, is Harvard-Westlake building a parking lot that will make it easier for people to drive to their campus?

But the CityWatch article focusses on efforts by people associated with Harvard-Westlake to push this project through. According to the author, a number of these people have given generously to Councilmember Paul Krekorian’s campaign committee. Now, there’s no law against giving money to a candidate, and for anybody living in LA, it’s certainly no surprise to hear about rich power players throwing money at the City Council. But it’s important to remember that the school is a 501C3, and there are strict rules about non-profit groups engaging in political activities. Here’s a quote from the IRS Compliance Guide for 501C3 Public Charities.

Political Campaign Intervention

Public charities are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity. Violation of this prohibition may result in revocation of tax-exempt status and/or imposition of certain excise taxes.

I took a look at the LA Ethics Commission web site, and found 14 people associated with Harvard-Westlake who all decided to throw something in Krekorian’s campaign coffers around the same time, from late October through late November 2014. That does seem a little suspicious. Especially since 9 of the 14 contributions are listed under the same date, November 3, 2014. Sure sounds like a coordinated effort to me. If that’s true, it would certainly be a violation of the law. The language in the IRS Compliance Guide is pretty clear. “Public charities are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office.”

Sounds to me like these people broke the law. Does Krekorian care? I guess not, since he kept the money.

If you want to learn more about the situation, here’s a link to Save Coldwater Canyon, a group that opposes the project.

Save Coldwater Canyon

Parking Problems

Pk 03 HH 1 B

I keep hearing about how Angelenos are giving up their cars in favor of other means of travel. But really it looks like traffic all over the city is steadily getting worse. In spite of the fact that our public transit is slowly improving. In spite of the fact that we have more bike lanes than ever. In spite of all the hype about ride-sharing services. To me it looks like there are more people driving in LA than ever before.

Part of the reason for this is that there are more people in LA than ever before. The City’s population is around 3.9 million, with more arriving every day. But let’s face it, most Angelenos are not ready to give up their cars just yet. There are many reasons for this. For the vast majority of Angelenos I’ve spoken to, taking public transit still means at least doubling your commute time.* And citizens looking for affordable housing are having to look farther and farther away from the City’s center, making public transit more time consuming. Practical reasons aside, though, a lot of people who live in LA just love their cars. They love the freedom of going wherever they want whenever they want. They love being able to shut out the world around them. They love having a set of wheels that makes a statement about who they are or how big their bank account is. And so they’re willing to spend a large part of their paycheck to have a car, even if most of the time their car is sitting idle.

Pk 05 Hlwd Row B

Think about it. Even if you spend two hours commuting each way every day, that means your car is parked in a lot or on the street for twenty hours a day. Seems kind of wasteful, doesn’t it? And speaking of wasteful, look at the enormous amounts of space we set aside for parking. Shopping malls, stadiums, beaches and other destinations often provide massive lots just so people can park their cars. For parking structures, the average cost per space in the US is about $15,000, though it can go much higher. This means that parking alone can increase the price tag for development by hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. And in the case of residential development, this cost is passed along to the renter or buyer.

Pk 02 Arc 4 B

Of course, most people don’t think about this, which is why there’s a school of thought that says developers ought to stop bundling the price of parking with the price of a residential unit. In other words, you’d pay for your new condo by itself, with no parking, and then decide if you wanted to purchase a parking space to go with it. This sounds logical. With this approach, buyers have to think about the cost of parking their car, and the idea is that some of them will dump their car to save money.

But not everybody’s buying it. In LA these days, developers are encouraged by city planners to pitch projects with reduced parking in the hope that this will encourage use of public transit. I’ve been to a number of meetings where project reps try to sell this idea to local residents, and local residents are always against it. Why? Because they believe that a lot of buyers will forego the parking space to save money, and just leave their car on the street, making it even harder for the locals who already struggle to find parking. Advocates of transit oriented density (TOD) argue in favor of projects with reduced parking, saying that parking cost and availability influence transit ridership, but there’s no conclusive evidence. There are many things that affect transit usage, and no one has proven that this is a major factor.

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Parking is a huge problem in LA, and even though I don’t own a car, I sympathize with people who sometimes have to circle their block repeatedly to find a space. Transit advocates will say they should dump their vehicle and buy an MTA pass, but that’s not feasible for everybody. Some people have jobs that require a car. And those who work night shifts or graveyard shifts, say restaurant workers or security guards, may not be willing to ride public transit late at night. Having spent many hours standing on desolate street corners in the small hours, I can understand their reluctance. The number of busses that run after midnight is limited, and they only run once an hour. The subways shut down around one.

There are some encouraging signs. A number of people have chosen to give up their wheels and ride public transit instead. Car sharing services like Zipcar are becoming more popular. Apparently a lot of kids in their teens are willing to wait on a driver’s license because they’re happy socializing over their smartphones.

But we’ve still got a long way to go. For all the benefits cars offer, they suck up way too much of our resources. And in a city as crowded as LA, one of our most important resources is space. How many thousands of acres have we paved with asphalt just so we can have a place to leave our cars?

There’s got to be a better way.

* Some readers have taken issue with this statement. See comments below for details.

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Mama Shelter Update

Work continues the building at the corner of Wilcox and Selma.

Work continues the building at the corner of Wilcox and Selma.

Just wanted to follow up on the piece I wrote about the Mama Shelter hotel at the corner of Wilcox and Selma.

I went to a hearing last year to express my concerns over some variances that were being considered for the project. The three issues that worried me were the request to allow live entertainment on the roof, liquor permits for the two restaurants, and the amount of parking required. I got the zoning administrator’s determination a while ago, and these are the results.

They’re not going to allow live entertainment or amplified music on the premises. Very happy about this. While the hotel isn’t close enough to my apartment for the noise to bother me, this is becoming a big concern for residents in the Hollywood area. A few people who attended the meeting complained that they’re already having trouble sleeping because of existing venues that play music far into the night. So I was very glad that the City nixed this.

They did decide to grant a full liquor license for the two restaurants. I was not happy about this. It’s not so much that I’m worried about the hotel itself, as the fact that these days the City is giving out liquor licenses like candy. With so many places in Hollywood for people to get hammered, there’s been a significant increase in crime. In fact, the problems are so serious that LAPD Chief Charlie Beck wrote a letter to the Department of City Planning last year in which he expressed his concern about the number of liquor licenses that are being issued. The City really needs to slow down on this. There are already plenty of places to get a drink in Hollywood.

The last issue was the parking, and this was tricky. The administrator’s decision said that Mama Shelter would be allowed to lease five spaces off-site. Apparently these were for patrons of the restaurant, but it didn’t sound like nearly enough. I also wondered where the hotel guests would be parking. I knew the lot adjacent to the building wasn’t available. I ended up writing to Gary Benjamin at the Council District 13 office and Jared Sopko of Archeon Group, a company that’s working with Mama Shelter on the project. Both of them responded to me quickly, explaining that the hotel has contracted with a valet parking service that has access to 300 off-street spaces in the area. That was good to hear, because parking on the street around Selma and Wilcox can be really challenging. I was afraid local residents would be fighting with valets for spaces, a scenario that’s not uncommon in Hollywood.

All in all, I’m cool with the outcome. I wish they hadn’t granted the liquor permit, but I’m happy with the resolution on the other issues. I’m glad that Mama Shelter is refurbishing a building that’s been vacant for years. That’s definitely a plus. And of all the new hotels that are flooding into Hollywood, Mama Shelter seems like the best fit with the neighborhood.

So I can live with this.

Too Much Liquor, Not Enough Parking

Hotel at the Corner of Wilcox and Selma being renovated by Mama Shelter

Hotel at the Corner of Wilcox and Selma being renovated by Mama Shelter

Last week I went down to City Hall to attend a hearing. An old hotel at Wilcox and Selma that hasn’t been occupied for years is being renovated with the intention of turning it into a new boutique hotel run by the Mama Shelter chain. I have no problem with them renovating the hotel, and Mama Shelter seems like it might be a good addition to the neighborhood, but one of the variances they were asking for concerned me. Here’s the text from the hearing notice.

Pursuant to LA Municipal Code Section 12.24-W,1, a Conditional Use to permit the sale of a full line of alcoholic beverages for on-site consumption in conjunction with a proposed ground floor restaurant and a rooftop restaurant, with live entertainment.

Before I go any further, let me give you a little background. I like a having a drink as much as the next guy, and maybe even a little more than the next guy. I certainly don’t want to see Hollywood go dry. But for those of you who don’t live in the area, I can tell you that you couldn’t throw a rock down the street without hitting a bar or a club. The place is crawling with them. Some of you may be familiar with the Cahuenga club scene, which has become a major attraction for people who want to party.

This has caused some problems. In fact, the problems are so serious, that the LAPD recently sent a letter to the Chief Zoning Administrator which complained of the “oversaturation of ABC [Alcohol Beverage Control] locations in the area”. Among the problems caused by this high concentration of bars and clubs are “traffic collisons involving pedestrians, driving under the influence, assault with a deadly weapon, robberies, thefts, fights with serious injuries, shootings and rapes”.

You can see the problems are pretty serious. And while Mama Shelter’s reps at the meeting said that their focus is on serving food, not alcohol, the fact that they want a full liquor license, they want to have live entertainment, and they want to stay open til 2:00 am, seems to indicate that they’ll be drawing the party crowd.

There are other issues. A couple of senior citizens attended the meeting. They live in a building near the proposed hotel, and they both said that they’re already having trouble sleeping because of bars and clubs in the area that have live music. Live entertainment on the rooftop is only going to make it even harder for neighborhood residents to get a good night’s sleep. The noise issue was also brought up by a couple other people who attended, one of whom works for a hostel right across the street.

Then there’s the parking. Here’s another item from the hearing notice.

Pursuant to Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 12.27, a zone variance to permit the five (5) required parking spaces to be provided off-site within 750 feet by lease in lieu of covenant as required pursuant to Section 12.26-E.5.

This makes it sound as though the hotel has almost enough on-site parking, and they’re only asking to have five additional spaces located off-site. But during the hearing there was an exchange between the zoning administrator and the project rep, and it sounded like the hotel has no parking at all right now. The rep said they were still looking to sign a deal, but that parking is difficult to come by in Hollywood. Yep. Sure is. And if Mama Shelter opens their hotel without adequate parking for guests and visitors, that’s going to make it way harder for those who live in the neighborhood to park their cars.

It seemed unbelievable that Mama Shelter could be as close to opening as they are and still not have the parking nailed down. So earlier this week I e-mailed the zoning administrator to ask if I’d understood the situation correctly. I still haven’t heard back from him.

One of the project reps said the renovations are almost completed. Apparently they hope to open early next year. You might ask why anybody who had invested so much money in a project would wait until they were almost ready to open before having this hearing. They’re looking for permits to allow them to sell alcohol and have live entertainment, which apparently is a key part of their business model. And whatever the situation is with the parking, right now they don’t have enough to satisfy the City’s requirements.

So why would they go this far down the road without having resolved these key issues? Why would they spend millions of dollars on renovations before they’d even secured the necessary permits? Unless maybe somebody at City Hall told them not to worry about it. That it would all be taken care of.

The comment period has been extended to Wednesday, December 17. If you live in the area and you’re concerned about any of the issues this project raises, you might want to contact May Sirinopwongsagon at the Department of City Planning. Here’s her e-mail.