Wed, Jan

Councilman, Community Steaming Over Last Minute Purple Line Work Closures Switch

TRANSPORTATION-“I was given a choice of bad or worse,” said Councilmember David Ryu (CD4) who suddenly encountered a serious concern in his district involving Metro, and the Miracle Mile and Greater Wilshire communities he serves. 

A newly introduced “alternative” from Metro proposed closing a section of Wilshire Boulevard for seven weeks plus six-weekends for the decking of the La Brea intersection, instead of the previously approved closure of twenty-two weekends. 

This situation was on everyone’s mind and he was going to be one of the key decision makers on the question. 

Ryu was “so upset” with this possible switch … dropped on his desk on such short notice … that he “escalated [his] concerns to Metro CEO Phil Washington” who has apparently heard him. Now, Metro has ordered a “traffic management plan” to study the impact of their new proposal. Metro refers to the two plans as the “baseline vs. alternative” schedules. 

A closure is required for work related to station box excavation and construction and the decking for the Purple Line Extension of the “subway to the sea.” 

Originally, the idea was for Metro to make an announcement of the street closure switch following a Metro-David Ryu CD4 sponsored November 12 community forum about the closure issue. Some community groups have already voted for their preference, but a few had declined until they knew more. The new traffic impact study will reset everything, and require groups to revisit their decisions, based on new information, including the results of the traffic plan now underway by Metro. 

The hot button issues are: How long a section of Wilshire Boulevard between La Brea Avenue and Highland Avenue will be closed and how much traffic will be detoured? How will this affect retailers suffering potential a loss of business? And what about the transit riders who will need to walk several additional blocks to catch their bus? Councilmember Ryu is in the hot seat. He’s expected to bring community consensus to this matter and help make a decision about how long the street will be closed. 

Metro says, “LADOT must approve the Traffic Management Plan (for the proposed seven week full closure) first. If the plan is approved, it will need concurrence from the Councilmember. The Councilmember represents the community.” 

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The new idea of full closure for seven weeks plus some weekends blew the lid off whatever alignment Metro had with the community and the council office. Up until a few weeks ago, Metro’s approved plan was for a 22-weekend closure. Now, all bets are off until the traffic study is completed, and an apples-to-apples comparison of traffic impacts for each closure plan can be made. Metro promises to present the results in January 2016. 

Asked if the traffic study would place the Purple Line Extension of the subway project in a holding pattern or cause delays, a Metro spokesperson said, “We are not in a holding pattern. Pile installation will continue as planned and is not in any way affected by the decking baseline schedule v. alternative schedule. Decking follows pile installation. We still anticipate starting decking operations in late March or early April 2016.” 

If the alternative plan is adopted, it will take additional time to obtain several levels of approvals, including a review by the Bureau of Engineering, LADOT, and the Board of Public Works. 

The stakes are high with the possibility of this road closure switch, with increased pressure exerted on the councilmember to act – pressed by Metro on one side and the community on the other. Ryu says that Metro asked him to make a decision about it by November 13, the day after a Metro-CD4 sponsored community forum on the matter. But Ryu, sticking up for the community where he knew there was dissent, declined to be pushed, or (in a transit-like term) railroaded, into a snap decision without all the facts on the table. 

At the November 12 community meeting, held at John Burroughs Middle School, Ryu came off as an impassioned politico advocating for his communities, saying, “I want you to know, I’m fighting for you.” At the same time, he let Metro know he was willing to collaborate, saying, “we have come a long way” with the metro relationship; “we’ve met many times, and we’re very friendly with each other now.” 

His remarks in front of Metro and to the community can be seen at the 22:35 mark of the video of the meeting. Go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfJRLoAGLyE. Councilmember Ryu suggested some “out of the box” thinking that would include a hybrid of plan “A”, the 22-weekend closure with plan “B”, the seven week full closure. This creativity was a welcome blast of fresh air into a thought process that has been too mechanical, as transit projects tend to be. 

Metro announced that they will now deliver three reports to the community in January: the traffic management plan, a traffic mitigation plan, and a comprehensive noise impact analysis. These reports will review the metrics that will now help drive the street closure decision. 

How did this come about, this sudden “alternative” plan? A Metro spokesman said that “Metro and STS (design-builder Skanska, Traylor, Shea) wanted concurrence from the community and Council District 4 that the 7 week full closure was an option worth pursuing. We have received enough significant interest to pursue the 7 week full closure. That alternative schedule always required a Traffic Management Plan. The closure could not be approved by LADOT, Bureau of Engineering and Board of Public Works without one. The Traffic Management Plan will determine if the 7 week alternative schedule is feasible. It will need to be approved by LA city agencies such as Bureau of Engineering and LADOT before going to the Board of Public Works for final approval.” He added that “preliminary results will be available in January. Metro and Council District 4 will cohost a community meeting to discuss the initial results.” 

Here is what is indisputable: Metro is working hard to complete the Purple Line Extension (PLE) that will extend the existing Purple Line subway, currently running from Union Station to Western Avenue, westward to La Cienega Boulevard. They have been doing advanced utility work along the route, and other preparations, for many months. Their electronic outreach to the community is conducted weekly, sometimes more often, to anyone that has signed up for the alerts at purplelineext@metro.net.Community forums are held several times each year. 

It feels like it is Metro’s preference to adopt the seven weeks closure instead of twenty-two weekends, and some of the published straw polls of community groups match this. But they have yet to make their case other than to use a “pull the band-aid off all at once” analogy -- which may be all that is happening. They may also be looking for what they see as best for the community from their considerable experience with huge projects like this. But this still begs the question of why, with all that experience, they sought a 22-weekend closure in the first place. And the manner in which the seven-week plus six weekends closure became an alternative for consideration has raised some eyebrows. 

Metro and design-builder STS insist that both plan A and plan B are “cost neutral:” there will be no savings by using one over the other. 

Several recognizable high level Metro officials attended the community forum. So did a heavyweight transportation deputy from a neighboring council district who has spoken about the PLE at other forums. It felt like an “all hands on deck” display of force. No one was needed to step in. 

Councilmember Ryu came, spoke, took a few questions and left for another appointment. The community turnout was light. Metro and David Ryu correctly pointed out that it may have been due to a bad choice of time -- 5:30 on a school night when people are with their kids or still at work. There was a promise to be more time-sensitive next time. 

The designer-builder, STS, did a thorough and detailed job of presenting all of their facts; they clearly and fully answered many audience questions. If something was brewing, it seemed to blow over and the contingent of Metro suits left without needing to say anything either in support of Metro’s PLE Construction Relations Manager Kasey Shuda (who ran a very crisp and professional meeting) or to rebut anything Councilmember Ryu might have raised. 

The impact on the community is that Metro’s closure will detour transit and vehicular traffic away from Wilshire Boulevard to major streets such as Third Street and Olympic Boulevard. Even with Traffic Control Officers trying to prevent it, the heavy traffic that normally flows on Wilshire will likely try to use the parallel cut-through streets of 6th Street and 8th Street. 

By possibly detouring their buses to Third Street and Olympic Boulevard for seven weeks, Metro is creating a hefty hike for seniors, the handicapped and others who will have to walk several extra blocks north or south from Wilshire Boulevard to catch the Wilshire bus. Add to this the miserable prospect of making that walk in El Nino rains, if it comes to that -- although Metro has said they may halt work during rains. Thinking of doing this for seven weeks will be unsettling for transit dependent residents. Putting up with such transit detouring is another factor in the equation when considering seven full weeks of closure versus twenty-two weekends. 

Retail businesses in the area may be disrupted even more than residents or office workers and anyone else using Wilshire to transit across this part of town. Loss of sales for retailers must be a concern. 

Closed streets and detours may cause shoppers to find new favorite places to shop, breaking their current shopping habits if part of the boulevard will be closed every day for seven weeks. This is a serious and significant impact that Metro is trying to mitigate with their “business interruption fund.”   

Right now, nobody wins.  Not the community, Metro or CD4. But the payoff of a subway extension in several years may eventually be seen as worth it. That’s one of the positive speculations. 

Homeowners who can put up with noise, dirt, dust and particulate matters, truck haul routes, delays and detours can hope that their houses will be worth significantly more when all this work is finished…as the Miracle Mile neighborhood continues to gentrify and become a model of the new urbanism. 

Eventually, the Miracle Mile and the contiguous Greater Wilshire area will be the envy and destination of residents throughout the city, as well as newcomers, as it becomes, with two subway stops and an enhanced Museum Row, a coveted cultural, residential and retail hub in our city. That's a trifecta worthy of some pain. 

This is only the beginning. It will get harder as work moves west toward the Wilshire and Fairfax subway station box construction in the next years. This will be happening simultaneously with the build-out of the Motion Picture Academy’s Movie Museum and the projected tear down and rebuilding of most of the LACMA campus. Fairfax Avenue, narrow and already heavily congested, will become a street to avoid, militating a major traffic circulation artery. 

No wonder nerves are on edge and that the curve ball of the new seven week closure option has hit significant pressure points. Holistically, it’s part of a much bigger building project that is going to “disturb” many more people than the local councilmember, and for several more years. These projects will outlive David Ryu's 5-year term of office, but for now he is the steward. He will likely need to deal with it almost constantly, stepping in deeper when the work shifts to Wilshire and Fairfax and the nearby museums’ destruction and building derby. 

Opening dates for the Purple Line Extension, the new LACMA campus, and the new Movie Museum are projected for 2018-2024. From now until then, almost nine more years, Wilshire Boulevard through the Miracle Mile will be an ongoing construction zone, with multiple big-ticket projects. What is happening now with the street closure around La Brea is just the leading edge of a long-term, necessary intrusion. Picking seven weeks or twenty-two weekends for a section of Wilshire Boulevard to be closed is just one of many decisions that will cascade, as progress continues to flood the Miracle Mile. 

The Petersen Automotive Museum has beaten all others to the punch and will be opening their newly imagined museum in a few weeks. It can be accessed by car from south of Wilshire and east of Fairfax, avoiding the mess at that intersection. Is it a Los Angeles statement that a car museum found a way to build early and to beat the hassle of dealing with a subway building project?


(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the Mid City West Community Council and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com.) Video courtesy of Miracle Mile Residential Association.  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.




Vol 13 Issue 93

Pub: Nov 17, 2015