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Light Rail for L.A.’s Westside
West Los Angeles has become infamous for its traffic. Now, the Westside is finally getting a new light rail, which will connect downtown L.A. to the Pacific Ocean. Photo by jwalker64.

West Los Angeles has become infamous for its traffic. Now, the Westside is finally getting a new light rail, which will connect downtown L.A. to the Pacific Ocean. Photo by jwalker64.

A few weeks ago, we wrote about California’s promising Senate Bill 375 (SB 375), which encourages transit-oriented development by requiring metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) “to create and implement land use plans that use compact, coordinated, and efficient development patterns to reduce auto dependency.”

The main goal of SB 375 is to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in California, and thus reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, the state is a step closer to ensuring that SB 375 lives up to its promise: Los Angeles is getting a new light rail.

NO MORE “SOUL-CRUSHING” TRIPS TO THE BEACH

As the New York Times reported yesterday, construction on the 8.6-mile first phase of the Westside’s Exposition Line is nearly complete, connecting the University of Southern California with Culver City.

By 2015, the completed 15.6-mile Expo Line will finally connect two major employment centers: downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica. For the first time, people will be able to glide by the Westside’s notorious gridlock and get dropped off just blocks from the Pacific Ocean. (Along the tracks of some of the mid-twentieth century yellow cars and red cars).

Presently, Angelenos have described any attempt to reach the Westside via public transit as a “soul-crushing experience.”

Officials estimate that 64,000 people will get out of their cars and start riding the rail by 2030. The city’s current light rail system — made up of the Metro’s Blue Line, Green Line, and Gold Line — is the third-busiest of its kind in the United States.

The Westside light rail project had been in the works since 1980, but was continually stalled by residents worried that the train’s street-level design would damage their communities and hoping to keep urban density in check.

DEVELOPMENT AROUND THE LIGHT RAIL

Still under construction, the new rail is already showing how ongoing improvements in public transit are a great — and necessary — complement to the regulations set by SB 375. Transit investment is essential to making SB 375-style development a reality across California.

Compact, mixed-use infill development is already taking off along the Expo Rail route. A project including 500 housing units and a 300-room hotel was just completed at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. And Santa Monica’s city planning director, Eileen P. Fogarty, says there’s now a booming demand for any real estate within a quarter-mile of a station. The city has received proposals from development giants like Houston-based Hines and Los Angeles’  Casden Properties, a leader in multi-family property development. Samitaur, a Los Angeles developer of innovative buildings, already gained approval — and $11 million in subsidies — to construct a 12-story office building near an Expo station just outside of Culver City.

Still, neighborhood communities clinging to the Westside’s low-rise character continue to battle with developers, promoting height restrictions — such as s five-story limit at a 4.5-acre site by a Culver City station — that some planners say are unrealistic for private developers. A similar conflict has arisen by the Sepulveda Boulevard station, where Casden Property wants to replace a cement plant with what would be one of the Westside’s biggest developments: a complex of four 8-story buildings with 538 residential units and about 266,800 square feet of retail space. In response to residents’ concerns, Casden Chief Executive Alan I. Casden told the New York Times, “Los Angeles is going to go vertical. That’s the only way you can go.”

IMPROVING ACCESSIBILITY

The project also has important implications for equity in the Los Angeles’ public transit system.

The new rail line will cut through the largely African-American and Latino Crenshaw district of Boyz n the Hood fame. Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Los Angeles County supervisor, said the rail line will have “huge economic development implications” for the district — bringing much-needed jobs and services to the neighborhood, and improving accessibility for its residents. And another light rail is planned to run south along Crenshaw Boulevard to the Los Angeles International Airport.