By Frank Gruber
Signs are good that the controversy over the Expo line maintenance yard is heading to a positive resolution.
To recap, the Expo Construction Authority (Expo) determined that the only suitable location for the yard along the route from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica was the Verizon site on the north side of Exposition Boulevard in Santa Monica near Centinela, but residents of the blocks between Exposition and the freeway, and residents of the larger Pico Neighborhood nearby, protested that locating the yard there would be environmental racism.
The Santa Monica City Council reacted by telling City staff to do everything it could to investigate other sites. Staff came back with the bad news that Expo was right, there were no alternatives, but proposed a plan that would have attempted to dilute the impact of the yard by spreading its functions farther away from residences, to a property west of Stewart Street. ("City Greenlights Alternate Plan for Rail Yard," July 17, 2009) This plan proved impracticable for various reasons.
Meanwhile, Expo kept telling everyone that the maintenance yard would not create environmental problems. The draft environmental impact report (DEIR) released in January noted only that there might be noise issues, but that they could be mitigated.
To bolster its case, Expo pointed to the Green Line maintenance yard in Hawthorne. This yard was built in what was originally an isolated industrial site, but since its construction condominiums and a hotel had been developed on adjacent properties, with no complaints. Expo promised to arrange for tours of the Hawthorne yard for residents, council members and staff.
Condominiums near Hawthorne maintenance yard. (Photos by Frank Gruber.)
I went on one of those tours last week, and I can report that Expo is correct; the Hawthorne yard does not present significant or unworkable environmental problems. The loudest noise, for instance, is a warning bell that rings whenever a train is hoisted for servicing, but this operation takes place within a building and is not particularly discernable outside.
A light rail train car raised for servicing inside the Hawthorne facility.
I took the tour with several Pico residents, including community leader and School Board Member Oscar de la Torre. I won't speak for them; no doubt they will make their own pronouncements when the plans for the yard next come before the City Council on Oct. 27.
I will say, however, that it was plain that they and everyone else on the tour were impressed with the overall operation of the Hawthorne yard. Our tour guide was Bruce Shelburne, who runs the service operations for all of the Metro Transportation Authority's rail lines, and it was obvious that he took a lot of pride in the whole facility, which was as clean as an average kitchen.
Inside the Hawthorne repair shop
The good news doesn't end there. City Council Member Richard Bloom and some City staff members, including Kate Vernez from the City Manager's office and Ellen Gelbard from planning, were also on the tour. I learned from them that the public should expect a major redesign of the proposed facility at the Oct. 27 City Council meeting. What they said, without providing details, was that the City was working on a deal with Santa Monica College to include the College's parking lot adjacent to the Verizon site in the plans.
Using both properties would enable the yard to be spread out on an east-west axis, and, crucially, allow a strip running along the north side of Exposition to be developed as a buffer between the neighborhood and the yard. The buffer could consist of two and three story buildings containing businesses that the neighborhood, cut off from the rest of Pico by the freeway, could use. The buffer might even include, following the Hawthorne example, apartments. (Readers will recall that I suggested that this kind of buffer could be incorporated in the plans when I wrote about the yard back in February ("Transit and Good Urban Design Unite," February 17, 2009)
If this deal happens, it could be crucial in another respect -- because it would include a sign-off on the plans by the College. While the media attention on the controversy about the yard focused on the protests by residents, a more serious danger to Expo's plans was contained in 25 pages of comments on the EIR that the College sent to Expo in March.
The College's comments did not focus on environmental issues, but challenged the sufficiency of the EIR on safety and operational grounds. In its comment letter, the College stated that unless its concerns were addressed, "the resulting litigation will delay consummation of what should be a beneficial project."
What I learned from City staff is that they expect to have a resolution with the College based on finding the College a new location for its parking. Let's hope so, because not only is it important to improve the design, but litigation from a major institution like the College could delay the whole project.
While the City Council will look at the new plans for the maintenance yard on Oct. 27, Expo has announced its own series of community meetings to discuss the status of the Final Environmental Impact Report. One will be in Santa Monica; here are the details:
Wednesday, October 14, 2009, 6:00pm
Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1855 Main Street
East Wing Meeting Room
Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal,
available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press
, and on amazon.com