By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Puerta del Sol sprouted up in just three short years, one of several multistory buildings to rise next to the Santa Ana (5) Freeway. It’s almost as if Wile E. Coyote got an eyedropper from his package of Acme Instant Urban Village, squirted a single droplet on Avenue 26 and — boom! — created a mini-city. Everything that surrounds it still looks like the old Lincoln Heights, an odd mix of stuccoed Victorian homes and wedged-in industrial businesses.
Inside Puerta del Sol, potential buyers walk through the model condo units, each of which looks like the “reveal” segment in an HGTV makeover show — granite countertops, tasteful earth tones, cookbooks with Nigella Lawson leering saucily on the cover.
But in real life, the A/C unit in the southernmost condo is on full blast, drowning out the roar of cars on the 5 freeway, literally a stone’s throw away from this new housing. Some of those cars are probably heading north to Palmdale, the place with the five-bedroom homes coveted by Urrutia’s wife.
In L.A. civic circles, Puerta del Sol is now a poster child for smart growth. Three Los Angeles public pension funds — two for retired city workers and a third for county employees — invested a combined $65 million into the group that financed Puerta del Sol.
One group of pension trustees even visited the Avenue 26 project, concluding that transit-based condos are a good financial bet for the city’s retirees. Villaraigosa also came to Puerta del Sol to thank the pension board members for their votes to invest in such housing.
Numerous investment funds have draped themselves in the concept of smart growth, attracting more than $200 million in L.A. government pension money. So by now, Los Angeles is facilitating smart growth from two directions — at the front end, by providing lucrative pension dollars to finance projects, and at the back end, by approving new smart-growth zoning that will allow such projects to get built.
Los Angeles is not just gambling that smart growth will solve its traffic and housing and livability problems. Though smart growth is still a tiny part of the city’s overall investment portfolio, the city is betting that such projects will bring big financial returns to retired employees.
The first place to take advantage of the city’s new smart-growth zoning was, oddly enough, in Westchester — a very suburban, very low-density neighborhood that gets soothing breezes from the ocean and jarring jet noise from LAX. Three years ago, the Furama Hotel obtained the first Los Angeles city permit for smart-growth zoning.
A big construction pit now surrounds the Furama, once a symbol of 1960s aviation glamour, where pilots, airline stewardesses and frequent business travelers once stayed. The 12-story Furuma will reopen as Playa del Oro, promising a mix of upscale shops, condos and a few dozen hotel rooms.
The No. 3 Big Blue Bus runs every few minutes past the Furama, carrying passengers from Santa Monica as far south as the Metro Green Line at Aviation Boulevard. On a hot afternoon in May, the bus is a standing-room-only experience, filled with weary rush-hour commuters, anxious moms trying to keep track of their children, and Saint Monica Catholic High School students listening to iPods and clutching skateboards.
Operated by the city of Santa Monica, the Big Blue Bus is painted with playful graphics, a marketing tool to lure middle-income commuters out of their cars. But on a Thursday afternoon, the No. 3 feels like any bus operated by the larger MTA: hot, crowded and slow.
Wearing a dark, pinstriped suit and a Sheraton Hotel lapel pin, hotel worker Ryan McGrath rides the No. 3, which is caught in the traffic jam that starts next to Playa Vista, where state construction workers are widening Lincoln Boulevard to accommodate traffic from and to thousands of new Playa Vista homes.
In 30 minutes, the bus has traveled less than six miles, or a deflating 12 miles per hour.
McGrath took buses and trains when he lived in France and Switzerland. But after riding the bus here for two months, the Playa del Rey resident is ready to buy a car. He is fed up with a six-mile ride that frequently takes an hour and 10 minutes, including two buses and walking. “I’m used to punctual, every-30-minute buses, punctual subways,” he explains. “I can’t deal with this.”
And so another L.A. resident is about to change his behavior. But instead of embracing transit, McGrath has decided to abandon it.
McGrath says the Rapid bus line offered by the Big Blue Bus is frequently as slow as buses with far more stops. And he is irritated that his neighborhood lacks the riders to support more frequent bus service. “Everybody in Playa del Rey is fucking rich,” he grouses.
The No. 3 bus rolls to a stop at Manchester Boulevard, right across from the construction pit that surrounds the Furama Hotel. McGrath can’t stay and talk. If he misses the No. 115, he says, he will have to wait an hour. McGrath runs across six lanes of traffic, dodging a Prius and avoiding the crosswalk entirely. Once he reaches the other side of the street, McGrath lights a cigarette and checks his cell phone. After a few minutes, he looks down the street and starts walking.