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Beverly Hills Versus the Westside Subway 

Thursday, Jul 14 2011
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On an overcast morning, Susan Bursk, president of the Century City Chamber of Commerce, is running a meticulously staged press conference at the corner of Constellation Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars, across from the Century Plaza Hotel. She has enlisted a gaggle of middle-aged supporters who cheer and wave placards for the TV cameras while Century City boosters urge spending tens of millions of dollars on a Westside Subway stop on sleepy Constellation Boulevard, instead of at a long-discussed site on bustling Santa Monica Boulevard about two blocks away.

Bursk, politically savvy if reserved, declares that a station "in the heart of Century City" — a marketing phrase she coined to promote building the subway stop at Constellation Boulevard — will beef up ridership on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's long-vaunted Subway to the Sea.

Los Angeles leaders recently dropped the Subway to the Sea name in favor of the official Metro name, the "Westside Subway" extension, because the line has no serious prospects of reaching the ocean. Though a point of civic pride, the subway — also known as the Purple Line — is expected by 2035 to create a virtually unnoticeable reduction in car traffic of less than 1 percent. Metro conceded in a draft Environmental Impact Report that the Westside Subway won't cut congestion even slightly in the city or the region.

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Century City boosters claim that a subway station placed at the "center of the center" is inarguably superior to a station on Santa Monica Boulevard. But Metro's own preliminary data show that a few hundred more people each day will use the subway if it stops on the big artery, Santa Monica, rather than 1,000 feet south on three-block-long Constellation Boulevard.

Yet a debate over whether Santa Monica or Constellation should get the stop is fueling the fiercest — and potentially one of the costliest — transportation wars to hit the Westside since Beverly Hills stopped a freeway 40 years ago that would have come to Century City's doorstep.

Bursk and the boosters claim that Century City office workers will eagerly use the subway if the station is moved two blocks south. Such a route would take the subway to the foot of a 37-story "Century City Center" skyscraper expected to be built by JMB, a City Hall–connected developer that has showered Villaraigosa with campaign funds.

But creating that southern turn onto Constellation means tunneling a subway line directly beneath the historic Beverly Hills High School campus.

"We were caught off-guard," says Lisa Korbatov, board president of Beverly Hills Unified School District. "We were blindsided."

Plainspoken and direct, Korbatov is furious about the potential fate facing Beverly Hills High, where the district has extensive plans for underground construction on district land — land that would be gobbled up by a Metro tunnel if the subway is routed onto Constellation Boulevard.

"[Metro] will gut this campus," Korbatov says. "It is so detrimental to our ability to build not just now, but for a hundred years."

Century City News publisher Mike Carlin might be describing a crime syndicate when he declares of Beverly Hills Unified: "Every time these guys do something, they deal from the bottom of the deck." He slams the district's website, centurycitysubway.org, as looking "like it's the official website for Century City, and that's the farthest thing from the truth. They're slimy."

In the savage political battle of the 1960s, the "Beverly Hills Freeway" was backed by California's top politicos. A massive east-west 10-lane edifice running roughly parallel to Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue, the freeway would have wiped out and slashed through big sections of Hollywood, Hancock Park, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Westwood. It would have served a futuristic "Century" city of skyscrapers on a vast backlot previously owned by 20th Century Fox.

The skyscrapers were built, but the freeway wasn't. It was stopped by a mighty midget, the residents of Beverly Hills.

This time, Beverly Hills isn't opposing the subway. The civic leaders love it. But every Beverly Hills elected official, from the City Council to the Beverly Hills Unified School District Board of Education, strongly opposes tunneling below the high school campus to move the route two blocks south. And they are pouring significant resources into fighting the much richer, bigger land barons of Century City.

"Who's behind it?" Beverly Hills Mayor Barry Brucker asks of the Constellation Boulevard subway stop proposal. "Three initials: JMB."

Patrick Meara, a senior vice president at JMB Realty, when asked if JMB has held private talks with Villaraigosa, avers, "This whole process has been very public." He insists JMB won't unduly profit from the enhanced land value created by the Constellation station: "No different than what anyone else would get."

In 2008, Beverly Hills voters approved a $334 million bond measure to help the school district modernize and renovate Beverly Hills High School, circa 1927, which was deemed a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education in 2004 and serves 2,200 students.

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