Developers Are Winning Miracle Mile's Density Battle — and Screwing Over Residents
A flurry of big projects along Wilshire Boulevard has created a perfect storm of jackhammering, street closures and permanent loss of parking.
Photo by Ted Soqui
Across the Miracle Mile, stretches of Wilshire Boulevard are vanishing. Parking lots and businesses have been closed and removed, and streets and alleys have taken a "vacation," according to cryptic city signs that warned residents when Metro began digging the Purple Line subway last spring.
While the Metro Purple Line promises rides from the Wilshire District to the Westside by 2035, residents and business owners are horrified by the agency's and city's disjointed oversight — long before the first tracks have been laid.
Ken Hixon, a screenwriter who lives in a bougainvillea-covered Spanish duplex near LACMA, says a flurry of big projects — condo towers, new museums and the subway — has created a "perfect storm" of jackhammering, bulldozing and street closures.
"Everyone is infused with the nobility of their purpose," he says of city planners and Metro, whose blunders in oversight, construction and traffic rerouting during MTA's five-year 405 freeway–widening project are now part of city legend. "They forget that people live here. We have to survive this."
Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council are moving to significantly alter the pleasant neighborhood of Miracle Mile, which some dub the heart of L.A. Condo towers are rising on side streets, and LACMA, the Petersen Automotive Museum and the forthcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures are pushing ambitious construction to attract millions of visitors.
That has made Wilshire the new battleground for L.A.'s long war between the urban planners and those who live, work and drive in the targeted neighborhoods. City leaders believe that building subways, adding bus and bike lanes, and developing mixed-use high-rises will eventually ease congestion because new commuters and residents will opt for public transit.
Critics say this belief, a driving force behind Garcetti's approved Mobility Plan, is buttressed by zero proof — and congestion has worsened around Metro's other "co-development" projects across L.A.
Metro spokesman Dave Sotero will tell you that the Purple Line is a "high-capacity alternative" to driving. "You'll be able to complete both directions of travel utilizing the subways that are impervious to that traffic above," Sotero says, transporting commuters from Westwood to downtown in just less than a half-hour. "That's very difficult to do in an automobile," he says.
While that may be true, the majority of Metro's mostly working-class and poor riders doesn't own cars, according to its own statistics, so an extended subway line won't necessarily mean fewer cars on the road. Despite Metro's spending, ridership has been dropping: about an 8 percent decrease in monthly passengers, comparing September 2013 to September of this year.
Most troubling to some is that not one of Metro's Purple Line stations will have a parking lot.
"It's like, what kind of idiots would do this kind of construction and not take into consideration that there would be a need for public parking?" asks Pat Shaver, a digital producer who's lived in an art deco studio apartment near Wilshire for 23 years but may move — local congestion has recently tripled her commute time to Century City.
Shaver began putting flyers out and complaining to the City Council last April, when Metro shuttered a free parking lot to make room for the La Brea/Wilshire subway station. For a year, Shaver has been covertly renting after-hours parking from a nearby business, pooling together cash from nearly a dozen others who shuffle into the private lot between dusk and dawn.
"The real culprit here is the city of L.A. and how callous they've been," screenwriter Hixon says. He adds that the city has raided the Special Parking Revenue Fund intended for buying and operating parking facilities and metered spaces citywide.
In the 2008 economic meltdown, then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council decided to "temporarily" divert that parking revenue into the City Council's controversial "general fund," a big, undefined pot that the politicians tap for any city use. Later, Villaraigosa and the council went even further, transferring parking funds without authorization or repayment.
These millions flowing in from parking meters and city parking lots have been spent on everything from LAPD overtime to fire department helitanks.
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Garcetti's 2015-2016 budget is diverting $56.5 million out of the parking fund. To justify this action, city leaders formally designated the money collected from city meters and city parking lots a "surplus" merely to be absorbed.
In an interview with L.A. Weekly before he left office due to term limits, Councilman Tom LaBonge called the Wilshire expanse he represented, "the area of the future," crediting its museums showcasing art, fossils, movies and yes, even automobiles. "It's going to have a rumble-tumble of a time now, as we bring the subway there," LaBonge acknowledged.
LaBonge wanted to see more of the cramped residential blocks turned into one-way streets, creating room for diagonal parking. But those plans have stalled while Councilman David Ryu, who replaced LaBonge, grapples with the area's wealth of new problems.
Estevan Montemayor, Ryu's communications officer, says Ryu is disappointed by Metro, and that "residents feel like people are just making decisions without having their own voices being incorporated into the decision, and not really thinking about what the impacts are going to be day to day on their lives."
In fact, government planners and city leaders saw this coming.
Garcetti's L.A. Mobility Plan, an aggressive 20-year framework for transforming the city, plainly states that "reducing congestion is not a goal."
Garcetti's and the City Council's ideas for a more transit-dependent urban metropolis could result in the removal of traffic lanes, further worsening local congestion, L.A. Mobility's own Environmental Impact Report acknowledges.
Rather, the Mobility Plan is meant to implement an obscure state law from 2008, the Complete Streets Act, which requires counties and cities to adopt long-term transportation plans that equally benefit motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists.
That's difficult math in L.A., where 67 percent of commuters drive to work.
"The city is basically saying, yeah, we know all of that, but eventually, everybody's going to give up their cars and take rapid transit. Yeah, right," says James O'Sullivan, a co-founder of Fix the City, a non-profit that has pushed back against developers, often in court.
O'Sullivan's group sued the city after Ryu and City Council approved the Mobility Plan in August. Fix the City alleges that the Mobility Plan violates the California Environmental Quality Act and creates unfixable environmental impacts and "significantly increased congestion."
In November, Garcetti and others agreed to redraft the document. City officials have since taken the Mobility Plan's website offline, scrubbing away all links to the Environmental Impact Report.
Meanwhile, the train must go on, Metro says, as it seeks billions in federal bonds in hopes of fast-tracking subway construction so L.A. can bolster its argument for the 2024 Olympics.
Now, Metro is pursuing permits to completely close a stretch of Wilshire in March for two to four weeks of "decking" work — excavating 8 feet under the asphalt to install a concrete deck so workers can labor below street level — says Metro spokeswoman Kasey Shuda.
Shuda calls it "pulling off the Band-Aid" — and there are years of the same ahead, including numerous closures of bustling stretches on Wilshire.
In the Wilshire area, residents aren't giving up without a fight. “This our neighborhood, damn it,” says Hixon. “We live here, and we're going to have a say about how you conduct yourself in our neighborhood.”
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