Westside Subway Extension Feud
Earthquake faults must be part of the 1 percent.
Two months ago, seismologists hired by Metro mapped the precise locations of two long-known but little-understood earthquake faults, one of which is beneath the proposed Santa Monica Boulevard station for the Westside Subway extension route next to Century City.
The maps confirmed that one of the two faults, the West Beverly Hills Lineament, lies directly below the future subway's long-discussed "base" route on Santa Monica Boulevard.
That fact has energized a two-year effort by Century City land barons to persuade Metro to move the Westside Subway route — known as the Purple Line — two blocks south of Santa Monica Boulevard.
Skyscraper owners in Century City want the station built directly at the foot of a skyscraper being planned by politically connected developer JMB. The chief political supporter for that plan is Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. JMB and Century City Mall owner Westfield Corp. have raised more than $296,000 for Villaraigosa's pet political projects and election campaigns.
Rather than serve bustling Santa Monica Boulevard, where groups of working-class citizens carry fast food to work, the station would serve sleepy, three-block-long Constellation Boulevard, where investment bankers valet their Porsches.
That's where things get tricky in the political and economic battle over the Purple Line route and where to put the station.
Neither of the two faults is rated as "active" under a statewide safety system used to restrict future construction. In fact, the fault dubbed the Santa Monica Fault was fully assessed using extensive soil trenching in the late 1970s, says CGS spokesman Don Drysdale, and deemed inactive. Nobody in Metro or the Mayor's Office is pressing for a so-called Alquist-Priolo Zoning Act assessment on either fault, which could take at least a year.
If the two faults are indeed active, what peril faces the Century City Westfield Mall that sits on that stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard and the big office towers on Century Park East?
So far, nobody is trying to answer that question.
Lucy Jones, head seismologist at the USGS, conducted a pro bono review of the report and told L.A. Weekly that moving the subway station away from Santa Monica Boulevard "is the right thing to do" from a scientific standpoint, because the two faults could be active.
In California's Alquist-Priolo zoning system, "active" means studies show a fault ruptured at the surface in the past 11,000 years. Metro now claims the faults have been shown to be "active" — without an Alquist-Priolo study.
Metro is relying on a far less rigorous study it ordered, which was conducted by USC professor James Dolan. Dolan, who authored the report on the two faults, offers this grim hypothetical: "[Subway] stations can deal with being near shaking — they can't deal with being on the fault though. [The station] could slice in half."
According to Dolan, an underground station at Santa Monica could intersect with the two faults and potentially be ripped up, down and sideways during a quake. Metro cites this potential tearing as the peril facing a future Purple Line station under Santa Monica Boulevard.
Not so fast, says Tim Buresh, an engineer who worked on the Metro Red Line and Blue Line and who opposes the route switch to Constellation Boulevard.
Says Buresh: "If [the faults are] this dangerous, then why is there not a broader concern? [The concern] can't just be for Metro" and its Westside Subway extension stop. He says the information that two "active" faults exist under Santa Monica Boulevard "should have a huge regional impact, not impact just one location."
Buresh concludes that Metro is manipulating the facts in order "to isolate the information for a specific purpose: to discredit a Santa Monica station."
Century City's skyscraper owners have been locked in a bitter war with Beverly Hills Unified School District, which strongly opposes shifting the subway route to Constellation because that would require tunneling and then running subway cars directly beneath Beverly Hills High School.
In July, the Weekly detailed, in its cover story "Beverly Hills vs. the Westside Subway," how Century City Chamber of Commerce president Susan Bursk and corporate interests she represents have fought school officials to have the Purple Line route switched to Constellation.
Some Beverly Hills school district proponents complain that the motive is not to build the subway stop in the best location but to enhance the commercial value of several skyscrapers in Century City.
Buresh, the engineer who opposes the Constellation station, argues that the stockbrokers, lawyers and professional investors who make up a sizable portion of the Century City workforce "rarely get out of their cars." Metro's own Draft EIR — an initial environmental impact report — appeared to back up that view.
The EIR projected slightly fewer riders would use the Westside Subway if the station were under the Century City skyscrapers instead of under Santa Monica Boulevard, which is already transit-savvy and boasts one of L.A.'s few bus-only lanes.
"You think people who are in their 60s living in condos are going to hop out of their Lexus?" asks Lisa Korbatov, president of the Beverly Hills Unified School District Board of Education. "I don't think so."
To officially classify a fault zone as "active" under the AP act, according to California Geological Survey Special Study 42, further testing must be done, including soil trenching. But Metro didn't ask for trenching for its fault study — and such digging would take time and money, given the concrete jungle that is Century City.
On Nov. 17, Metro sent out a glossy mailer to all residents of Beverly Hills and Century City. Three pages of the mailer are dedicated to refuting information in the Beverly Hills Courier newspaper suggesting Metro's science is insufficient.
Metro's mailer devotes just one paragraph to the dangers the two earthquake faults present to buildings and future development in the area. The paragraph says: "These studies were conducted as a part [of] subway planning and the data generated was analyzed solely for those purposes. The data have been made public. ... Property owners can evaluate the information to determine if it has any implications independent of the subway."
When the Weekly contacted Century Park East Condominiums general manager George Lohan, he was unaware that the two 21-story towers, containing 480 units at the southeast corner of Century Park East and Olympic Boulevard, may sit above a potentially dangerous new fault zone.
No Metro testing was conducted under the Century Park East condos. But with the West Beverly Hills Lineament fault zone said by Metro to be 1,000 feet wide, running under Santa Monica Boulevard and directly abutting the eastern side of Century Park East, the two condo towers appear to be in the fault zone.
"They always wanted the site at their 'center of the center,' " — a phrase used to describe Constellation Boulevard in the middle of Century City, Korbatov says, "but that is like saying that Kansas is the center of the center of America."
Buresh says Metro asked USC's Dolan and his team to identify the exact location of the two known fault zones but to look no further. Because earlier, crude maps showed the zone to be closer to Santa Monica than Constellation, it appears that Metro paid for only minimal testing under the proposed Constellation site and focused its attention on the Santa Monica Boulevard site.
As a result, Metro conducted only one test beneath the proposed Constellation subway station and 16 tests under the proposed Santa Monica station — a fact verified by Metro's own maps.
Metro's consultant Dolan, in an email to the Weekly, says there was "no pressure to find a specific, foreordained result."
However, Dolan was given two options to recommend; when he verified the faults beneath Santa Monica, that left only Constellation.
"We initially had 17 to 19 proposals for station sites in the area," says Metro spokeswoman Jody Litvak, "but as you get more narrowed, it is not cost-effective to do [earthquake] engineering for every site."
Litvak says Metro's fault study has useful information that applies to many government agencies, and waiting on an official Alquist-Priolo classification was not something Metro wanted to do. "We thought that it was important public information," Litvak says. "We were not going to sit on it."
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