Crossing the Line

Crossing the Line

Work on a century-old railroad right-of-way in Los Angeles is chugging right along.  With Phase I of the Exposition Light Rail Transit Line well underway—and due for completion by the end of 2010—the line will follow an 8.6-mile route from downtown to Culver City.

The University of Southern California’s station is nearly complete in Exposition Park. Pylons for an overpass are rising on either side of La Brea Avenue, tracks are welded in Culver City, and the line’s undulating sun-shield canopies should start shimmering above stations starting in May. Although beleaguered by community groups seeking changes, the Expo Line remains on track.

The $2-billion-plus project, which is managed by the Exposition Construction Authority (a state agency only partially funded by LA’s transit authority), was given a boost by Measure R. The half-cent county sales tax passed by voters last fall will provide needed funds during Phase II—expansion to Santa Monica—and has lent an overall sense of confidence to the project.

“Before Measure R, there was always the possibility that, due to lack of funding, Phase II could be delayed," said Roland Genick, lead designer for the project’s urban design and architecture. "But now it looks like it might get accelerated, and final design might start earlier.” On May 18, an industry review allowed potential design-build teams to begin viewing procurement documents for Phase II. The companies involved in station architecture, urban design, and engineering during Phase I include Gruen Associates, Parsons, and Miyamoto International.

The Expo Line has a unified design, meaning all stations adhere to the same basic system, with slight customization at each station during the fabrication and installation phase. One detail that designers hope riders will notice is the patterns of tiny perforations in the sun shields: dot-matrix photographs from the neighborhood, which will be shadowed on the ground. The stations will also be transformed significantly at night, thanks to illumination from within the rain shelters. Artists have been selected for each station, adding another layer of local reference.

In addition to the stations themselves, a flurry of development has cropped up along the Phase I transit corridor. Culver City has purchased a triangle of land next to the new Robertson-Venice station, where a mixed-use development with commercial space, a potential boutique hotel, and residential units has been proposed by developers Urban Partners with architects Moule & Polyzoides.

Further east near the La Cienega station, Eric Owen Moss has unveiled a concept for a 200,000-square-foot residential tower developed by Samitaur Construct. Surrounding the Crenshaw station, the Community Redevelopment Agency has completed a vision plan with Urban Studio that will bring pedestrian improvements, bicycle facilities, and a comprehensive landscape plan by ah’bé landscape architects to Crenshaw Street.

Not everyone is happy. As development spikes along the route, grassroots groups like Citizens’ Campaign to Fix the Expo Rail Line and Neighbors For Smart Rail have mobilized, specifically to prevent at-grade crossings in neighborhoods, which they believe will increase accidents, traffic, noise, and glare. The groups have also claimed that residents in lower-income neighborhoods are not receiving the same safety measures as wealthier Westside residents.

The Citizens’ Campaign focused their efforts on the Exposition Boulevard-Farmdale Avenue crossing, which was deemed too close to Dorsey High School, whose students would have to cross the at-grade alignment. After a February ruling that deemed the crossing unsafe, Expo began work on a new proposal to include a pedestrian bridge and a likely permanent closing of Farmdale. An Environmental Impact Review will be available for public comment this summer, and major changes could delay the opening for a year.

On April 2, Expo announced the preferred alignment for the project’s Phase II to Santa Monica, exiting Culver City on the existing Exposition right-of-way through a corner of Cheviot Hills to the art complex at Bergamot Station and continuing along Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica, ending just blocks from the Pacific. Although the route is not confirmed, it already has its own set of issues. Some residents in Cheviot Hills rallied unsuccessfully for a new alignment down Sepulveda that avoided their neighborhood completely.

Further west, Santa Monica residents are up in arms about a potential Verizon facility recommended as a maintenance yard (it has not yet been purchased, but Expo is in negotiations). Groups were so incensed about the yard butting up against one of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods that they put forth a proposal to use the ancient maintenance yard at Bergamot Station instead, striking fear into the local art community.

“The Bergamot takeover is a non-issue—it has never been considered as the site—but with the right design and input from residents, a maintenance facility with a park or mixed-use buffer could actually be an asset to the neighborhood,” said Genick. “We are heading into a new city and one that, while very supportive, is pretty opinionated,” he added.

As the Expo Line continues to travel west (Phase II could be operating by 2014 if construction begins next year as planned), it will be serving more affluent residents, meaning riders who will demand more from their transit system. “You need a solution for the majority, and good design can solve a lot of problems," said Genick, who welcomes the challenges. "Developing designs that are cognizant of the community concerns will result in the communities being invested in the project, and it will be a better project for it.”