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Constellation Blvd. Is the Wrong Choice for the Westside Extension Century City Station

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On Oct. 28, the Metro Board will meet to decide what to include in the Final EIR. I'm guessing they will ask for both the so-called Constellation alternative, as well as the Santa Monica alternative to be considered for the Century City station.

So the final decision won't be made until after the Final EIR has been presented sometime next year, but the money (read: Century City developer money) is on Metro's choosing the Constellation alternative.

That would not be a good move.

The Community of Beverly Hills is united in opposition to the Constellation alignment, which would involve tunneling under the City's only -- and historical -- high school. Opposition is based on the fact that there is a viable alternative to tunneling under the high school, as well as the perception that Metro has not been entirely straight with the Community. In short, our residents have become tired of being the victims of bait-and-switch tactics, whether they come from slick developers or from Metro.

As tempting as it is for the Metro Board, in league with special interest groups such as wealthy Century City developers, to bash such an easy target as Beverly Hills, riding roughshod over the wishes of an entire Community would not be the right decision, either from a political or practical perspective. What's more, it would also be extremely unfair -- not that fairness towards residents has ever been a real concern for big government agencies.

The preferred strategy for the "My Metro, right or wrong" crowd seems to be writing off Beverly Hills as a bunch of NIMBY's, which evidently is the en vogue insult intended to minimize the concerns of any group of people who don't agree with the Master Planners. So perhaps it's not surprising that a number of these critics have dissed BH, sometimes in fairly harsh terms.

No matter if the concerns of the Beverly Hills residents are legitimate; some of the attacks simply bring to mind the Tom Lehrer's observation that "to hate all but the right folks is an old established rule." Fact is, Beverly Hills has been supportive of current Westside Extension from the get-go. However, the support of the community has always been based on a route that went down Wilshire Blvd. to Santa Monica and Century City. The recent development of the Constellation alignment looks, smells and feels like a classic bait-and-switch maneuver. Attempts to paint the Constellation alignment as simply "a good idea that just materialized over the course of developing the project" are -- to put it mildly -- disingenuous. As if when the initial Century City alignment along Santa Monica was developed, nobody at Metro was aware of the existence of Constellation Blvd. or the rest of Century City. Yeah, right.

To suggest that the one block (yes, folks that's right: one block) is going to cause potential riders not to use the subway does not really make any sense.

Joel Epstein on the Huffington Post even goes so far as to suggest that putting the Century City station on Santa Monica would be comparable with "the Metro Green Line stopping short of LAX." Is he kidding? Is he truly suggesting that not having a subway station at the region's international airport is the same as a one block distance between proposed subway stations?

Let's deconstruct Epstein a little more. In his blog posting, he writes: "The two options are a commuter friendly stop at Constellation Blvd and Avenue of the Stars and a less convenient alternative on Santa Monica Blvd. While some may quibble with my characterization of the Santa Monica location as 'less convenient,' the fact is, it is. Just get out of your car and count the number of steps it takes to get there from Century City's various office towers and the Westfield Century City mall vs. a location at Constellation."

What is interesting is Epstein's apparent definition of "commuter friendly" and his take on Century City geography. If it's "convenience" he's after, it would seem that a Santa Monica Blvd. station would be much more convenient to all the office towers actually on Santa Monica Blvd. itself, including those that have been entitled but not built yet. And the Westfield mall stretches from Santa Monica to Constellation, so despite Epstein's assertion, a Santa Monica alignment would be no less "convenient" to the mall than Constellation. Furthermore, the Santa Monica alignment would be more convenient to walking into the west side of Beverly Hills, including the developments which have been entitled to the west of the Wilshire/Santa Monica intersection. Conversely, the "inconvenience" that a commuter who wanted to go to the other end of Century City would have to suffer is no greater than walking from one end of the mall to the other -- or even less since an escalator from the subway would presumably bring the commuter to the street level towards the middle of the block between Santa Monica and Constellation.

But if it's really a question of "the number of steps" a commuter has to walk, we need to do no more than look at the curious case of Westwood to see just how Metro's assumptions about ridership lack credibility and consistency.

The kvetching of those "expert" advocates who so quickly dismiss the concerns of Beverly Hills by suggesting Constellation is the "right" location for the Century City station makes even less sense when one considers the station planned for Westwood. The Westwood station, at the corner of Wilshire and Westwood, is at the very southern end of Westwood Village, almost a mile away from UCLA's School of Public Affairs.

Why is there no concern among these self-styled "urbanists" about ridership in Westwood? Why haven't these all-knowing would-be rationalists taken out their brooms and pitchforks to demand that Metro move the Westwood station to the heart of Westwood Village, rather than settle for the inconvenient southern extremity as planned?

Writes Epstein: "Let's build the subway already, and let's build it in the location that insures its greatest success and efficacy for the greatest number of commuters smart enough to ride." And yet, he says he believes the Westwood station should be at Wilshire and Westwood "rather than further west" -- as if a station further west made any sense at all. Again: why not in the heart of Westwood Village? Wouldn't that be the location that "insures its greatest success and efficacy for the greatest number of commuters smart enough to ride"?

It seems that one of Metro's "rationales" against a Westwood station in the heart of Westwood is the route the subway would take when leaving the area on its merry way towards Santa Monica by the sea. Evidently, in order to continue the subway's Wilshire alignment after moving back out of Westwood Village, Metro would be forced to tunnel under portions of the VA Cemetery. So tunneling under a high school with thousands of living children is hunky-dory, while tunneling under a cemetery with thousands of dead people is verboten. How does that make sense? 'Tis the bewitching time of year and perhaps Metro and Epstein have a sixth sense and are more receptive to the arguments of the departed, who don't want to be disturbed, than to the parents of real, live children.

While it's more than a bit ironic that "I believe in Metro" spokespeople like Joel Epstein -- both of the paid variety as well as those who are merely "true believers" -- aren't expending their energies fighting for a more central station in Westwood, it's hardly surprising. But for those who don't happen to be fans of double standards - the one here being so massive that you could drive a heavy-rail locomotive through it -- it is understandable that the residents of Beverly Hills wouldn't take this lying down.

Nonetheless, Epstein suggests that Metro, as a matter of principle, needs to vigorously fight every lawsuit, including potential lawsuits from the Beverly Hills Board of Education and others. Not unpredictably, he uses "slippery slope" argument. "If Metro 'caves' to Beverly Hills, it will set a bad precedent and open the floodgates to a myriad of lawsuits from NIMBY's of all stripes," or something like that.

Guess what? In this instance, setting precedents and establishing principles might not be such a bad idea. How about, for starters, the principle of respecting the concept of local control? How about establishing the general principle of taking the least intrusive option where there is a viable alternative? No, the conclusion is not that we should stop powering our homes with natural gas because of San Bruno - though I'm open to that if a better option comes along. The conclusion is we shouldn't build gas mains under houses or schools where another option exists, even if it's a little less "convenient" to some. Another principle we could establish would be active cooperation with residents rather than blowing them off. And while we're at it: how about establishing the principles of talking straight and not dissembling for the sake of political expediency?

On the other hand, there is a principle we may actually want to avoid. While Metro's ability to use eminent domain to obtain easements under residential and business properties seems pretty well established, the use of eminent domain by one state agency over another state agency is unprecedented in California. Not only is this a bad principle on any number of both practical and philosophical levels, but it could also be a matter for long, drawn-out litigation which, combined with organized opposition, could slow the entire subway project and the ability to get 30-10 funding. Some of the "My Metro right or wrong" crowd has been quick to blow off the concerns of the Beverly Hills Unified School District. The courts might not be so quick and they might not be of the same opinion.

While Epstein and other professed "transit advocates" may be sincere in their convictions, they are nothing if not smug. And inconsistent. In response to a commenter who points out that walking a block won't harm those commuters who might need to get from Santa Monica to Constellation Epstein writes: "Yes walking is good for you but access is what matters when encouraging ridership. And in this political environment I think the last thing Metro wants to do is take a parental tone with the public."

Yet this is exactly what Epstein himself is doing with the residents of Beverly Hills. And while Epstein may attempt to take a kindler, gentler tone, the results of his comments on the Century City subway alignment nonetheless can be reduced to a paternalistic: "We 'respect' you, but we know better... so shut up." On the one hand, it seems pretty clear that double-standards and bait-and-switch tactics are not necessarily the best way to win people's hearts and minds. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that all Metro's "respect" for local input and outreach activities may have effectively been done for show, in order to give the ultimate blow off the air of legitimacy. With this approach, Metro should not expect the opposition from Beverly Hills to end anytime soon.

Epstein elects to take a "glass half full" approach about the qualified support of the Beverly Hills City Council for the Westside Extension and I would encourage him to maintain this attitude. Specifically, I'd urge Epstein and Metro to take the "glass half full approach" when considering that surely a subway station at Santa Monica and Avenue of the Stars is better than no Century City subway station -- or no subway -- at all. Surely the $50 million that would be saved by the less expensive, less intrusive Santa Monica alignment could be put to good use with other pedestrian or bike-friendly transit projects that could benefit Beverly Hills and the entire region.