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Bait-Switch-Fix: The Westside Subway's Three Act Play

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Bait-Switch-Fix. That was the subtext of last week's press conference in Century City which neatly did the bidding of Century City developers hoping to increase their property values with the benefit of a subway station adjacent to their properties. Well-orchestrated, well-rehearsed and misleading, the message of the press conference participants was clear: we want the Century City station on Constellation and we don't care if you have to tunnel under Beverly Hills High School to get there.

Press conference messaging, explicit or implied, also included the following tidbits from the participants: we're not really concerned with current ridership projections (we can fix that in the FEIR); money is no object (and in any event we can figure out ways to stack the deck and change the current projections in the FEIR); and Century City lawyers are more important than UCLA students (since we won't apply the same standards to the location of the UCLA/Westwood station that we're attempting to apply within Century City). Despite these howlers, the combination of politician, ex-political-functionary-cum-business-lobbyist and homeowner group reps provided for an interesting dynamic and was immensely entertaining.

From a Beverly Hills resident's perspective, the press conference was the beginning of the final act in this three act play. If the first act was called "Bait" and the second act "Switch," the final act is titled "Fix." And this press conference, organized by the Century City Chamber of Commerce, was intended to give the politicians on the Metro Board more cover for a decision that seems preordained in every sense of the word. And the winner is... Constellation.

The press conference, heavily attended by employees who were ordered to attend by their employers, was teed up by Century City Chamber of Commerce prexy Susan Bursk. The panel was a rather interesting one: Bursk was joined by Councilman Paul Koretz, who unsurprisingly expressed his support for the Constellation alignment. What was more riveting than the councilman's appearance, however, was seeing Bursk flanked by the two homeowner group representatives. Bursk herself had served on the South Robertson neighborhood council, but what perhaps is most interesting about her appearance cheek-to-cheek with the homeowner group reps is that she was the chief field deputy for the Westside for Paul Koretz's predecessor, Jack Weiss. By the end of his term -- largely due to his support of massive projects in Century City -- Weiss was, to put it mildly, not extremely popular among the homeowner groups.

Yet there was Weiss's successor, Koretz, along with Bursk, Steve Breuer from the Century City homeowners' group and Jan Reichmann from the Comstock Hills homeowners standing in front of a construction pit for yet another massive skyscraper to be built by Chicago-based developer JMB. It's the location that was the source of major controversy when JMB tried to silence the homeowner groups by buying them off with a $5 million slush fund, only to have Jack Weiss & Co. wrest control of the funds from the homeowners. Just what was Bursk's role in this drama?  Whatever it may have been, seeing Reichmann in lockstep with Bursk was perhaps the most
striking of the odd-couple pairings, especially considering a comment on the LA Weekly site about the Weiss-supported plan for new skyscrapers in Century City posted under the name "Jan Reichmann": "Westfield is the new bad boy on the Century City block planning a 49 story tower at the corner of SM Blvd and Ave. of the Stars. It adds another 262 condos on top of 4 stories of retail. The developer says that, too, will reduce traffic because it replaces a 13 story office building. Do the math! "

The JMB skyscraper and the new Westfield building notwithstanding, Breuer and Reichmann both added their voices to the chorus in support of the Constellation station. Yet even here, they were a picture of contrasts. Breuer's group, which consists of about 2000 townhouse/condo owners is located between Pico and Olympic, and they actually want the subway to be located closer to their abodes. One of the reasons cited was that it would provide easier access for their domestic help.

Reichmann's group, on the other hand, which is located north of Santa Monica Blvd., and mainly consists of single-family houses, wants the subway station located at Constellation so that it would be farther away from their houses. Presumably they all have live-in domestic help. Reichmann made it very clear that she doesn't think subway stations should be located close to residential areas. She mentioned that her group was mostly concerned about the construction impacts should the subway run under Santa Monica. She mentioned dirt and noise impacts, as well as impacts to the businesses along Santa Monica during the construction period. Finally, she cited the "earthquake fault" along Santa Monica Blvd., and the "dark golf course with no security."

And they said that when it came to potential safety issues the Beverly Hills residents were alarmist...

Reichmann closed with a jab at Beverly Hills, whose resistance to getting rolled on the alignment issue could be characterized, in her words, as "whining" and "threatening."

This characterization is the apex of comic irony, as in her own presentation, Reichmann had exposed herself and her supporters as the biggest NIMBY's of all. Their reasons for supporting the Constellation alignment were all too clear, and they weren't even subtle about it. They're saying "Not in my front or back yard," which would actually make the Comstock group NIMFOBY's rather than just garden-variety NIMBY's. One is reminded of the Fiddler on the Roof rabbi's blessing for the czar: "May the good Lord bless and keep the subway... far away from us."

Yet none of this stopped some of the most vocal and ardent Constellation supporters, in blogs and on-line postings, from consistently hurling the epithet NIMBY at Beverly Hills while remaining silent on the Comstock Hills homeowners' Nimfobia. Guess what? There are two subway stations planned for within Beverly Hills and both are within walking distance of our residential areas, including single-family houses. You don't hear us whining about those, now do you, Jan? Yes, we're going to have to deal with the staging and construction impacts, but we're willing to do so for the benefit of the entire region. We're doing our share. How about you, Jan?

We just don't happen to like bait-and-switches.

Obviously keenly aware of the bait-and-switch tactics being visited upon Beverly Hills, Susan Bursk attempted to head off any criticism at the pass and she did so with a novel approach, which sometimes seems to work for politicians -- though with varying degrees of success, especially recently. Deny, deny, deny. While she at least didn't claim her computer had been hacked, according to Bursk, Metro has "always" planned on taking the subway along Constellation Blvd. In fact, according to Bursk, Metro has had plans for "50 years" to have a Constellation Blvd. subway station.

Of course, the first building in Century City was built less than 50 years ago, but what does that matter to someone who is attempting to sell revisionist history sound bites? In fact, when she ends her Century City Chamber gig, Ms. Bursk might consider writing Paul Revere speeches for Sarah Palin. "The subway is coming! The subway is coming!" The possibilities to rewrite subway history have unlimited potential. We might hear how Lewis and Clark somehow planned on a Constellation station, or how John Wesley Powell, surveying the area, made notations about how the current JMB construction location would be perfect for the nascent subway technology. Or perhaps how Father Junipero Serra once stood on the spot that is now the corner of Avenue of the Stars and Constellation, closed his eyes and struck his staff down three times, then saying with a transmogrifying halo illuminating his face: "Aquí."

I'm afraid that Ms. Bursk's revisionist history -- Beverly Hills residents, at least, know very well that Metro's plans for the better part of a decade were focused on Santa Monica Blvd. -- is simply the prelude to the rest of the fix. 'Cause the developers want Constellation, and because the developers want Constellation, the Chamber of Commerce wants Constellation, and because the developers and Chamber want Constellation the politicians want Constellation. And the homeowners' groups want Constellation, in a split decision, one because it's more convenient for domestic help and the other because of unrepentant Nimfobia.

I hope I'm wrong, but I think we can expect to see a final EIR, due later this summer, to be tooled to reflect the very clear wishes of the politicians who make up Metro's Board. When the trickle-down from the developers means the politicians want Constellation, how can Metro staff possibly recommend a Santa Monica alignment? There's politics and then there's company politics. And the Metro staff is not stupid.

So -- and I repeat that I hope I'm wrong, but in this instance I'm feeling a bit like Nostradamus -- whereas the current reports suggest higher total ridership along Santa Monica, I think we're going to see a final EIR which retools the ridership figures to indicate significantly higher ridership at the Constellation station. Since ridership seems to be one of the holiest of grails for certain transit advocates, it would be untenable to release a FEIR which suggested that Santa Monica could actually have higher ridership because that is where the jobs are concentrated, not to mention the the transit ridership which could be expected there (and which is one of the reasons that the VA -- hardly a bustling urban hub -- is projected to have one of the highest ridership figures along the line).

We're also going to see that the Santa Monica fault line -- yes, that's right, the one with a recurrence rate of once every 7500 years or so -- will pose a serious risk and serious construction challenges. This will have the dual result of raising the cost for construction along Santa Monica to a level which will far surpass the Constellation route, which is now projected to cost at least $60 million more. And it will raise major safety issues, as well as doomsday earthquake disaster scenarios.

The irony here is rich, to say the least, considering all the Constellation advocates who called Beverly Hills "alarmist" and "hysterical" when the potential safety concerns of tunneling under a high school -- with both oil fields and its own fault -- were initially brought up.

Fortunately, the BHUSD -- and, hopefully, the city, as well, if I have anything to say about it -- will hire its own engineers and geologists to dispute the preordained results of the "Fix" part of the "Bait-Switch-Fix" tripartite. Tim Buresh, recently appointed the Southern California regional director of the high-speed rail project, is already on the case for the District and he has already forcefully pointed out the folly of the Constellation Station; his calm, measured tones should not be misinterpreted to leave any doubt about the content of his statements. Those Constellation acolytes who would try to discredit Buresh simply because he opposes the Constellation alignment would do well to read the rail authority's press release about him: "Buresh has over 30 years of executive experience with civil and public works projects, in all aspects of engineering, construction, project development and organizational management. He has overseen large design‐build and design‐bid‐build contracts in California. He further brings experience in large program environmental management including environmental mitigation, permitting, regulatory, outreach and contract skills."

I'm guessing that Mr. Buresh and his colleagues will have much to sink their teeth into and debunk once the FEIR is released later this summer.

As the well-orchestrated press conference ended, I had to think about Susan Bursk's opening statement: "When you're gonna build a subway, you can only build it once, and you want to build it right, and you want to put it in the right location."

Well, indeed, I thought. And if that's the case, then why isn't this press conference right now taking place in the middle of Westwood Village? The lack of consistency and double standard is just so blatant. The UCLA/Westwood station is the better part of a mile from the UCLA campus. A station in the middle of Westwood Village would better serve the UCLA campus, while also better serving the Village itself -- in need of all the help it can get -- as well as continuing to serve the limited number of office buildings on Wilshire and Westwood. "You want to build it right, and you want to put it in the right location"? Then the station has to be a lot closer to the UCLA campus. (We could have a longer discussion about the "building it right" part in regard to the entire Westside extension, as most stations only are scheduled to have one portal, which hardly qualifies as "building it right" in my book).

And yet we hear such nonsense as "UCLA students would be willing to take shuttles from the campus to the subway station." And that's supposedly a valid reason to get it wrong? Why make such a ridiculous contention when you have the Burskian chance to get it right in the first place? It simply makes no sense at all -- until you remember that Metro nixed the idea of a more central Westwood station because the continuation of the route westwards would involve tunneling under a cemetery.

And there we have it: what does it say when such righteous concern about tunneling under a cemetery with dead people can be contrasted with such nonchalance when it comes to tunneling under a school with real, live kids?

There's gotta be an explanation, doesn't there? Of course, there is and that answer can perhaps be found in a statement from Mike Eveloff of another Century City/Westwood area homeowner group. Eveloff, intimately familiar with the system, describes the entitlement process in Century City as "entirely in the control of developers, lawyers and lobbyists." Surprise, surprise. Welcome to LA. And no need to wonder about why the press conference is taking place in front of the JMB lot, where the developers want it to be.

Yes, indeed. First came the "Bait." Then came the "Switch." And finally came the "Fix." Bait-Switch-Fix. Coming to a FEIR near you before Labor Day.

Remember, you heard it here first.