Intense development around future Expo line stops sparks worries that a public transportation investment will actually make traffic worse
By Michelle Bergmann
The incoming light rail has some Westsiders questioning its very purpose. From Culver City to Santa Monica, three of seven new stops along the expansion of the Expo Line will bring with them huge developments expected to create thousands of extra car trips per day.
With all the excitement around the convenience of bringing light rail to the Westside, the developments sprouting up around those tracks are beg one major question for residents: Will the train alleviate Westside traffic woes or make them worse?
“We want to keep the integrity of the single-family homes,” said Terry Tippit, a longtime West Los Angeles resident and member of the Westwood Homeowners Association.
Tippit fought the Expo Line stop in her neighborhood for years, but she has now come to terms with the fact that about a year and a half from now the train will be picking up and dropping off passengers just blocks away from her home every 15 minutes.
At the Expo line’s Sepulveda and Pico stop, developer Casden is set to build 599 apartments with up to 15,000 square feet of neighborhood retail shops. The development is expected to bring up to 3,000 new car trips to the neighborhood per day, and Tippit worries how her neighborhood is going to handle that.
“Where are all those cars going to go?” asked Tippit.
Others say concentrating growth around public transportation, encouraging commuters to ditch their cars for public transportation, is the way to solve traffic congestion in a city that keeps growing.
“The purpose of smart growth is to end our being choked in gridlock, not to worsen it,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents many Westside neighborhoods.
A few future Expo Line stops to the west is Bergamot Station — at Olympic Boulevard and 26th Street, the third-to-last stop before the line’s terminus at Colorado Avenue and 4th Street.
Both hangout and housing for artists, Bergamot Station’s modern buildings that look similar to airport hangers are home to several distinct art galleries.
The planned Bergamot Transit Village, which would be one of the largest developments in Santa Monica history, would transform seven acres of Bergamot Station into 427 apartments, 375,000 square feet of office space and 30,000 square feet of restaurants and retail shops.
Conway Bongo, Bergamot Station artist and resident, says it’s not the train that is the problem; it’s the incoming transit village that will change the art hub and displace some galleries.
“It’s kind of atrocious, something like Bergamot Station that’s been here for so long, getting rid of it,” the artist said. “I find it horrifying.”
Bongo isn’t the only Santa Monica resident opposed to the transit village concept. So are about 13,400 others.
With the development bringing in an estimated additional 7,000 car trips per day, many Santa Monica residents worry the project will make their city unlivable and have been working to stop it.
After the Santa Monica City Council approved the transit village by a 4-3 vote on Feb. 4, a coalition of neighborhood groups — Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, Santa Monica for a Livable City and Mid-City Neighbors, among others — launched a referendum campaign to overturn the project’s approval.
The group needed 6,000 signatures to force council members to repeal project approval or put the matter before voters on an upcoming ballot.
On March 11, they more than doubled that goal.
“We have been told that our community is split over the issues of growth and densification in Santa Monica. It is clear that the only split that exists is the split between the four pro-growth City Council members and the real residents of Santa Monica,” Armen Melkonians, founder of referendum organizing website residocracy.org, posted in a recent statement.
Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown, one of the three votes against the project, said the project over-reaches by including too much office space, which is more likely than housing to generate additional traffic trips, and does not provide enough direct benefits to residents.
“We are confronted with a massive and ungainly project the community simply will not accept,” McKeown said. “It doesn’t offer us affordable housing and open space for parkland.”
Other officials say Bergamot Transit Village and other mixed-use developments will help reduce traffic by providing housing for those who work here and would otherwise commute by car.
Santa Monica Director of Planning and Development David Martin said that regardless of what Santa Monica does at Bergamot Station, traffic will likely get worse due to the city’s popularity.
“What we have to do is always be looking at ways to mitigate traffic,” said Martin.
History has shown that introducing new transportation causes natural changes to cities, making them more diversified and accessible to the public. It also attracts developers, as businesses and residential units close to light rail stops are highly valued, said Taylor Mammen, a Westwood real estate development consultant.
“In a way, [Expo Line stations] become the best locations to do real estate development in the city … and although it might be disruptive from a macro level, that’s just kind of how cities work”, Mammen said.
Westwood residents will be able to access downtown or the beach in 20 minutes or less — a speed and convenience difficult to fathom at peak-traffic hours in Los Angeles.
“I think it’s great,” said John Ribarich, a Westwood resident. “I’m all for it. I think it will relieve traffic. If people are going to live here, they will live here because of the train.”
Trains and hotels also go hand-in-hand, and there has been no exception with the Expo Line extension: A Marriott Hotel and Hampton Inn are being built at the end-of-the-line Colorado Avenue and 4th Street Station in Santa Monica.
“The two that are coming in are very moderately priced hotels, so we have heard from some residents that they are happy about them because they will provide a service to even the residents,” Santa Monica Planning and Community Development Assistant Director Ellen Gelbard said.
The hotels will cater to visitors riding the train, which is part of the reason why developer OTO will contribute $600,000 to the Colorado Esplanade, a large platform that will channel visitors to the Santa Monica Pier.
“I think in order to maximize the investment LA is making, it is critical that there be plenty of people who can use it,” said Mammen.
Aside from Bergamot Transit Village, construction on most approved projects near future light rail stops has either already started or will begin in the next six months. Sitting in the pipeline are about 10 new mixed-use projects agreements heading to the Santa Monica Planning Commission.
Ultimately, whether the Expo line brings more or less congestion to the Westside depends on how many commuters actually use the train.
Either way, the development sprouting up around future train stops will leave a permanent mark.
“No other single change will affect Santa Monica more, for better or for worse, than the light rail,” McKeown said.