Following a lengthy public hearing that featured a variety of exhibits and nearly three dozen speakers, the Santa Monica City Council agreed last month to explore alternative sites for a light rail maintenance yard that has been the source of controversy for several months.

The location of the maintenance facility, which will service trains that will run on the Mid-Cities Exposition Light Rail line, has generated an outpouring of anxiety among residents of nearby Stewart Park and the Pico Neighborhood, who say that they will be adversely impacted by the planned facility.

After listening to its constituents, representatives of businesses near Stewart Park and its own city staff, the council voted unanimously to consider a hybrid location of the Verizon site on Exposition Boulevard and a parking area that is used by Santa Monica College.

The Exposition Construction Authority, which is in charge of building the light rail line, had cited the Verizon location adjacent to Exposition along the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro)-owned right-of-way as the best possible site due to its proximity to the right-of-way, the size and shape of the parcel and the sale price, among other things.

Prior to the council vote, Kate Vernez, Santa Monica’s assistant to the city manager, mentioned that although city officials had considered several other possible locations, the original site was the one that Metro identified as the preferable choice.

“Verizon is the only site identified in Expo’s DEIR (draft environmental impact report), and Verizon is a willing seller,” Vernez told the council.

A split alternative with Verizon, the SMC parking lot and a city-owned property at 1800 Stewart St., was rejected due to significant costs and neighborhood opposition. Others were deemed not feasible due to their proximity to parks and schools.

City staff recommended that the exploration of a hybrid site be considered, along with a linear buffer of 120 feet that would face most of the residential side, and a joint-use parking structure in the back of the building.

Vernez reiterated to the council that because only the Verizon site is in the current draft environmental report, it would be necessary to secure the transportation agency’s agreement in order for Metro to explore the new hybrid recommendation.

“Without it, we’re literally boxed in,” she said.

Rick Thorpe, the construction authority’s chief executive officer, said that his agency would agree to research the new alternative. But he also indicated that he would like to continue to consider the original proposal of the Verizon site.

“We would also like to continue to dialogue with the community and see if we can move both alternatives along simultaneously,” Thorpe added.

Council members reminded the audience that although they can wield some influence on the eventual placement of the maintenance yard, the final decision rests with Metro.

Councilman Kevin McKeown, who was among the first of the city’s elected leaders to speak out against having the rail yard built near a residential neighborhood, expressed displeasure with how Metro officials had selected the Verizon site without notifying him or his colleagues until it was discovered in the DEIR.

“We in Santa Monica have long been supportive of the Expo Light Rail line, and that’s what makes it particularly galling to have been caught by surprise with the proposal for the Verizon site,” the councilman said. “There’s a feeling of disrespect (among the residents) that is very disturbing.”

Many residents said they supported the city’s efforts to bring the light rail to Santa Monica, but they were concerned about the impacts to the neighborhood with a light rail maintenance facility. Many referred to a belief expressed in public forums that their neighborhoods, located on Santa Monica’s east side, have long been neglected by city leaders.

Longtime residents of Stewart Park still chafe at having the 10 Freeway bisect their neighborhood over 40 years ago, and others spoke at the council meeting of having the city’s refuse transfer station and other light industrial companies adjacent to their homes.

“The Pico Neighborhood should not serve as the city’s sacrificial zone for greater good,” said Linda Piera-Avila.

Piera-Avila, a former City Council candidate, mentioned the trash transfer yard and recycling center, along with the freeway, as past evidence that the community has been shortchanged regarding environmental concerns.

“Now they are being told that they must shoulder another burden with the light rail maintenance yard,” she said.

Eleanor Path, who lives near the Verizon location on Delaware Avenue, said that the same criteria regarding schools and parks should apply to her community.

“New Roads (a private school) is across the street, and Stewart Park is adjacent (to Verizon),” Path said. “There are 30 kids who play outside daily within a three block stretch parallel to the Verizon site, and I would hate to have to tell my kids that they, our families and our homes are not good enough excuses (not to build the rail facility near Stewart Park).”

Darryl Clarke commended the council for its outreach and for reviewing a number of possible alternative sites for the maintenance yard.

“I think that the city staff did a very thorough analysis,” said Clarke, a former Santa Monica planner who lives south of the Verizon location. “The train is not a freeway with the air pollution or a dump transfer station.

“I look forward to moving ahead with the project.”

Christina Lozama of the Pico Neighborhood Association asked the council to postpone deciding on its course of action regarding the light rail facility.

“Doing so would be a complete disservice to our community,” Lozama said of the vote. “No one has taken the time to sit down and talk to the residents who will be directly impacted by the yard at the Verizon site.”

Councilwoman Gleam Davis, after listening to many comments regarding air pollution and environmental concerns, pointed out that the Verizon site is also a maintenance yard.

“There are activities that are going on there that probably generate carcinogens and other noxious things,” the councilwoman noted. “These things probably have a negative impact on the neighborhood as well.”

“We’re talking about one maintenance yard where they are servicing gasoline vehicles and another where they would be servicing electric trains,” Davis told the audience. “I think that the hybrid site is a superior option compared to other alternatives, and I would ask that you keep an open mind.”

Samantha Bricker, the chief operating officer of the construction authority, said that Metro would consider the hybrid alternative.

“We are looking into it to see if it is feasible,” she said.

Bricker said that the authority had conducted community meetings but was limited to a certain extent, after the council indicated that it was not pleased with the original proposal at the Verizon location.

“It’s hard to do a lot of outreach until we knew what we were studying,” she said.

Councilman Bobby Shriver did not attend the meeting due to the death of his mother, Eunice Shriver.

The Mid-Cities Exposition Light Rail is scheduled to arrive in Santa Monica in 2016.

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