The Santa Monica City Council took another step toward reaching an agreement with the county Metropolitan Transportation Authority on the location of a proposed light rail maintenance facility for the Exposition Light Rail Transit Line Nov. 23 by passing a resolution authorizing a land deal between two other entities to obtain the space where the rail yard will be built.
The unanimous vote is one of the last hurdles the council has to overcome in order to set the stage for the construction of the maintenance yard, which to date remains a sore spot among many in the Stewart Park and Pico neighborhoods, the two communities that will be nearest to the planned facility.
The facility will service train cars for the Expo Line, as the Westside light rail line is commonly known, which will run from downtown Los Angeles to Fourth Street in downtown Santa Monica, with two additional stops in the city.
Last September, the council voted to consider a hybrid location of the Verizon telephone company site on Exposition Boulevard and a parking area that is used by Santa Monica College. The so-called hybrid site was proposed after transportation officials cited the Verizon location, adjacent to Exposition along the 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.
A series of complex land transactions must take place before the facility is built. It involves the college selling its parking lot to the city, Metro purchasing the Verizon lot and the city swapping a lot near the city-owned airport with the college.
Following Metro’s purchase of the Verizon property, the transportation entity will then give Santa Monica a swath of land that city officials will use to build a buffer zone between the maintenance facility and the surrounding residential neighborhoods.
“It is a bit complicated,” acknowledged Expo Construction Authority Chief Operating Officer Samantha Bricker.
The parcels involved are of similar dollar value, approximately $15 million, according to Kate Vernez, Santa Monica’s assistant to the city manager.
Vernez promised that there will be “robust community outreach” on the dimensions and design of the buffer zone.
While the current tenants of the properties will likely remain where they are for another year, Bricker said it was critical to set in motion the purchase and trades of land in order to be able to continue moving the light rail line forward.
“We needed to have all of the pieces in place so that we can have a contractor on board when we begin construction,” the Expo executive explained.
Residents of the Pico and Stewart Park neighborhoods had complained in past hearings that the council was pushing the project upon them without their input.
Unlike in past meetings, only a few residents addressed the council this time. Local activist Jerry Rubin said he is supportive of the light rail and the plan for the maintenance yard.
“When all is said and done, I think that this maintenance facility will be an asset to the community,” Rubin, who ran for a seat on the City Council last month, said. “It seems that the process is ongoing and I encourage everyone in the community to participate.”
Resident Denise Barton took issue with the plan to build the light rail facility at the proposed location. “I disagree with putting the maintenance facility in the Pico Neighborhood because the residents don’t want it,” Barton told the council.
She then questioned Mayor Pro Tem Pam O’Connor’s role in the line coming through Santa Monica. O’Connor is also a member of Metro’s board of directors, and Barton challenged the mayor pro tem’s reasons for her prior votes on the Expo Line and the maintenance yard site.
“Why is Pam O’Connor so intent on getting an above-ground rail line into the city so quickly?’ Barton asked.
She also inquired if O’Connor had received any financial benefit and questioned whether the mayor pro tem should have been allowed to participate in discussions about the Expo Line and vote on the project. “Was this a clear conflict of interest?” Barton asked the council.
O’Connor did not address Barton’s inquiries.
Bricker said that while the land sale is complex, the practice is not uncommon for capital projects.
“I think government entities engage in these types of deals for major infrastructure projects,” she said. “While this one is somewhat complicated, the practice is not uncommon.”
Despite voting to authorize the land sale and property swap, Councilman Kevin McKeown had harsh words for Metro and the process that is allowing for the site to be built in the eastern portion of Santa Monica, which includes a light industrial zone and the city’s refuse yard.
Noting that the vote was taking place two days before Thanksgiving, McKeown quipped, “I think that it’s appropriate that Ms. Vernez referenced Thanksgiving because this is the biggest turkey that has been foisted upon the Pico Neighborhood in the history of the city, and I continue to resent the way that it was forced upon us by our regional entity.”
Nevertheless, McKeown eventually decided to vote to authorize the land sale. “We do have to make the most of what we have,” the councilman said.
None of the other members of the council spoke on the topic.
Bricker believes that the joint outreach effort by representatives of the local government along with Metro has helped make a once highly contentious issue a much calmer process. “I think it played a very large role,” she said. “I think we had very good community outreach and we will continue to do so during the rest of the process.”
Santa Monica residents will be allowed to take part in discussion regarding how the facility is designed, said City Manager Rod Gould.
“The city will have a representative that will sit in on meetings with the design firms, and the residents can have a representative there as well,” Gould told the council.
The Expo Construction Authority board is slated to vote on the purchase of the Verizon site Thursday, Dec. 2.
Mayor Bobby Shriver was not present for the vote.
The Expo Line is slated to arrive in Santa Monica in 2016.