LA UNION STATION “CROWN JEWEL” DEVELOPMENT: MAYOR GARCETTI
By Stas Margaronis, RBTUS
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told a Los Angeles Business Council (LABC) conference that he intends the revitalization and expansion of the downtown Union Station to be “the crown jewel” of an urban revival.
Union Station revitalization is being managed by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (METRO) which proposes a new bus station and new passenger concourse, but Garcetti ‘s ‘crown jewel’ reference suggests that the Mayor has more ambitious ideas.
Early drafts of the Union Station project included proposals for expanding the station out to the nearby Los Angeles River, linking it to a new high speed rail station, and creating a new urban center with offices, housing and retail space. Union Station adjoins the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights which would be a major beneficiary of the new development.
Metro acquired the iconic Union Station in 2011 and plans to upgrade the historic complex to attract more riders to its bus and subway systems and make it a major Los Angeles destination.
Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic warned that METRO is having problems making the transition from a transit agency to urban developer on the Union Station project: “Having focused for decades almost exclusively on running a public transit system for Los Angeles County, it is now trying to transform itself, thanks to its decision to buy Union Station and the surrounding parcel, into a major real-estate player. My sense from the outside is that there are major fissures within the agency about the wisdom of embracing high-design architecture.”
However, METRO is already a key player in Los Angeles real estate. METRO’s Joint Development Program (JDP) develops property it owns around subway stations. METRO works with real estate developers to build condos, hotels, apartments, affordable housing and retail and commercial developments. These projects expand facilities for METRO’s subway and bus services.
On its website, METRO describes JDP’s mission : “Joint development is a real property asset development and management program designed to secure the most appropriate private and/or public sector development on METRO-owned property at and adjacent to transit stations and corridors.”
The projects are designed “to reduce auto use and increase transit ridership by directly linking METRO’s transportation network with retail, commercial and housing opportunities, while enhancing the overall land use and economic development goals for the surrounding community.“
One METRO success story is Hollywood, the Mayor’s former council district. According to the METRO website, the Hollywood and Vine Red Line station development includes 375 apartments of which 78 are affordable with 28,000 square feet of ground floor retail. It also includes a new bus layover facility. A second site is a hotel and condo complex on 2.3 acres with a 300-room hotel, 143 condominiums and 30,000 square feet of ground floor for retail. Public amenities include an improved public plaza and second subway elevator plus a new subway portal canopy, bus layover facility and bike room. The project was completed in 2009.
Mayor Garcetti told LABC conferees that the Hollywood METRO subway development transformed the community creating new shops, cafes, affordable housing, and a gay/lesbian senior home. Fifteen years ago, he said, Hollywood was a neighborhood in decline. Today, Hollywood has become a “vibrant” community, thanks to a partnership between Hollywood entrepreneurs and METRO.
At the conference, Martha Welborne, Executive Director, Countywide Planning for METRO says the agency built 131 miles of subway lines and is now a competitor to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in Northern California. She said METRO is planning to increase that mileage to 220 miles of subway lines.
Garcetti, who is the vice chair of the METRO Board of Directors, says that his strategy is to increase the partnership between housing and transit. As Mayor, he has appointed a housing advocate to the METRO board of directors and a former METRO board member has been appointed to the Los Angeles City Planning Commission. Garcetti wants to encourage both agencies to work closely together to develop transit and housing projects.
Mercedes Marquez, General Manager, Los Angeles Housing & Community Development said that new transit and housing development is important because of cutbacks in affordable housing funding at the federal level. She argued that new development close to subway stations must maintain a strong affordable component. She said the move toward gentrification of neighborhoods must be controlled so that low income families are not forced to move away from Los Angeles.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Ca) told participants that as the ranking Democratic member on the House Financial Services Committee she was fighting efforts by Republicans to reduce federal supports for affordable housing. She hoped the Republican retreat on closing the government and on the federal debt ceiling would turn the tide against cutbacks and the negative effects of sequestration on many federal programs. Waters praised Mercedes Marquez for championing affordable housing initiatives in Los Angeles.
LABC sponsored a housing and transit strategy with research headed by Paul Habibi, Professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and the Ziman Center for Real Estate. The “2013 Livable Communities Report: A Call To Action” noted : “The introduction of transit into the jobs-housing equation provides the opportunity to develop housing in less expensive markets and capitalize on the transit infrastructure that connects these markets to job and activity centers.”
The LABC conference took place at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Anderson School of Management and focused on strategies for Los Angeles housing and transit development as well as job creation.
 The Los Angeles Times (April 27, 2012) “Critic’s Notebook: Metro douses expectations on Union Station project: The agency is facing an identity crisis over its relationship to architecture and urban design.”