Wilshire Subway Has Mixed Impact on Stores

Staff Reporter

Outside the entrance of the Red Line station at the corner of Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, Oscar Hidalgo sits patiently at the stand from which he sells knock-off baseball caps, cheap T-shirts and assorted trinkets.

Every day, he sets up the folding tables and oversized beach umbrella from which he hawks his wares to commuters heading downtown.

"It's good," he said, nodding toward the station. "Always busy."

For Hidalgo and other street vendors peddling hot dogs and Spanish language magazines, the metro station is their lifeblood.

But for more established businesses, the Red Line spur along Wilshire Boulevard between Vermont and Western avenues has done little so far to change the nature of the neighborhood or deliver the economic revitalization promised when it was conceived more than a decade ago.

"I think Mid-Wilshire would be doing the same if it had never been built," said Chris Runyen, a vice president at Grubb & Ellis Co., of the subway. "There are people using it, but it's the blue-collar workers and the support staff for the law firms in the area. It's definitely not a draw."

The construction of the line in the early 1990s chased merchants out of Mid-Wilshire, and while the business community has been revitalized in the eight years since the subway stations at Vermont, Normandie and Western opened, it is largely the same mix of small, family-owned shops and national chains that existed before the subway.

"It's made the neighborhood cleaner," said Mike Park, manager of Woo Lae Oak restaurant, which sits a stone's throw away from the Western station. "But it hasn't really brought us any business. Most of our customers drive."

Cut short

What was intended as a subway that would run the length of Wilshire Boulevard, from downtown to the Westside, instead has developed into an underutilized spur of the main Red Line subway, which runs between Union Station and North Hollywood.

The MTA reported 97,368 weekday Red Line riders on average in May. But on the Wilshire spur, nearly 10,000 got off at Vermont and 4,600 at Western every weekday.

Plans for the full Wilshire Boulevard subway were scrapped after a methane gas pocket underneath the Fairfax District ignited in 1986, incinerating a Ross Dress for Less store and injuring 26 people. Though the explosion was unrelated to subway construction, the line was halted for fear that tunneling through the area would set off further explosions.

Subsequent plans to tunnel around the area have been stymied by a voter-approved proposition passed in 1998 that bars county sales tax money from being used to pay for future subway construction.

MTA spokesman Ed Scannell said the limited scope of the line is not solely to blame for weak ridership. When the spur opened in 1996, the region was still climbing out of a recession, which kept businesses from expanding into the market.

"The effects have been slow to materialize," he said. "A lot of factors we anticipated didn't work out."

Some business owners say the subway has played a role in their decision to open their businesses in Mid-Wilshire.

Foot traffic generated by the Vermont station has been a boon to business at IC Cyber Caf & #233;, which besides renting Internet access by the hour, has pool tables, video games and a soda fountain.

"We wanted to attract walking customers," said Diane Kim, the caf & #233;'s part owner. "And they do stop in to ask for directions, and when they do, they buy stuff too and they come back later. It's really worked for us."

Big ideas

Slowly, the stations have attracted the attention of developers. The MTA has entered into joint development agreements for massive mixed-use projects on top of the Western and Vermont stations.

On the Western station, Wilshire Entertainment Center LLC an entity comprised of KOAR Institutional Advisers and five independent investors plans to build 50,800 square feet of retail space with 200 apartments, a 110,000 square foot self-storage facility and 14-bus layover zone with 700 parking spaces for commuters.

Urban Partners LLC plans to break ground this year on a 30,000 square foot commercial building with 450 apartments and a three-story middle school on top of the Vermont station.

"It's taken Los Angeles a much longer time than other areas of the country to warm up to this type of development," Scannell said. "But it's beginning to happen."

The Los Angeles Unified School District has purchased the Ambassador Hotel, which is near the Normandie station, for a complex of K-12 schools. One of the five proposals for the site includes retail components.

While those three projects would reshape the neighborhood and likely act as a catalyst for the long-awaited economic recovery of Mid-Wilshire, Penny White, the director of sales and marketing at the Radisson Wilshire Plaza, said she isn't holding her breath.

"I've been here five years and had my hopes built up two or three times already," she said. "Now I'll believe it when I see it."

Waitin' on a Train

After more than a decade of lobbying for a light rail line, Santa Monica seems to be waiting for a train that's never going to arrive.

Counting on a proposed route along Exposition Boulevard, set to run from downtown L.A. through Culver City before ending near the Pacific, the city has bought property and pushed developers to adjust their plans in anticipation of the line.

The preparations have so far been in vain.

Last year, a few months after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority approved the first phase of the route from downtown L.A. to between Washington and Venice boulevards in Culver City, the $156 million earmarked for the project by federal transportation officials was rescinded.

With that funding in limbo, the second phase, which would extend the line to Santa Monica, could potentially be set back another 20 years.

"It's been difficult because it's been a long-term project," said Darrell Clarke, chairman of the Santa Monica Planning Commission and co-chair of Friends4Expo, a group advocating for the light rail line. "But we're trying to be prepared for when it finally happens."

That preparation dates to 1989, when the city bought Bergamot Station with $17.3 million in county transportation funds for use as a stop along the line.

While it waits, the art deco station in an industrial section of the city near the Santa Monica (10) Freeway and Cloverfield Boulevard has been used as complex for art galleries and architecture offices.

Santa Monica has leased the complex on a month-to-month basis, and the tenants know they may have to move when the line becomes a reality, city officials said.

The city still plans to use Bergamot as an Expo Line station, though now they say the galleries would be incorporated.

"When the time comes, we have every intention to use that as our rail station," said Santa Monica Councilman Kevin McKeown. "That's why the city spent all that money buying the building in the first place."

The recently approved $120 million redesign of Santa Monica's Civic Center, on Main Street between Pico Boulevard and Colorado Avenue, was centered on the expectation that the proposed rail line would terminate nearby. The plan includes provision for 350 affordable housing units, whose residents would rely on mass transit.

When city officials gave final approval to developer J.H. Snyder & Co. in 1984 for the two-building Water Garden complex at Olympic and Cloverfield boulevards, it was anticipated the proposed rail line would absorb a significant portion of the traffic that now chokes the nearest freeway exit.

"Setting that area up for use as a high density office park was all oriented around the future transit corridor," said Clark. "It's turned out to be transit-orientated-development without the transit."

Andy Fixmer

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