Developers and potential investors are eyeing with interest the San Fernando Valley's Orange Line busway, but there's little sign of new construction as the first-of-its kind transit line opens on Oct. 29.
"I've taken three different tours with developers who are very interested in what's going on with the Orange Line, but they are trying to figure out whether residential, commercial or mixed-use development would work best," said Bruce Ackerman, president and chief executive of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.
A cross between a bus lane and a light rail line, the Orange Line busway is the region's first exclusive right-of-way bus arterial. It cuts a 14-mile swath through the San Fernando Valley, from Warner Center through Reseda and Van Nuys and into North Hollywood, where it connects to the Red Line. There are 14 stations on the line, each with its set of futuristic-looking shelters and ticket kiosks.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to run 22 articulated buses (each about 60 feet long, compared to a conventional 40-foot bus), roughly one every seven minutes during rush hour. A complete trip will take around 40 minutes, about the same time it takes to drive parallel Victory Boulevard during off-peak hours.
The project stems from a 1998 trip that former Mayor Richard Riordan, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and local transportation officials took to Curitiba, Brazil, where a system of bus-only lanes with tube-enclosed stations has been running for more than 30 years.
With transportation funds running short in the late 1990s, a busway was viewed as the cheapest alternative to rail. The 14-mile line cost $330 million to build, compared with nearly $1 billion for the 15-mile Gold Line to Pasadena, $900 million for the seven-mile-long Eastside rail extension through Boyle Heights and more than $4 billion for the Red Line subway.
"The cost of one mile of subway is more than the cost of the entire 14-mile busway," Yaroslavsky said.
The MTA-owned site with the most development potential lies midway along the route, at Sepulveda Boulevard just north of Oxnard Street.
The MTA bought the 12-acre former drive-in-theater in the mid-1990s to augment the narrow right-of-way corridor it already owned. But it lay vacant as MTA officials debated what to do with the right-of-way. Last year, the MTA decided to turn it into a temporary park-and-ride lot as it seeks proposals for mixed-use development, according to Kevin Michel, the MTA's director of regional transportation planning and development for the San Fernando Valley.
"We've had some inquiries from developers," Michel said. MTA policy dictates a formal bidding process, which is expected to take about a year.
The MTA owns several other odd-shaped small lots along the route, most of which have been temporarily converted into park-and-ride lots, pending interest from developers.
Along the rest of the Orange Line, interest is more muted. The route goes through several residential neighborhoods, where noise concerns forced the MTA to build sound walls along several miles of the route. The walls partition the busway from the surrounding neighborhood.
Much of the eastern half of the line goes through older industrial neighborhoods filled with auto body shops that don't lend themselves to today's mixed-use projects.
"A lot of people know it's some sort of transit, but they really don't know what it is or how well it's going to work," said George Stavaris, associate vice president with Colliers Seeley International, a commercial real estate brokerage.
Woodland Hills resident Antoinette Ferraro, who is looking for an apartment near the Orange Line so she can shorten her commute downtown, believes some landlords are trying to charge a premium for proximity to the busway. But property manager Sam Reeve of PAC Properties, which manages several nearby apartment complexes, said it's still too soon to factor in premiums. "We're waiting to see how it's going to take," he said.
Another problem: not every station has parking. That has lowered expectations for some business owners along the route, including Rickey Gelb, who is in the midst of rebuilding a 21,000-square-foot shopping center at Victory Boulevard and Woodley Avenue that burned down two years ago. The site is diagonally across from an Orange Line station that has no parking.
"We have a Laundromat and a grocery store in our center, not the kind of stores one would expect Orange Line riders to visit unless there was a park-and-ride lot nearby," Gelb said.
The buses will ride on city streets for the final mile as they approach the terminus at Warner Center, a situation that MTA officials hope will be temporary.
The MTA plans to use a right of way that curves to the north of Warner Center. Once this busway section is completed, there will be an extra stop at a park-and-ride north of Warner Center. From there, buses will still take city streets to get to the official terminus.
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