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Friday, Oct 7, 2022

Subway to the Sea? Don’t Stop at Rodeo Drive

Fearing that construction of a subway station near Rodeo Drive could turn upscale Beverly Hills into a downmarket destination, a group of the city’s business and property owners has launched an opposition movement.

Last month, about 20 of them met for the first time at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurant to organize their strategy. Most of them own or have businesses on property near the planned station at Wilshire Boulevard and Beverly Drive that could be hurt by the station. Among them was an art gallery owner, an office tower owner and a representative from the Two Rodeo Drive shopping center.

“The construction will drive away business and we’re concerned that once the subway opens, we will lose our high-end clientele permanently as businesses start catering to the subway passengers,” said Douglas Chrismas, owner and director of Ace Gallery on Wilshire near Canon Drive.

Chrismas, whose gallery could be subject to the wrecking ball if the county transportation agency decides to acquire the land for the construction effort, is spearheading the business opposition. He said he is not opposed to the subway itself and that another planned station at La Brea Avenue would boost business at another gallery he has in the Miracle Mile district.

Chrismas and other business and property owners around the planned Wilshire-Beverly station say it would not connect with a major north-south street and would do little to boost business in the Golden Triangle. That shopping district, the heart of the Beverly Hills commercial area, is bounded by Wilshire on the south, Santa Monica Boulevard on the west and north, and Canon Drive on the east.

They say the high-end shoppers who write the big checks or are generous with their plastic at local retailers tend to drive in themselves or arrive in limousines.

“The people who shop Rodeo Drive now don’t come in by transit bus, so I don’t think someone who shops on Rodeo Drive is going to take the subway,” said Paris Nourafshan, one of the owners of a 12-story office tower at 9454 Wilshire. “The subway riders are not potential shoppers. They cannot afford the kind of products retailers in the Golden Triangle sell.”

‘Elitist stance’

These arguments against the subway station echo some of the sentiments that in the 1980s led Beverly Hills to oppose a subway extension through the city. City officials then said the subway would bring people in from other parts of the city, increase crime and alter the character of the city. That prompted subway supporters and regional civic leaders to characterize the city’s stance as elitist.

Since the prospect of a subway extension re-emerged a decade ago, city officials have gone to great lengths to change that elitist image. They have supported the subway extension and helped lobby for funding. The only disputes have come on the exact route alignment and station placements.

Opponents to the Wilshire-Beverly station stress that they are not opposed to the subway extension, just the placement of a station in the Golden Triangle.

The $5.3 billion Purple Line subway extension would start at the current subway terminus at Wilshire and Western Avenue, head west along Wilshire through the Miracle Mile district and Beverly Hills, stop at one of two possible locations in Century City and then continue on to Westwood. The line would open in stages, first going to Fairfax Avenue, then to Century City in 2019 or 2020, and then to Westwood by mid-2022.

A second phase to extend the line to the ocean, the so-called Subway to the Sea – has not yet had significant funding commitments.

Last week, U.S. Department of Transportation officials announced that the Purple Line extension was a finalist for a $641 million loan.

Until now, the subway route has been controversial in Beverly Hills for another reason. Century City businesses prefer a stop that requires tunneling under Beverly Hills High School, a plan that has stirred fierce opposition.

Opposition to the Rodeo Drive stop, which will be closer to Beverly Drive, appears limited to property owners and businesses closest to the station and some nearby residents. The broader business community has yet to weigh in, while city officials generally support the station.

Employee transit

Beverly Hills Councilman John Mirisch last week dismissed claims that a subway station in the Golden Triangle would draw a different customer demographic to the city and alter its current reputation as a center for luxury retail. Instead, he said that a subway stop would allow employees at the high-end retail shops to take the subway and free up more parking spaces for customers.

“One of the biggest problems we have in the Golden Triangle is parking, with many spaces being taken by employees,” Mirisch said. “If just a small portion of the employees could be enticed to take the subway, we could free up many more spaces for shoppers and that would boost business, not hurt it.”

Nourafshan said he has more immediate concerns about construction of the station, which could take at least three years. He said that as the construction date approaches, several of the building tenants may decide not to renew their leases, which in turn would push down rental rates.

“No question there will be terrible noise and traffic impacts from this,” he said, “and it will be right in front of our building.”

Officials at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which will manage the subway extension, acknowledge that construction will pose difficulties for nearby residents and businesses. But spokesman Jose Ubaldo said the agency will work with local businesses to minimize construction impacts.

The construction could have a more dramatic impact on Chrismas’ gallery. Ubaldo said the agency may need to acquire some land to serve as a staging ground for construction and around what’s called the “station box,” the outer frame of the subway station. The gallery sits on the eastern edge of the proposed station box, so it could be targeted for acquisition. Under eminent domain law, the agency must pay “fair market value” for the land and his business.

Change of character

Chrismas said that while he is concerned about the prospect of his gallery being acquired through eminent domain proceedings, his opposition to the station is based on what he sees as harm to the larger Beverly Hills business community.

“I fear that much like Westwood and the Miracle Mile, which decades ago had high-end retail and have yet to bring it back, this subway station could start an exodus of high-end retail in Beverly Hills, changing the character of the city forever,” he said.

While the opposition meeting was at his restaurant, Puck was traveling in Europe last week and could not be reached for comment on this article.

Nourafshan said he is also concerned about the prospect of visual blight around the subway station. His building workers constantly have to clean up trash, urine and graffiti at a bus stop in front of his building.

“That’s just from a single bus stop,” he said. “I shudder to think what would happen with a subway station here – a station, by the way, that would not have any restrooms.”

Nourafshan and Chrismas both said they had concerns about increases in crime for businesses near the subway station.

Metro’s Ubaldo said that studies around transit stations have consistently shown that crime and blight do not increase there.

“Metro will work closely with the city of Beverly Hills on these matters,” he said.

Councilman Mirisch said he’s not concerned about an increase in crime once the subway opens.

“If there are any problems associated with passengers coming off the subway, we have a very-well trained police force that is capable of responding to any situations that may arise,” he said.

Howard Fine
Howard Fine
Howard Fine is a 23-year veteran of the Los Angeles Business Journal. He covers stories pertaining to healthcare, biomedicine, energy, engineering, construction, and infrastructure. He has won several awards, including Best Body of Work for a single reporter from the Alliance of Area Business Publishers and Distinguished Journalist of the Year from the Society of Professional Journalists.

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