Few tensions more regularly complicate the political life of Los Angeles than those between neighborhood residents and "outsiders" wanting to alter those neighborhoods for what they see as the larger good.
Those stresses underscored the conflict over the downtown football stadium, and they are at the heart of controversies over expanding the port and Los Angeles International Airport. Most recently, they have been at the center of a last-ditch effort to stop the Expo Line's anticipated extension to the Westside and Santa Monica, where the goals of traffic relief and decreased air pollution are competing with the anxieties of some Cheviot Hills residents who don't want trains to pass near their homes.
It's always tempting, if you don't happen to be a resident of the neighborhood in question, to dismiss opponents of an ambitious project as NIMBYs. But part of this region's character comes from its distinct communities, from the fact that it's made up of many centers, not just one. Bulldozing Central Avenue or the Van Nuys Courthouse for a recycling facility, say, might help the region grapple with its trash and improve its handling of waste, but it would destroy an essential part of what makes this city and county what they are.
Still, the answer also can't be to simply allow the most militant community defenders to shout down any project that threatens to make their lives less convenient.
The Expo Line case, like many of these disputes, has been argued for years, first in public hearings and more recently in the courts. In 2007, the Metropolitan Line Construction Authority announced that it was preparing an environmental impact report to examine the extension of the Expo Line from Robertson Boulevard, where it now ends, to Santa Monica. It held hearings, received thousands of comments, circulated new drafts and, finally, three years after the proposal was made, approved the project.
Opponents sued and lost. They appealed in 2011 and lost their appeal as well. Construction, meanwhile, began on the extension. So far, the government agencies involved have spent about $300 million on the project, which they hope to complete by 2015.
But the opponents, in this case a nonprofit group called Neighbors for Smart Rail, have not quite given up. There are differences in the way various California courts have interpreted the correct way for projecting certain types of environmental impacts, and the California Supreme Court — presumably in order to resolve those differences — agreed to hear another appeal brought by Neighbors for Smart Rail. In the meantime, the group has asked the court to stay the project, preventing work from going forward until it can resolve the legal issues.
It's that last piece — blocking the project while the case is under consideration — that has alarmed and angered local officials. If the court grants the stay, it would dump hundreds of people out of work at a time when jobs are in short supply, and it would seriously delay a project that is making steady progress westward. Last week, a group of public officials from Los Angeles, Culver City and Santa Monica gathered at a construction site along the Santa Monica Freeway to urge the court to let work go ahead.
"If they wanted to stop this project, they should have asked for a stay a year ago," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said of the neighborhood group. "Don't stop this project in mid-stream."
Richard Bloom, the mayor of Santa Monica, emphatically agreed. "Congestion in Los Angeles," he said, "is diminishing our way of life…. We need to complete this entire line."
Of course, residents of the area have every right to fight a project they think will harm their neighborhood. But some principles should guide decision-makers and activists as they consider the relative merits of big projects versus neighborhood integrity. Planners should not burden communities with projects of marginal importance but rather focus on those that are essential for the region's future; they should listen to concerns that their proposals generate; and they should make every effort to minimize harm.
With the Expo Line extension, proponents have passed all those tests. The line is crucial to completing a desperately needed rail network, one undeniably integral to the future of L.A., and the route was sensibly chosen along an existing right of way. Extensive hearings did give residents a chance to express themselves — and in fact, many area residents stepped forward in support of the line's construction.
As for the opponents: Sometimes neighborhoods must accept inconveniences that serve a larger good. This is one of those times.