Livable City
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Mayor Eric Garcetti on the death of Olympic Piggyback Yard plan, and how it actually helps L.A.'s transit future

One of the biggest pieces of any Olympic bid is the plan to accommodate thousands of athletes, if not in high style, then at least in relative comfort and proximity to sporting venues. This can also be the priciest piece because, unlike arenas and coliseums, cities don't generally have gigantic housing developments sitting around waiting for a huge influx of temporary visitors.

To that end, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's bid for the 2024 summer Olympics included a $1-billion proposal to build an athlete village in a rail yard along the L.A. River near downtown called Piggyback Yard, which could then be turned into market housing after the games were done. This site was already identified as future open space as part of the river restoration plan. The price tag and the various challenges of developing housing on an industrial site (hello toxic soil) made it the single most controversial piece of the Olympic bid package.

But Garcetti said blowback wasn't the reason for the surprise announcement last month that the LA 2024 Committee had shelved the Piggyback Yard idea in favor of a more practical and vastly more economical plan of using student housing at UCLA.

Garcetti sat down for an interview earlier this month to talk about how this shift happened, what it means for downtown and what will happen to Piggyback Yard now.

Below are highlights of that conversation, starting with whether moving the athlete Village to Westwood would alter the eastside flavor of the 2024 games.

Garcetti: Piggyback Yard is an isolated piece of geography even for the northeast, right? It doesn’t exactly bleed into a main street or a neighborhood. Obviously we have big ecology plans for it too. And when I thought about getting from there to the Coliseum, it’s probably as long as it will be from Westwood, assuming the subway stop, because it’s a 21-minute ride from Westwood to downtown. Maybe add a couple minutes for the transfer to Expo [line]. But it’s not substantively much longer.... You’re right it’s a different geography, but it’s not changing the emphasis of where the Games themselves are.

We do have the hub still from Figueroa between the Convention Center and Exposition Park. That’s where you’re going to get the big three: swimming, gymnastics and track and field.

You said it’s a 21-minute stop from Westwood to downtown, via what?

Garcetti: The Purple Line. … assuming the Purple Line gets done by then, which we feel decent about.
(Author's note: The Purple Line,  aka the "Subway (almost) to the Sea," broke ground a little more than a year ago.

The projection [for completion] is 2035.

Garcetti: That was an old estimate. I wouldn’t say Metro is prepared to update it yet, but we just got shortlisted -- it doesn’t mean we got selected yet -- for an extension to the [Veterans Administration hospital].

There are three phases. Western to La Cienega and Beverly Hills. La Cienega to Century City. Century City to the VA. I got one underway and the second one accelerated.

Now we have [phases] one and two going simultaneously. The environmentals are already done on phase three. So all that’s waiting is our own Measure R money coming in. By being able to get federal money now we think we can get all three not exactly parallel but overlapping instead of in sequence. And could get it done by 2024. Would get it done by 2024.

But this is independent of the Olympic bid. Could it speed things up at all?

Garcetti: Yes, because what you have -- and I’ve talked to [Transportation] Secretary [Anthony] Foxx and others -- is a sense of national purpose. We’re bringing an American Olympics home. It’s like "OK, yeah let’s figure out creative financing." Look, if the Olympics don’t come we’re still going to be doing that too, because I’m impatient. I don’t want to wait until 2035, period.

Shifting the village … tell me the narrative of how this unfolded.

Garcetti: Two years ago UCLA wasn’t sure it could meet the number of units because they hadn’t made the decision, which they have in the meantime, to build another 2,000 dorm rooms, which does take them well over the beds and units that we need. We had gone to them first, early on, and to USC, just to say "Hey, we want to do a sustainable Games we want to do a cost effective Games."

We evaluated like 24 sites. ... and this was this most athlete-centric. Athletes want three things: A good place to sleep, a good place to eat and a good place to warm up and train. There’s never been an Olympic village built with what UCLA has. Not just a track but a track where legends have trained.

But you could have built that, right, at Piggyback? We could have built anything the athletes needed, right?

Garcetti: I don’t think we could have financially built the sports facilities and not have them also be white elephants and meet anything of the river plan. It would have been financially totally irresponsible.

There’s no way we could have ever built everything UCLA [has]. I don’t think there’s enough land even at Piggyback to do that much. Like to put a whole gymnasium down, I don’t think so. An arena?

So that was never part of the plan?

Garcetti: No, warmup field and open space that we could horseshoe into what we needed for the river so runners can warm up there. But not like you would have fencing right next to them and all the things UCLA can do for all the sports.

The third thing that was a closer for me: The old way of looking at Olympic legacy is we’re going to revitalize a poor part of town (or maybe not poor, but it could be warehouses or some kind of underutilized part of town). South Bank in London is a great example. I don’t know how much exactly they spent but I think it was 5 or 6 billion dollars. That was part of the big cost overruns. Give me 5 or 6 billion dollars and you tell me what part of town you want me to revitalize and I’ll do it, but what does that revitalization mean?

And if you wanted to make it a giant affordable [housing project] that comes at a huge subsidy. Is that the most effective use of affordable housing dollars? And that’s one one small part of town, which can have a catalytic effect to that area and some sort of transformation.  When we looked at the numbers, we have a $150-million profit. This takes a huge -- what did we have for [the cost of] Piggyback Yard, a billion dollars? -- it takes that off the books.

We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars that the legacy of the Games can spend now, which is what I’d like to see, on the city afterward in every neighborhood.

How much rent is UCLA going to charge?

Garcetti: I don’t know. We have to work out the terms. Nobody is looking to game anyone. We will have to pay for an overlay, probably, just like we have to do at the Coliseum for track -- $150 million to do track and field there. So it will be something. It’s not going to be zero dollars but it’s not going to be a billion.

What’s the prospect for Piggyback Yard now?

Garcetti: The biggest thing right now is figuring out the acquisition with something we don’t have direct land use authority over because it's a railroad company and that means it's federal.

Is it a given that something’s going to be done with it?

I want it to be. It’s not a given.

It's too special a piece of land to not do everything we can to get it. What it requires obviously is the funding sources to make that happen, to clean the land and to relocate the rail yards. It’s also [an] economically vital piece of our logistics. But we also don’t know long-term how freight will move; that's a bigger conversation. All the talk about hyperloop as a human-carrying mechanism, I really think hyperloop's promise is cargo.

(Author's note: The hyperloop is a gigantic pneumatic tube system that Space X and Tesla founder Elon Musk suggested as a low-cost alternative to the bullet train.)

So your vision hasn't necessarily changed?
Garcetti: No, it predated the Olympics.

(Helpful link: Click here to read more about how the Piggyback Yard fits into the L.A. River restoration plan.)

How about the rendering of a covered 101 (in the LA24 bid book)? Wishful thinking?

Garcetti: [Laughs]

(This conversation was edited for clarity and length.)

mariel.garza@latimes.com

Follow me @marielgarzaLAT

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