Derailed Metro and Downtown's Future

Whither downtown Los Angeles now that the Metro Rail subway system has been sidetracked?

That is the question various planners, politicians, administrators, architects, realtors, speculators, developers and city watchers are pondering in the wake of the Reagan Administration decision favoring weapons systems over transit systems.

Some politicians, such as Councilman Howard Finn, chairman of the City Council's Planning and Environment Committee, seem to equate the demise of the subway project with that of the sky falling, at least on downtown.

While acting somewhat like Chicken Little running around in a circle, Finn has suggested that perhaps development should be shifted from downtown "to certain suburban areas." No doubt this includes his own district in the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley.

Though a relative newcomer to the council, Finn apparently knows that where you have development you also usually have developers eager to make campaign contributions to assist local representatives at election time. And the larger the developments, the larger the contributions.

More obtuse have been the comments of Transportation Director Donald Howery and Planning Director Calvin Hamilton. They recently have become the sort of the Heckle and Jeckle of city government, carping at any project whose sponsors resist or simply question their suggestions.

Howery has expressed concern that with or without Metro Rail there is too much traffic downtown, while also criticizing such projects as the proposed Library Square for not providing more parking. Apparently lost in the comments is the fact that more parking generally promotes more traffic.

Such contradictions do not seem to bother the career civil servant, whose major accomplishment downtown to date has been to widen two-way streets (at the cost of pedestrian ambiance) to accommodate left-hand turn lanes--a maneuver that has been banned in most major downtown areas for years in the interest of facilitating traffic flow.

And while most other cities long ago eased congestion by implementing one-way street systems downtown, imposing strict parking regulations and assigning personnel to facilitate traffic flow at key intersections, all the transportation department here seems to do is issue reports with vague promises of action "in the near future."

As for Hamilton, he has been trying to make his presence felt ever since he came under fire last year for using his office and staff to promote a private organization of which he was board chairman. He also has been criticized for his extensive travels as a planning consultant.

In the wake of the Metro Rail's funding crisis, Hamilton is lobbying for his department to review various existing plans to bring them in line "with the existing transportation infrastructure."

Isn't this what the department should have been doing for the last 20 years under Hamilton? And if so, why didn't Hamilton act when such areas as the Wilshire corridor, the Ventura strip, Westwood and West Los Angeles began to grow like Topsy? This is planning?

If the City Council gives Hamilton the green light, look for more, costly planning studies full of sound and fury signifying nothing, more confusion for the city and more conflict in the communities that might be affected. And do not expect anything to be done, except, perhaps, for Hamilton to take a few trips to foreign cities.

Meanwhile, even without Metro Rail, downtown can be expected to grow, and traffic to get worse. Actually, even if Metro Rail had been funded and built, traffic would have gotten worse, given the commuting habits of Angelenos and the limited areas that would have been served by the subway.

Studies have indicated that a coordinated program of car and van pooling, off-site parking and buses, combined with strict parking restrictions and one-way streets, would do much more to ease traffic downtown than a subway system.

Last Resort If anything, a subway is usually the last resort of a commuter, descending to it only after trying the various levels of inconvenience and cost of pooling and buses, once he abandons the private automobile.

To be sure, it would have been more reassuring to have the Metro Rail serving downtown, if only as a last resort. But even without the subway, the indication is that commuters will find alternatives, as they have in the past, and downtown will continue to prosper.

After all, cities are organic creatures and, like people, have a way of defying logic.

If the demise of Metro Rail will have an adverse effect, it will not be on downtown as much as, I suspect, in time, it will have on the the city's outlying areas, such as Finn's district.

Clustering at Stations Measured by commuting time, these areas could find themselves farther and farther away from the commercial center of the region, wallowing in an insidious sprawl without a focus.

By encouraging clustered projects around stations, a Metro Rail could have been an excellent start on an effort to lend some cohesion to the fragmented cityscape of Los Angeles, especially the mess that is now the San Fernando Valley. At present, no thanks to the city's planning efforts, development there seems to leapfrog almost at random, straining services and impacting residential neighborhoods.

And, of course, the Metro Rail also would have been a wonderful pork barrel for the city's economy to feast on, a public works project that would have gone on and on into the 21st Century, certainly more positive than an MX missile system.

But the Metro Rail is gone, at least for the next decade or until a shift in national priorities from destruction to construction. It will be missed, probably in more ways than we can surmise at present.

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