Finally, on the right track

Times Staff Writer

Building a subway line along Wilshire Boulevard to the beach, an idea officially revived last week when the House of Representatives voted to repeal a 20-year-old tunneling ban here, is an example of urban planning done backward: Watch as population and job growth push an urban corridor in the direction of Tokyo-like density. Then ram an underground train route right through it. And pay dearly, in dollars and political capital, for the privilege.

The plan remains an exceedingly tough sell. In comparison with the massive cost and disruption that would come with digging new tunnels along Wilshire, above-ground transit projects -- the planned Gold Line extension eastward through the San Gabriel Valley, for example, or the Exposition Line through Culver City -- will always appear more cost-efficient.

But maybe it's time to redefine exactly what cost-efficiency means in a city such as Los Angeles. If we had managed to get past hidden pockets of methane and pointed NIMBYism and extended the Red Line along Wilshire in the 1990s, after all, it would now look like the biggest bargain in Southern California transit history. Measured over time, the political expediency Los Angeles has always been known for can be awfully expensive in its own right.

And the Wilshire subway -- which the MTA renamed the Purple Line last month -- promises to do more than ease Westside gridlock and provide a framework for inevitable growth. In a way unique among transit projects being considered, it could trace a new urban blueprint here, recasting the old image of Wilshire as a linear downtown for an age of density and knitting the idea of Los Angeles -- the city, not the collection of retail centers and red carpets -- back together. It could turn a neon-bright symbol of L.A.'s love affair with the private car into the best-used transit corridor in Southern California: the strip as civic spine.

It would also connect, in the space of a single subway ride, some of the city's most important cultural institutions, quirkiest icons and most recognizable landmarks. From east to west, this appealing jumble includes Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's One Wilshire building downtown; the former Bullock's Wilshire building; the Wiltern LG theater; Langdon Wilson's Superior Court building (just off Wilshire); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and UCLA's Hammer Museum. It ends just above the beach at the statue of Saint Monica, standing with her back to the ocean.

Even the proposed first section of the two-part extension, to the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, would bring LACMA onto the subway grid -- a move that could have a dramatic effect on the museum's centrality in the city's cultural and psychic landscape as architect Renzo Piano works to redesign its campus.

From a practical point of view, of course, the extension, which Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has championed since his days on the campaign trail, could hardly be more overdue. The Wilshire corridor cuts directly through what transit planners call the most densely populated urban area in the United States that isn't served by either a subway or light rail. But it would also be staggeringly expensive: roughly $350 million per mile to drag the subway an additional 13 miles along Wilshire to the beach.

As the extension debate has intensified in recent weeks, it has been remarkable to see how spreading gridlock on the Westside has turned some of the Wilshire subway's most stubborn adversaries into cheerleaders for mass transit. The converts include Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who sponsored the original tunneling-ban legislation after a 1985 methane explosion in a Ross clothing store before working this summer to reverse it; L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who pushed an anti-subway ballot measure in 1998 but now supports the Purple Line; and Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Assn., who told The Times she was "terrified" 20 years ago of a subway running through her neighborhood but now says, "We do need a solution to this horrible traffic problem."

Funding for the project -- even the first phase to Fairfax, which could cost more than $1 billion -- remains very much in doubt. But Villaraigosa's close ties to Sacramento will help in securing state money, and a pair of infrastructure bond measures on the November ballot, Propositions 1A and 1B, could direct several billion dollars to L.A. County for highway and transit construction.

Some opponents of the subway to the sea complain that it makes little sense for Los Angeles because it borrows an ill-fitting notion of dense urbanity from New York and San Francisco, or because it would threaten L.A.'s neighborhood diversity. But development spurred by stations along Wilshire could help highlight distinctions between neighborhoods rather than erase them.

Indeed, travel by subway can make those differences more pronounced. When you're riding underground, even along a single boulevard, Point A becomes distinct from Point B; sections of the city become discrete locations rather than parts of an asphalt continuum. Transit-oriented development around subway stops can further this sense, though the design of projects on land controlled by the MTA -- such as the Hollywood and Highland shopping center or the Archeon Group's proposed $160-million condo tower for the intersection of Wilshire and Western -- is hardly encouraging along these lines.

Most of us would rarely if ever take the line for its full route. But it would make all the difference to know that we could. With a subway connection to the beach, after all, residents of El Sereno, Koreatown or downtown could reasonably think of themselves as living in the same city as somebody in Brentwood.

Without it, those neighborhoods threaten to drift off permanently into their own orbits. And we can start thinking of Monica, facing east from the beach along the proposed course of the subway, as the patron saint of blown opportunities.

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