Cheviot Hills residents divided on light-rail route

Times Staff Writers

For years, a homeowners association in Cheviot Hills has been able to derail plans to put modern-day streetcars on an old railroad line that skirts the upscale Westside neighborhood.

But now, those residents’ long opposition to mass transit in their backyard is encountering resistance from neighbors fed up with worsening congestion that has slowed traffic to a crawl.

The debate arises as transportation planners are starting to examine the environmental effects of possible routes for the second phase of the Metro Expo Line. The first phase, now under construction, goes from downtown L.A. to Culver City. The second phase is supposed to go to Santa Monica. The most direct way there is using the former Southern Pacific right of way that borders Cheviot Hills -- and that is causing controversy.

Some Westside residents spoke openly of the need to use that corridor at a meeting Thursday night in Cheviot Hills that attracted 325 people.

“It’s the shortest, fastest route,” said attorney Jonathan Weiss, a member of a newly formed group, Light Rail for Cheviot. “People are afraid for the schools. They are afraid of their property values.”


The mere mention of running trains on tracks that carried streetcars to the beach half a century ago arouses intense opposition from the homeowners association.

The group is lobbying hard to make sure the tracks stay south of the Santa Monica Freeway. It wants the trains to travel along Venice and Sepulveda boulevards before returning to the Exposition right of way near the interchange of the Santa Monica and San Diego freeways.

The association’s leaders argue that ridership would be higher if the rail line avoided their single-family neighborhood and followed a denser corridor lined with apartment buildings and strip malls.

“Do you think the people who live in Cheviot Hills are going to take this bloody train?” asked Benjamin Cate, a former association president. “No, they are going to get in their cars.

“The people who are going to use this are the people who work in the hotels in Santa Monica, and they are going to come from the Hispanic areas nearer downtown. Now they take the bus.”

Emotions ran high outside the meeting, where advocates from both sides set up card tables to sign up new members.

Darrell Clarke, a founding member of the group Friends 4 Expo Transit, took the brunt of the criticism, although his group has not endorsed either route.

A few feet away, another group, Neighbors for Smart Transit, provided those attending the meeting with a “statement of concern.” The group, established by a coalition of four Westside homeowners associations, including Cheviot Hills, listed nine reasons for opposing use of the existing right of way, including noise, danger to pedestrians, traffic jams at rail crossings, and loss of property values.

On a separate flier, the group offered more than two dozen questions to ask transit officials about ridership, population density, traffic impacts and costs associated with each of the proposed routes.

The group also recommended that the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority, the agency established to build the rail project, consider a third route: along Venice Boulevard to Lincoln Boulevard in Venice rather than going to Santa Monica.

They also want planners to determine how much could be raised if the right of way across Westside neighborhoods were sold and the land developed with single-family homes. They suggest that the money raised could be used to pay for the alternate routes.

After the environmental impact study is completed next year, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board will decide where the tracks will go.

Seven years ago, at the behest of the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Assn., the MTA board voted against using the publicly owned right of way. Instead, it chose to study only the Venice-Sepulveda route.

Cate was president of the association at the time. He said in 2000 that residents were concerned about safety, noise, pollution, and negative impacts on schools and traffic patterns.

Today, attorney Kevin Hughes, the current president of the homeowners association, is more diplomatic.

“We support mass transit. We support rail,” he said. “It’s just a matter of two things: which route makes the most sense for Phase Two, and building it right.”

Peter Paterno, a prominent entertainment attorney, disagrees with his homeowners association. Its opposition to use of the right of way irked him so much, he said he felt compelled to weigh in at the public meeting.

In a letter to the construction authority, Paterno wrote, “In case nobody’s noticed, traffic in West Los Angeles is horrible and getting worse. Why wouldn’t we support a rail line that’s convenient to our neighborhood and makes it easy to get downtown?

“Let’s not let the bleating of a few benighted Luddites blow it for the rest of us,” he said.

Melissa Kenady, who lives a block and a half from the old railroad tracks in Rancho Park, described herself as a “big supporter of public transit.”

But she wants to see the light-rail line on Venice and Sepulveda boulevards.

“I think our community is a great neighborhood,” Kenady said, “and those are few and far between in Los Angeles.”

She said the Exposition right of way doesn’t serve the population that needs mass transit.

Christopher and Michelle La Farg take the opposite side. They would love to hop on a train near their Rancho Park home to get to work in downtown Los Angeles.

“It seems to make the most sense because the right of way is there already,” said Christopher La Farg, who works for the Los Angeles Housing Authority. “Why not just utilize that asset?”