Downtown property owners fight MTA subway tunnel plans


As the MTA moves closer to starting construction on a subway tunnel in downtown Los Angeles, some property owners have dug in for a fight.

The big landlords fear that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plans to build a massive trench on Flower Street will disrupt their businesses for years, costing millions of dollars in lost revenue.

The four-story-deep canyon planned by the MTA would travel through more than two busy city blocks of the financial district, which includes popular destinations such as the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, the Central Library and the City National Plaza office and retail complex.

Predictably, this clash of potent forces — transportation and real estate — has spawned lawsuits that threaten to delay the project and potentially add millions to the cost.

Influential landowners said they want the city to do more of the work underground to connect separate subway lines into one seamless system. The MTA said it was technologically impossible because of some unusual construction barriers.

What’s clear is that the subway has put some of the city’s most civic-minded property owners, who helped spawn downtown’s renaissance, in the awkward position of opposing a highly popular project that they, in fact, want.

“The connector is very important for the community, and so is the existence of businesses located along the connector route,” said Gary L. Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. “We were very hopeful there could be a win-win solution. It doesn’t look like they have gotten to that point.”

The $1.4-billion Regional Connector subway is a top MTA priority because it would eliminate a major bottleneck in the system caused by a lack of interconnections between rail lines. Upon completion in 2019, riders would be able to travel from Azusa to Long Beach or from East Los Angeles to Santa Monica without changing trains twice, as the current system requires.

It also would help speed workers and visitors to the financial district, a major benefit for landlords and tenants.

“We agree the connector will facilitate ridership on the transit system,” said Paul S. Rutter, co-chief operating officer of Thomas Properties Group. “We are not objecting to the line or its route.”

The problem, as far as property owners are concerned, is how construction would be carried out.

Most of the 1.9-mile subway from Little Tokyo to the 7th Street/Metro Center station would be built underground with tunnel-boring machines.

But the MTA plans to finish the line’s last section— 4th Street to south of 6th Street — with “cut and cover” construction.

That means digging a deep, wide trench on Flower Street, laying train tracks and then refilling the trench on top of the new subway tunnel. During most of the construction, the street would be accessible to traffic because of metal plates placed over the hole.

Thomas Properties, the owner of City National Plaza, one of Southern California’s largest office complexes, is a leading voice of opposition. The company would like to see tunneling continue south on Flower Street two more blocks to 6th Street.

“We’re concerned that the MTA is not taking into account adequately the stakeholders on Flower Street,” Rutter said.

The MTA has proposed stopping the tunneling at 4th Street. The transit agency has said a longer tunnel would be too costly and isn’t feasible because of underground obstacles left by builders of past projects.

During construction of the Bonaventure, City National Plaza and other skyscrapers in the 1960s and 1970s, builders drove hundreds of steel cables, called tiebacks, deep into the ground to support the underground garage walls made during excavation.

Those cables are no longer structural supports for the buildings, but they are still under the surface and would tangle the maws of digging machines, according to the MTA.

“It’s not possible to tunnel through the tiebacks,” said Diego Cardoso, an MTA executive officer. “A review by tunnel experts concurs with us.”

At a ceremony Friday to mark the beginning of preliminary work on the tunnel, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made his position clear: “What you want to do is mitigate as much as possible, minimize the impact to the community, but move ahead.”

The prospect of noise, congestion and unsightly street barriers horrifies some landlords, who have filed suit in hopes of mitigating the effects of construction on their properties.

“This area has the highest density along the line, but will suffer the worst construction and traffic impacts and the greatest safety and economic risks over the four to five years of project construction,” according to a letter sent on behalf of the property owners to public officials.

“Metro has made a determination that one part of downtown is more valuable than another: Little Tokyo versus Flower Street, even though Flower Street is the economic engine of downtown.”

Thomas Properties’ City National Plaza fills an entire block facing Flower Street with two 52-story skyscrapers and four subterranean levels including an underground mall of restaurants and stores. The complex has a weekday population of nearly 12,000 people including employees and visitors, the firm said.

Thomas Properties, which filed suit in May to challenge the connector’s environmental impact report, has a wide range of concerns including the potential blockage of entrances to its underground loading dock and parking garage at Flower and 5th streets.

“We are required by our leases to offer 24-hour unimpeded access to our tenants,” Rutter said.

Cutting a 40-foot trench in front of City National Plaza also might create seismic dangers, the company said, potentially putting the complex at risk during an earthquake.

Construction also would isolate and disrupt the complex’s ground-level courtyard where workers gather at umbrella-covered tables at lunchtime and share the view of Maguire Gardens across the street with diners in two high-end restaurants also in the plaza.

Thomas Properties fears having “a work site full of cement mixers and cranes right outside our front door,” Rutter said. “It is an untenable scenario for us and for downtown.”

Owners of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites, which lies just north of City National Plaza, have also filed suit. With more than 1,350 rooms, the hotel is one of L.A.’s largest and books numerous tour groups and convention-related blocks of guests.

Booking agreements stipulate that guests in such groups won’t be subjected to extended construction noise, and Bonaventure owner Peter Zen predicted that if they avoid the Bonaventure, many other local businesses would suffer.

“It would generate a loss of business not only for my hotel, but I think without our hotel rooms there would be no citywide conventions,” Zen said.

The Bonaventure’s underground entrances face Flower Street, and Zen fears the hotel might lose access to its parking garage and loading dock during much of the construction.

The MTA says it will work with property owners during construction to resolve problems as they arise. Changes have already been made to the plan to minimize disruption, including installing the metal plates flush with the street instead of raised as originally envisioned, officials said.

Transit improvements are worth the money and aggravation because they make the city more livable and attract economic development, the MTA’s Cardoso said.

“We are reinventing Los Angeles, basically,” he said. “We will live through it.”