In a city that is often derided for its lack for public transportation, downtown L.A. is the one exception.
The city center has light-rail lines, a subway, a maze of bus routes and shuttles, links to commuter rail and even a tiny funicular that trudges up and down Bunker Hill.
But many residents and developers say that it can still be difficult to get around the far-flung city center without a car. So urban planners and downtown boosters have spent considerable time on what may have once been considered impossible: creating a truly car-optional neighborhood in the center of a region defined by its car culture.
Voters in downtown Los Angeles this week approved key financing for a $125-million streetcar project that might finally put this theory to the test. The streetcar would run mainly along Broadway, and Hill and Figueroa streets, three of downtown's main arteries, connecting various neighbors, including the old banking district, South Park, Civic Center and the fashion district.
Developers — and some residents — see the streetcar as a missing transportation link.
"If you're in New York, or San Francisco or Portland, you forget about your car. You walk, you take public transportation, and you get a much richer experience," said Scott Denham, vice president at Evoq Properties, a downtown developer. "The whole concept of being in L.A. and not having to drive to have a whole Saturday or Sunday to experience downtown… It's really not that far off in reality."
The streetcar is one of two major transportation infrastructure projects planned for downtown. The other is the so-called regional connector, a $1.3-billion, Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway line that would run beneath 2nd Street, linking trains from Pasadena and East L.A. with the Blue Line from Long Beach and Expo Line from Culver City.
Both projects have won support from city officials and business leaders, but there remains skepticism about whether downtown can truly break away from its reliance on the automobile.
Some note that downtown still lacks many of the chain stores and specialty shops found at regional malls. Others question why transit officials should spend so much on improving downtown mass transit when services are so much worse elsewhere in the region.
Jim Moore, professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC, noted that only 2% to 4% of the total jobs in Los Angeles County are based downtown. Instead of building more rail downtown, he said, planners would be better off using the resources to revamp bus service across the region.
"No number of streetcars or connectors is going to cause jobs to re-centralize," Moore said. "The economic forces pulling us in the other direction are just too strong."
The projects also face opposition from some property owners. Two major property owners have sued Metro over the effect of building the connector line, and some landlords have complained over the election process used for the streetcar, which only gave votes to residents but will tax property owners exclusively.
The streetcar ballot measure won with more than 70% of the vote in a special vote-by-mail election by downtown residents. Its passage Monday creates a special tax assessment district to raise up to $85 million. The tax will not be levied on property owners unless the project receives matching funds from the federal government and completes an environmental review. If all goes well, the streetcar could start running by 2015.
The streetcar is seen as a centerpiece of the city's efforts to revive the once-bustling Broadway corridor, which includes revitalizing the street's historic movie palaces and converting some of its old office buildings into housing. The streetcar, backers argue, would reestablish Broadway as a transportation spine connecting various parts of downtown, as it did when Los Angeles had an extensive streetcar system decades ago.
Downtown's recent revitalization has occurred in pockets, with distinct neighborhoods forming within a five-mile area stretching from Chinatown and the 10 Freeway to the Los Angeles River and 110 Freeway. Getting from a Little Tokyo sushi restaurant to Staples Center, or from a French eatery in the warehouse district to Disney Hall would be a half-hour walk.
It's a problem that Gerry Ruiz deals with many days: There's no quick way for him to get from his apartment complex on Cesar Chavez Avenue at the northern edge of downtown Los Angeles to the gym on Flower Street where he works as a personal trainer.
"My walk is 30 minutes or my drive is 30 minutes, when you've got to deal with the hassle of finding parking," Ruiz said of his 1.2- mile commute. "And you think about it, all over downtown, there's places to eat popping up, places to go, but everything is spread out."
Meredith Molino, a fashion student who recently moved from Philadelphia into a Spring Street apartment, said she still hasn't seen some pockets of downtown, like Little Tokyo, because she does not have a car. Like Ruiz, she expressed strong support for the streetcar.
Besides moving downtown residents around, experts said, the streetcar would benefit commuters and tourists. The streetcar would serve as a "last-leg" transit option for bus and train riders who come downtown from other parts of the region, said Paul Habibi, a professor at the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate who is an advisor on the project.
The regional connector subway would streamline the light-rail system, Metro officials said, eliminating transfers for many riders by linking the Gold Line with trains at the Metro Center Station on 7th Street. The connector, scheduled for completion in 2019, would also intersect with several spots along the proposed route for the streetcar.
The connector is expected to bring about 90,000 new rail riders each day, officials say, while streetcar proponents project 10,000 riders daily.
Diego Cardoso, the project's executive director, said the connector and the streetcar will further heighten a shift away from the car that is already occurring among downtown Los Angeles residents. The area now has about 50,000 residents, but that number is expected to grow as a host of new residential developments is completed. The mass transit system is actually becoming part of the lure of downtown, Cardoso said, and one of the things that makes it a distinctive place to live.
Still, there remains much debate about how much the new transit options will change Los Angeles' car culture.
Allison Yoh, an associate director of transportation studies at UCLA, said that even if the streetcar and central connector prove popular, they are probably not going to be enough to coax many people from using their cars. She said to achieve that, the city would need to take more radical steps such as freeway tolls and expensive parking fees to discourage people from using their cars as often.
"The solution is not necessarily more transit services and more options," Yoh said. "You really do need to tamper down the appeal of driving, and you can do that through congestion pricing."