Expo Line Sets More In Motion Than Just Rail Cars

The opening of the Expo Line will (and already is having) a big impact on LA's commercial real estate market. Culver City looks to benefit the most, as the rail currently ends there, coupled with the spillover from rising rents closer to the coast. This trend is exemplified by Cuningham Group Architecture's June move from Marina Del Rey to Culver City, naming employee migration from East LA as a chief reason. Also, with Downtown LA's continued renaissance, there are more and more reasons to travel downtown and the Expo Line makes that a whole lot easier for many folks (not to mention avoiding DTLA's awful parking situation as well).

Expo Line backers hope the Westside is ready to come aboard

Transit officials are spending $2.2 billion to extend the Expo Line light rail through the Westside. Both Santa Monica and Culver City are making big bets that the line will be a boon to their bustling but traffic-clogged communities.

By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times

April 28, 2012

Cuningham Group Architecture's office is situated a few blocks from the water in Marina del Rey, where some workers like to run, bike or skateboard to work.

In June the firm will be moving seven miles inland to an office compound in Culver City. The draw? The nearby Expo Line station.

"We wanted to be in Culver City because of the rail line," said Jonathan Watts, a firm principal. "We end up being in downtown Los Angeles a lot dealing with the city and permitting, and we have a number of employees living east of downtown. We were looking for a more central location by transit."

Transit officials are spending $2.2 billion to extend the Expo Line light rail through the Westside, and the strategy's success will hinge in large part on whether others make similar choices.

Riders on Saturday will inaugurate the line's 8.6-mile first phase from downtown Los Angeles to La Cienega and Jefferson boulevards, with trains rolling to the Culver City station at Venice and Robertson boulevards this summer. The line is scheduled to open all the way to Santa Monica, a few blocks from the beach, by 2016.

360° Panorama: Expo Line La Cienega station

Both Santa Monica and Culver City are making big bets that the rail line will be a boon to their bustling but traffic-clogged communities.

The cities combined are spending more than $80 million — and developers hundreds of millions of dollars more — to design future developments around the line. They envision high-density housing, new parks and plazas, boutique hotels, retail shops, offices, shuttle services and bike facilities to make it easier for residents to get to and from the stations.

"It's going to be a pretty game-changing thing to get that line to Santa Monica," said Gary Kavanagh, 27, a video game developer who serves on the community's bicycle advisory panel. "The moment there is a way to get all across Los Angeles without the 10 Freeway mess … to get down to the beach, it's going to take off in a way quite unlike the opening of any other rail line in L.A."

Time-lapse video: A ride on the Expo Line

Culver City spent $45 million to buy and improve a 5.2-acre property below the elevated tracks at Venice and Robertson. Earlier this year, the city signed with developer Lowe Enterprises, which agreed to build the city's preferred mix of housing, offices, retail shops, restaurants and a hotel surrounding a large central open space.

"We're at a point where traffic has gotten such where folks really make decisions based on negative impacts on traffic," said Tom Wulf, senior vice president of Lowe, which plans to spend as much as $200 million on the project.

Other private developers have snapped up nearby properties and are in the early stages of planning mixed-use developments.

Photos: Expo Line

The vision is even more ambitious in Santa Monica, where officials assert that their mix of green-minded residents and younger-skewing tech, media and entertainment companies will fuel interest in the Expo Line.

Initially, Expo officials planned two stations in Santa Monica, at Bergamot Station at 26th Street and Olympic Boulevard and the terminus at 4th Street and Colorado Avenue. But the city persuaded the authority to add a third stop at 17th Street and Colorado Avenue, to serve Santa Monica College and other locations. From the planned terminus, passengers can expect to spend 46 minutes to travel to downtown L.A., Expo Line planners project.

At the city's Bergamot Station art complex, which coincidentally derives its name from a 19th century trolley, planners envision a hotel, a museum building, a parking garage and renovations to buildings that now house art galleries. The galleries would remain. Opposite the complex on the north side of Olympic Boulevard, on the former Papermate factory site, private developer Hines has proposed nearly 800,000 square feet of housing, creative office space, retail shops and open space.

Jeff Jarow, a commercial real estate broker in Santa Monica, said there has been a definite "buzz in town" about the Expo Line and the potential for retailers to locate close to them. For many people, the decision will come down to a choice between economics and convenience. After this weekend's ride-for-free opening, the Expo Line fare will be $1.50 for a single ticket or $5 for an all-day pass with unlimited transfers.

"You can drive faster at midday, but you'd have to pay $30 for parking plus the cost of gasoline," said Santa Monica Councilwoman Pam O'Connor, a longtime rail advocate who serves as vice chairwoman of the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority board. O'Connor anticipates ridership flowing both ways, with people coming from the east to the beach, pier and Third Street Promenade and Santa Monicans and tourists hopping aboard to head to theaters and museums in Los Angeles.

Many transit experts believe that the line will do little to ease the Westside traffic crunch.

The Expo Line runs several miles south of the Westside's true heart, the high-rise-heavy Wilshire Boulevard corridor through Beverly Hills, Westwood and Santa Monica. (A long-anticipated subway is in the works for Wilshire, but construction is years away at best.)

Still, officials say the Expo Line is a start for the Westside.

"Bear in mind that transit represents a small portion of all travel in the region," said Martin Wachs, a transportation expert at Rand Corp. who also teaches at UCLA. "Even if you double it, triple it or quadruple it, for that matter, you will still have an auto-dependent transportation system. There are still good reasons for doing it, but people should not be overly optimistic with their expectations."

"Transit-oriented" developments like those envisioned in Santa Monica and Culver City have had a mixed record elsewhere in the region.

Some of the large developments that have risen around Red Line subway stations in Hollywood are popular enough, but there's little evidence that people are abandoning their cars to live in and visit the complexes.

As might be expected on the Westside, not everyone is enamored of the prospect of more development, regardless of its relationship to transit. A growing coalition of homeowners groups and neighborhood councils has spoken out against Santa Monica's Bergamot Area Plan, in particular.

Santa Monica, said Diana Gordon, co-chairwoman of the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, "is using the Expo Line as an excuse to approve massive new projects that will greatly worsen the traffic congestion throughout the Westside."

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