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Downtown Streetcar: Good Project, Terrible Process - Los Angeles Downtown News - For Everything Downtown L.A.!: Opinion

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Editorials Downtown Streetcar: Good Project, Terrible Process

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Posted: Friday, November 9, 2012 3:34 pm | Updated: 5:23 pm, Fri Nov 9, 2012.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On Tuesday, Nov. 13, the most important step yet in the creation of the Downtown Streetcar will begin. That’s the day that ballots will be mailed to approximately 10,000 people who live within three blocks of the proposed project’s route. 

Los Angeles Downtown News recommends that residents vote in favor of the streetcar funding plan, though our suggestion is in spite, not because, of the campaign in support of the project. In this case, the best interests of the community hold sway over the two colossal mistakes that streetcar advocates made during the process. Those are easy to quantify. 

We also recommend voting yes despite what also seems unusual, but is less easy to quantify — that there were calculations that benefit some landowners more than others. We accept that negotiated agreements are usually intricate, confusing and awkward, but in a perfect world, organizers would withdraw this measure and start the process over again, doing it right, with far more transparency. You know what they say about a perfect world.

Downtown residents are being asked to approve a plan to tax area property owners up to $85 million over 30 years (the owners only get a say if they also live within that three-block area). It is the key financial component to the $125 million project that would connect L.A. Live to Bunker Hill with a principal spine on Broadway. Residents have until Dec. 3 to return their ballots to the City Clerk. The approval of two-thirds of the voters is required for passage.

“Turnout” in the mail-in election is expected to be about 10%. This means that approximately 1,000 people, and maybe fewer, will decide whether Downtown property owners will pay. The financial hit would fall on anyone who owns a building, a vacant lot or a condominium. Fees go up depending on how close the property is to the tracks. 

The average condo owner, according to project officials, would pay $60 a year. It’s not too steep a price for the convenience of the streetcar.

What building owners would pay, meanwhile, is complicated and a bit odd: They would pay based on the footprint of a building, no matter how tall it is or how many square feet it has. This setup gives the largest property owners an advantage, as smaller landowners end up taxed disproportionately. On the other hand, we can see that a surface parking lot might well generate more revenue than a 10-story building with no tenants above the ground floor. As we say, it’s complicated, but the public is smart enough to understand the nuances.

We think the streetcar advocates could have made better decisions in recent months. The team, which includes people who we know care deeply about Downtown, could have “sold” the project based upon its strengths, rather than opting for a questionable if “safe” voting plan and obfuscating how much Downtowners will be asked to pay. 

However, we don’t think that Downtown workers, residents and visitors should be punished and miss out on an amenity that will benefit the community for decades simply because those in charge made ill-advised and expedient decisions.

The Basics

The proposed L.A. Streetcar harkens back to what some would call the “magic” time when streetcars coursed through many parts of Los Angeles. The current project got its spark from 14th District City Councilman José Huizar, who in 2008 launched the Bringing Back Broadway initiative. The effort to revitalize the historic corridor has lured many new businesses to the street.

Huizar classifies the streetcar as a key element of Bringing Back Broadway. Time and again he has stated that people who won’t ride a bus will board a streetcar. He has pointed to successful streetcar projects in revitalized urban neighborhoods in Portland and Seattle.

The streetcar team expects the project to advance Broadway even further by making the street more navigable and providing an impetus to reactivate some of the faded movie palaces. The route would serve local workers and residents, but could also be a tourist attraction, ferrying them to Downtown sites old and new.

The benefits would extend beyond Broadway. The route’s connection to L.A. Live would make it easy for many Downtown residents to get to concerts, basketball and hockey games (and maybe one day football games) without having to clamber into a car and search for parking. Reducing auto trips would lessen emissions and ease gridlock.

Would a spiffed-up DASH with some sizzle or another minibus system along the same route achieve similar results at a fraction of the price? It seems as if it could. However, that has never been seriously discussed as an alternative, dismissed by references to this study or that. It seems like a lost opportunity, but it doesn’t matter — Downtowners are not choosing between options in the coming referendum.

Foolish Decisions

The streetcar team had choices when deciding how to seek approval for the funding plan. Approval is key, officials say, because they need a public financial commitment in order to then secure money from the federal government.

Downtown has a history of going to property owners for self-assessments. The area business improvement districts all were established after Downtown business leaders convinced the owners that digging into their pockets would be beneficial. The streetcar team rejected that path, instead picking a process in which only local residents, not property owners, vote. Somehow both should have a voice.

This situation stinks, and the argument that voting this way is not only the best legal route, but will reduce overall assessments (streetcar officials say that if all property owners cast ballots then residential property cannot be taxed, meaning commercial landowners pay more) is not sufficient. Now, as we say, someone who rents an apartment near the streetcar and could leave at any time has a voice, while a person who owns property worth millions of dollars but who lives outside Downtown doesn’t.

Some argue that this is what happens with school bonds, but that’s faulty logic because 1) this is a completely different and hyper-local situation, and 2) if it’s a bad idea somewhere else, it doesn’t make it right here.

If the funding plan is approved and lawsuits follow from those angry about being shut out of the process, we won’t be surprised.

The second huge brouhaha concerns the amount of money in question. Streetcar officials in recent months have not been completely clear with Downtowners. This is unfortunate and unnecessary.

Streetcar officials have long talked up a public-private split, saying the project would utilize $62.5 million from the government and $62.5 million from local property owners. However, as Los Angeles Downtown News recently reported, the ballot mentions not $62.5 million, but up to $85 million. That’s a jump of $22.5 million.

Streetcar officials long knew they needed $85 million, and they can rightfully say that the figure was out there, although it was buried deep in documents filled with legalese. Good luck finding it if you didn’t know it existed.

The $85 million wasn’t mentioned on press releases. It wasn’t mentioned on the streetcar website until Downtown News started asking about the cost. It has since been explained away as what would be collected in a “worst-case scenario.”

This seems kind of a Nervous Nellie decision, because, according to streetcar proponents, the amount they have told Downtowners they will pay per square foot is already based on the $85 million. If less money is collected, then their assessments will drop. 

Streetcar officials should have been clear from the start. If their project is so strong and their numbers so solid, and if there’s a real chance to pay less, then why not say so and be open about it? 

Maybe project advocates worried that asking for up to $85 million, or more than two-thirds of the full cost, would result in a no vote. But one thing is for sure: When people vote on “up to $85 million” in assessments, they should expect to be taxed $85 million, and not a penny less. 

Now it’s election time, and despite the preventable errors, we still urge a yes vote — Downtown should not suffer because the streetcar proponents didn’t trust the public to see the whole process. Hopefully the funding plan is passed and the team improves.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2012

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1 comment:

  • Charles B posted at 8:48 pm on Tue, Nov 13, 2012.

    FifthandBroadway Posts: 2

    It's good that you brought up the fact that the streetcar campaign hasn't been the most transparent and their sluggishness with putting forward the "potential" $ 85 million ceiling is telling. It seems that they're banking on a decent and pervasive graphic design campaign to woo people into just saying "yes" to this -- and perhaps it will.

    But even as late as today (Nov. 13, the day the ballots were mailed), the streetcar website still reflects the more conservative figure of $ 62.5 million in the bold, simplistic graphic - what people will see if they don't take the time to read the rest.. the part about $ 22.5 million added to their bill.

    Their heading, "How Will We Pay for Streetcar?" should really say, "How will YOU pay for Streetcar?" as it's the residents and business who will be paying for it upwards of 40 years, not 30 as their info states.

    If the streetcar campaigners haven't been forthright with their data at this stage of the game, are they to be trusted with seeing this thing through?

    Downtown is already so walkable and geographically small. Is a uni-directional streetcar that shares congested roads with cars a benefit that's worth such a cost? Seems unnecessary, really.