Huizar Needs a ‘Streetcar Austin Beutner’ if Project Is to Succeed - Opinion - LADTN

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Huizar Needs a ‘Streetcar Austin Beutner’ if Project Is to Succeed

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photo courtesy L.A. Streetcar, Inc.

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DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In January 2008, 14th District City Councilman José Huizar brought hundreds of stakeholders together in the Los Angeles Theatre to announce his Bringing Back Broadway initiative. The ambitious 10-year effort aimed to revive the once storied street with new restaurants, shops, office space, better sidewalks and, most thrillingly, a streetcar.

Nearly six years later, Huizar has far exceeded expectations in terms of recruiting businesses to Broadway. Stores such as Ross Dress for Less and the Umami restaurant have lured people who didn’t come here before, and the imminent openings of the hip Ace Hotel in the former United Artists Theatre building and an Urban Outfitters in the old Rialto Theatre stand to deliver the type of evening activity and momentum that has not been seen on Broadway for decades. Huizar’s success in this sector is admirable, and he and his team deserve immense credit.

However, the good work accomplished so far runs the risk of being overshadowed by serious problems with the jewel in the crown of the Broadway revival: The Los Angeles Streetcar, as it is dubbed, appears to be years away from a groundbreaking, much less an opening. Worse, even six years into the project no one has a realistic grasp as to how much it will cost or how it will be funded. 

At a time when we would have hoped to see a completion date in the near future, Huizar instead is in the unenviable position of publicly doubting a city-prepared report about the project’s potential price tag. This all occurs as a key hire for the effort has not been made and a long-aimed-for deadline application for federal funds was skipped, apparently because the project is not far enough along.

We could understand some of these shortcomings if the project were in the early going, but it’s not. In fact, these questions arise a year after the streetcar team launched a major public outreach campaign and persuaded Downtown residents to tax area property owners up to $85 million for the project.

We like the idea of the streetcar, and still believe that it could be a valuable addition to life, business and circulation in Downtown, running from L.A. Live to the Civic Center with a main spine on Broadway. However, this is a project that, to use a cliché, runs the risk of going off its tracks. It is hard to see the development coming to fruition unless serious changes are made.

Thus, it is time for Huizar to step back, take a hard look at everything that has occurred to date, and honestly assess what is working and where the problems lie, because clearly there are problems. If Huizar wants a Downtown streetcar to open before he is termed out in 2019 (assuming he is re-elected in 2015), then he must recognize that he needs management help.

Making this choice will be difficult and almost certainly will cause division with some of those long affiliated with the project. However, we think Huizar should look for a streetcar version of Austin Beutner, the successful businessman who came into former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office in 2010 and, for about 16 months (until he left to begin an aborted campaign for mayor), provided a clear sense of business acumen, professional responsibility and accountability.

Huizar’s project needs to regain the public’s trust. That will require the 2014 version of a “Streetcar Beutner,” someone with vast experience and true problem-solving skills who will be given the authority to make changes, some of them dramatic.

The clearest example of trouble materialized over the past year. At this time in 2012, project proponents were feverishly reaching out to those who live within a few blocks of the proposed route, urging them to approve a plan to tax area property owners up to the aforementioned $85 million. Time and again the advocates stated that $62.5 million would come from local stakeholders — with the extra $22.5 million dedicated to administrative and other costs — and that $62.5 million would come from government funding. The streetcar was identified as a $125 million project. No higher figure was offered. 

Area residents, believing in the pitch and the project, resoundingly approved the tax.

However, in September of this year a city analysis found that the cost of moving utilities during construction had not been adequately considered in the original estimate, and that the project instead would cost from $232.2 million to $327.8 million. That means, in a best-case scenario, the price tag will be more than $100 million over what was originally announced.

It is hard to believe that the streetcar team could have missed the mark by so much when asking residents to pass a tax. If they were truly uncertain about the price, then they should have waited before forcing a vote. However, when you are $100 million-$200 million off a project of this size, then something is wrong, whether it is a case of being misleading or being uninformed. Neither one is good, and the miscue raises doubts as to whether current promises regarding the streetcar can be trusted. 

Huizar’s team has also taken the wrong approach since the city report came out, challenging it and asserting that the price will be lower. This sparks questions in the minds of area residents and workers: This is a city report, not one cooked up by fierce opponents of the plan. Huizar is part of the city, so it rings strange when he expresses such strong doubt.

Huizar should use the report as a tool and recognize that the project could indeed cost that much. The goal should be to comprehend the ceiling, then find experienced individuals who can bring the price down. 

There are other problems that spark questions of trust, among them the timeline for seeking federal funding. 

Again, one needs to go back a year to the campaign for a property tax. When streetcar advocates were reaching out, the message was that securing the public component would allow the streetcar team to apply for a Federal Small Starts grant in 2013. However, project officials missed a Sept. 30 application deadline to be included in the president’s federal budget. An official with a streetcar consultant said this happened because the project is not far enough along in its environmental review.

How that could be the case after six years is mindboggling. So is the fact that an independent project manager has not been hired.

We understand that this isn’t easy. Huizar has aimed big, and Downtown is full of public- and private-sector developments that went far over budget and took years longer to build than anticipated. Urban transportation projects are notoriously difficult.

However, the streetcar is a special case in large part because its proponents already went to the public with hat in hand. In asking for and receiving the promise of $85 million, they were also asking for a great deal of trust. Now it is fair to question whether those who asked for the trust are being forthcoming.

This is a difficult time for the streetcar project, but it does not have to be fatal. The key is for Huizar to recognize that mistakes have been made, to own them, and to identify and install the person or team who can get the project moving. Don’t pretend a problem does not exist.

If Huizar operates in an intelligent and timely manner, then the streetcar could still become the jewel of Broadway. If he doesn’t, the opportunity could be squandered, and people will have to continue to get around on foot or by car. It would be a tremendous waste of a golden opportunity.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013

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photo courtesy L.A. Streetcar, Inc.

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