The Blue Line
by Tony Chavira
The Los Angeles Metro Blue Line has a lot of unused potential. Certain stops along the line—like the one Downtown, on Pico, on Florence, Wardlow, or all the way in Long Beach—are perfect for Transit-Oriented Development (TOD). At these stops you can get off the train, walk less than two minutes, and be surrounded by people, shops, apartments ... a perfect example of the potential for all stops along all Metro Lines in Los Angeles. (Then there are stops like Slauson, where the station falls within a triangular void between a lumberyard, rundown factories, and yesteryear’s train track relics that have never been dug up or replaced.)
The Blue Line snakes down from downtown Los Angeles through South L.A., Vernon, Huntington Park, Compton, and Carson, and ends at last in Long Beach. Knowing what I do about planning initiatives that have died along the years, I’m emotionally struck at certain stops: there’s so much wasted potential and so many plans in the works that are just moving way too slowly. I sit on the train and constantly see opportunities for parks and civic centers, empty lots for low-income housing development, and chances for economic growth—if only a few mom and pop shops would collectively decide to take a chance. I don’t know if I should feel angry or sad, or just completely ignore quiet, development-free stops along the line, like most people do every day on the way to their destinations. There’s a lot that can be done and a lot of stories that can be told.
As the Blue Line slides east along Washington Boulevard, the stop at Grand is across from L.A. Trade Tech, and is surrounded by fast food, office buildings, and a large church. The city was smart to plan this stop at the end of the 1980s, but you don’t feel that much has changed since the rail line was completed in 1990. As you move to the San Pedro stop and the one at the end of Washington Boulevard, the city seems much the same: still somewhat industrial, with minimal office spaces. We hardly see any of the restaurants that make Bunker Hill or the historic Adams District fun to visit, none of the galleries that the Fashion District or Historical Downtown are known for, no movie theaters, no storefronts, no affordable housing units. The transport’s accessible and ready, so where’s all the development?
The story of the City of Vernon is particularly sad. It applied to USCIS for the Immigrant Investor Pilot Program, in which a government or non-profit entity can achieve status as a “Regional Center,” allowing them to accept millions of dollars for economic growth from investors around the world. In return, the investors would receive both returns and a visa. It seems insidious to think that someone could invest in America and receive their visa that easily, but isn’t that what undocumented workers do every day? (In fact, when time and money are interchangeable, one could say that undocumented workers actually have a larger investment than these foreign millionaires—but I digress.) Although the City of Vernon Redevelopment Agency received Regional Center status, they didn’t have the management system to support the programs they wanted to build with foreign cash. It really wasn’t their fault; they tried their hardest, but ultimately didn’t have the support they needed to move forward. And now nothing has changed, and the City of Vernon Blue Line stop is quiet, empty and industrial.
The Blue Line stop at Florence, on the other hand, reminds me a bit of the way planners see the Broadway Historical District in Downtown L.A. Though one might think to tout Bunker Hill’s redevelopment as a place for focused economic growth and walking-friendly movement (which I’ll touch on in my next MasterPlanning! article), Broadway is the REAL success story: people are walking around Broadway all day, buying and selling and eating and checking out the shows/art/awesomely cheap stuff. And Florence is the same. Between enjoying the murals on the sides of buildings, grabbing tacos from the cart on the street, or checking out any of the specialty stores, you can walk as far as you like east or west on Florence, find something interesting, and not feel like you’re alone on a barren street. There’s even a public library just west of the station. Florence Avenue: the fun and educational TOD on the Blue Line.
But City Planning was smart to work in the city of Long Beach, as Long Beach has very obviously gone out of its way to make housing, shopping and entertainment accessible to your average walker from Blue Line stops. I went into an art gallery and had a good conversation with a jewelry designer and her friend the comic book artist, then went with a friend of mine to grab some burgers and booze at a place called Bistro across from the 5th Street stop. And the best part was that I didn’t have to drive back to East L.A. from Long Beach, which would’ve cost me about 15 or 20 bucks in gas and parking. A ticket for a full-day of train-hopping is $5.
If I had to grade the quality of planning and Transit-Oriented Development along the Blue Line today, I’d give it a solid B. Sure, there are places that could’ve really used parks, and, sure, there are stops with next to nothing to do for your average Joe-in-the-Community; but overall, stops like Downtown, Grand, Florence, Wardlow, Anaheim, and the rest in Long Beach really make it an enjoyable trip.
But there’s still a lot to be done, and when I see my friends at LISC and other organizations working so hard to convince stores like Target or Costco to initiate development at these stops, it seems more like a struggle against people’s attitudes than against city planning. Ultimately, “bad” and “rundown” areas of Los Angeles don’t exist unless we let them exist.