Deconstructing ‘ignogrance’: The truth about Beverly Hills and Metro

The Jewish Journal’s quote of the week of Nov. 26, in reference to Beverly Hills’s conflict with Metro, was former county supervisor (and Metro macher) Zev Yaroslavsky’s zinger: “Fighting Metro is not a construction project, it’s a destruction project.”

Oy gevalt.

There is so much arrogance and ignorance rolled up into Yaroslavsky’s statement, it could easily give rise to a new portmanteau word to describe the chutzpah: ignogrance. 

It is hard to know where to begin, though correcting a major deficiency in the article from which the quip was lifted would probably be a good start.  Beverly Hills is not trying to stop the subway.  Beverly Hills has never tried to stop the subway.  The sole issue for the City of Beverly Hills, along with the school district, has been the routing, which was originally planned to run down Santa Monica Boulevard, but which mysteriously was re-routed to Constellation under the city’s only high school when a well-heeled developer and a major political donor snapped its fingers and the Metro Board, led by Yaroslavsky, asked “how high?”

Yaroslavsky once famously described the county board of supervisors as “5 Kings” but the lack of factuality, transparency and logic behind his statement regarding the entire Purple Line extension seems more befitting of the Politburo.  Trying to make sense of his statement is neither a construction project nor a destruction project, but rather a deconstruction project.

The JJ’s article rehashes Metro’s argument that a fault along Santa Monica Boulevard makes it unsafe to build a subway station at the original site on Santa Monica and Avenue of the Stars.  Seismologist-to-the-stars, Lucy Jones, is quoted suggesting that evidence of a fault on Santa Monica Boulevard is “compelling.”  One must ask if this citation is pre- or post- the trenching which the school district performed.  Of course, trenching is considered to be the gold standard of seismological evidence and the trenching the school district performed along putative fault sites turned up absolute bupkes.

Dr. Jones is also serving as LA’s “earthquake czar,” and if, despite the new evidence provided by the trenching, she truly believes a dangerous fault impedes the ability to build along Santa Monica Boulevard, one needs to wonder why she hasn’t sounded the alarm about the 40 story condo tower at 10000 Santa Monica Boulevard currently under construction right next to the high school, or the major Westfield Mall addition on the other side of Avenue of the Stars, also directly on Santa Monica Boulevard.

What the article also leaves out is that last year the school district, the City of Beverly Hills, the FTA, the Department of Justice, and key Metro staff members entered mediation in an attempt to achieve a global resolution of the conflict.  In fact, after a full day of negotiations, all sides actually agreed on a mediated settlement, which would have addressed the school district’s concerns, while allowing Metro to keep the revised route — despite the fact that it will cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions more than the original Santa Monica alignment, add to travel time, and result in reduced ridership.  Importantly, the mediated settlement would have included additional trenching along Santa Monica Boulevard, which would have provided the major public benefit of ending speculation, once and for all, about any potential existence of a fault.

Ironically, while the deal was recommended to the Metro Board by Metro staff, it was Yaroslavsky himself who took the lead in killing the mediated settlement, which had been brokered by a retired superior court judge.  Being a “king” evidently has its privileges.

While it’s true that many members of the Beverly Hills community, including myself, have been concerned with some of the financial decisions made by the current school board, the concerns are much broader than funds spent on lawyers in the Metro case.  Newly elected board members Mel Spitz and Isabel Hacker, both of whom oppose Metro’s route under the high school, rightly pointed out, for example, the former school board’s much graver fiscal mistake in linking the district’s teacher salaries to Beverly Hills property values.

Metro now has a new CEO and new board members, and it is to be hoped that the institutional bullying which is Yaroslavsky’s legacy will soon be a thing of the past.  Of course, in addition to the hundreds of millions of wasted taxpayer dollars on the Century City station, that legacy includes the so-called “UCLA/Westwood” station which is not in the “center of the center” of Westwood, but actually closer to the Purple Line’s terminus at the VA than to the UCLA campus itself.  Sad that UCLA will have a station in name only, but nice, I guess, that the VA will effectively get two subway stations.  Of course, it would be even nicer if Metro would actually finally get the VA’s permission to place a subway station on its property – something which never happened under Yaroslavsky’s reign, but which hopefully can happen now.

Who knows, with the possible elimination of Metro ignogrance, we may even find Metro looking to the future and embracing the revolutionary new transit opportunities provided by automated vehicles; heck, we may even finally get a Green Line which actually connects with LAX…

And wouldn’t that just be a mechaya?

John Mirisch has served on the Beverly Hills City Council since 2009 and is currently the city’s Vice Mayor.

Stop waiting for the bus

So much of the discussion about mass transit in Los Angeles is about the future. And it is true that Los Angeles is aggressively building out its transit system to make up for past neglect and to help meet the region’s profound growth and urbanization. It seems every other day there is a new story in the press about the Expo Line coming to Santa Monica, the Crenshaw Line to LAX, the Gold Line extension in the San Gabriel Valley or the subway to the Westside. I know because I write some of these articles.

But let’s not forget that good mass transit is already in many parts of the region. And many of those bus and rail lines serve neighborhoods that are home to large Jewish communities. Think Valley Village, which benefits from the Metro Orange Line busway on Chandler Boulevard, and Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park/Westwood, which will benefit in a year or so from the Expo Line extension. Between Metro, Metrolink, Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus, Culver City Bus, Commuter Express and assorted other regional bus companies, Los Angeles is already well-served by mass transportation.

Still, the challenge remains getting people to ride those buses and trains. And given the economics of Los Angeles, that challenge is probably nowhere greater than in the Jewish community. With Jews in Los Angeles on the whole better off economically than other Angelenos, many still suffer from the common misperception that buses and trains are not for them. Metro’s own statistics may not help. According to the agency’s annual riders survey, bus riders have a household income of $16,377 while train riders have a household income of $22,517.

“I’m too [fill in your nationality/ethnic or religious origin here] to ride the bus.” That’s what I heard from the otherwise smart young woman having breakfast next to us at Go Get Em Tiger on Larchmont Boulevard in Hancock Park on a recent sunny weekend morning. The place was packed with well-heeled, casually dressed people, with cars to match parked up and down the block. Although some rode bikes or walked, the young woman’s sentiments about the bus seems to be the attitude of many of the better-off in Los Angeles. From Hancock Park to Bel Air, Westwood and Brentwood, those who can afford to drive don’t even consider the bus or train as an option. True or not, “It’s too slow” is another excuse. And unlike in the Bay Area, Chicago, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., many of our landsmen have no history of commuting to work by bus or train.

Although Metro Rapid (express) buses and routes such as the Orange Line — the San Fernando Valley’s popular rapid bus line, which runs on a bus-only route (a former rail line) — have helped, thanks to widespread local antipathy to the bus, Angelenos raised in the North or East or from Tehran, Moscow and Tel Aviv are more likely to consider riding transit than many locals. These transplants are used to it and know the drill.

On the positive side, L.A. has changed significantly since Mike Davis penned “City of Quartz,” an important but grim book about an almost dystopian Los Angeles scarred by racial and ethnic tensions and balkanized by de facto and de jure segregation. The 1992 riots would hardly have come as a surprise after reading Davis’ book when it came out in 1990. 

Today, the ever-expanding, often-feared city that Davis described is no longer the reality. In many neighborhoods, it has been replaced by a mostly safe, infill city whose geographic boundaries are more blurred, where development takes the form of building in already built-up areas and adaptive reuse of existing commercial, industrial and residential buildings, as seen in parts of downtown and in the Arts District. Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s investment in Koreatown, whose character is principally Latino and Korean, is an example of a major urban infill project in a part of Los Angeles that is as urban as it gets. Having completed the renovation of its landmark sanctuary, the congregation is now renovating its school buildings and constructing a new social service center on Sixth Street, which will house a food pantry and dental, vision, mental health and legal services for the neighborhood, as well as rooftop athletic facilities.

Whether you call it gentrification or the natural course of events, the desire of old and young alike to live in more urban and older areas of L.A. is transforming neighborhoods from downtown to Koreatown, Echo Park and Highland Park.

And as that urbanization continues, even for those who don’t currently count themselves transit riders, the bus and train will become a more attractive option.

If you are one of those holdouts who has not been on a bus or train in Los Angeles recently, you are doing yourself a disservice. Although the Metro system needs to do a better job keeping its bus stops tidy, most trains and buses are clean and, in many cases, new. This is particularly true of the busy lines serving higher-density routes such as Wilshire, Santa Monica, Sunset, Ventura and Chandler boulevards.

Like so many other changes that have come to L.A .in recent years, there is cause for optimism about the public’s use of public transit. Just think about two local phenomena that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. The first is CicLAvia, the highly successful bicycle and pedestrian street party that has taken L.A. by storm since its first event in October 2010. Think about it — the closing of major streets so that people can bike and walk on them. “Are you nuts? Meshugge? It will never work. It will bring the city to a standstill.” But more than 10 events later, with one in the San Fernando Valley just a couple of weeks ago, CicLAvia has become a fixture, and even a model for other cities across the country. Long Beach is having its first “Beach Streets” event June 6. Five years after the first public block party, hundreds of thousands of people have explored more than 100 miles of open streets in Los Angeles. Who knew we wanted this, until it happened?

Second is the transformation of downtown Los Angeles. Who among us believed in its rebirth more than a few years before Wexler’s Deli opened at the Grand Central Market? Developers like the Yellin Co., which owns the market and the Million Dollar Theatre, and Steve Needleman, whose family has owned the Orpheum Theatre since 1964, have long touted the merits of downtown. But the majority of us have needed more convincing.

Both of these transformative developments are about a new sense of community in Los Angeles that is resulting in Angelenos from all over the city interacting in ways they never have before. Taking the bus or train, like riding a bike in CicLAvia or exploring Broadway downtown is what we do, even if our parents out in Tarzana or Encino didn’t. And now it couldn’t be easier, with real time, transportation apps that let you know when the bus or train is arriving. I like RideScout, NextBus, L.A. Metro’s Go Metro app and Google Maps.

At an affordable $1.75 a ride with free transfers when you use a TAP transit card (for up to two hours to complete a one-way trip), Metro is a bargain compared to public transit in cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York. And after all, you ride buses and trains when you travel, so why not at home? Whether you live in Pico Robertson or Hancock Park, Hollywood or downtown, the bus has arrived. It’s not a matter of waiting anymore.

Joel Epstein is a senior adviser to companies, law firms, foundations and public initiatives on communications strategy, corporate social responsibility, recruiting and outreach. His writing focuses on business, politics, public transportation, education and other critical urban issues.

Jewish groups join coalition against anti-Muslim subway ads in D.C.

Some national Jewish organizations joined a coalition of religious groups calling on the Washington Metro system to donate profits from an anti-Islam ad to charity.

“The placing of offensive, anti-Muslim ads in the D.C. Metro system is an important opportunity to affirm our commitment both to free speech and to a society that deplores hate and hate speech,” said Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s director of social justice and interfaith initiatives, and president of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington.

“We are all part of one community,” she said.

The ad, currently running in four train stations throughout the Washington area, reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” It was sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

Monday’s news conference was organized by the 28-member Shoulder-to-Shoulder: Standing with American Muslims, Upholding American Values and United Methodist Women. The coalition of Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups released a letter signed by 168 religious clergy members.

The letter states that the “ads espouse inaccurate and inflammatory stereotypes about American Muslims. These ads equate generalized 'savages' with 'jihad,' dangerously painting all Muslims as savages and suggesting that these generalized 'savages' must be defeated.”

Major Jewish organizations participating include Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Union for Reform Judaism.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had sought to delay posting the four ads, calling for a one-month cooling-off period following the worldwide violence that followed the showing of the film “Innocence of Muslims.”

However, a U.S. District Court Judge in Washington cited the First Amendment’s right to free speech in denying Metro’s request.

Letters to the Editor: Metro, Jewish Activists, Hollywood, Bill Link

Mass Transit Conundrums

John Mirisch’s critique of L.A.’s current transit plans (“Just What Is Jewish Mass Transit?” Feb. 25) is contradictory and uninformed. On the one hand, he faults Metro’s failure to provide sufficient park-and-ride lots for the Westside subway extension. On the other hand, he decries “big brother’s stick of eminent domain.” Mirisch can’t have it both ways: If you want more parking you may have to encroach on somebody’s property, which of course is perfectly permissible under the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment if the taking is compensated. As a city councilman, he should be aware of the takings clause, a long tradition in American constitutional law and urban planning. Mirisch seems to be looking for any excuse to put the brakes on transportation reform in a region that badly needs it.

Peter L. Reich
Professor of Law
Whittier Law School

Joel Epstein’s article (“All Aboard: The case for an all-pervasive Metro,” Feb. 25) misstates critical information, while attempting to slander Beverly Hills residents as NIMBYs.

He ignores, as John Mirisch points out, that Beverly Hills supported the subway from the beginning and will have two stations within its borders. But when Metro — after years promoting one alignment — switched to go beneath Beverly Hills High School, Metro awakened an entire city including every single member of the City Council and Board of Education (not just “a handful of Beverly Hills opponents,” as Epstein would have his readers believe). Is there a real risk to a school with 2,500 students and teachers that Epstein chooses to ignore? There have been four subway construction accidents in various countries using up-to-date technology during the past few years, each one of them causing buildings to collapse and people to die. When there is a completely viable alternative at Santa Monica Boulevard, which would not require tunneling under a city’s only high school and only disaster center, why not take it, especially when it would save $60 million in cost (Metro’s numbers, not mine)? And all to move the station one block from Santa Monica Boulevard to Constellation Avenue!

Ken Goldman
via e-mail

Arab Countries, Not Israel, Victimize Muslims

Rachel Roberts in her article (“Muslim Criminals, Jewish Activists?,” Feb. 18) decries that she has been called “naïve, self-hating and a traitor” — perhaps so because it is true.

Brigitte Gabriel, the Lebanese American activist who promotes understanding of the Islamist threat to the world, who, as a youth, had witnessed the horrors of Islamist radicals in her homeland, cautions parents, especially Jewish parents, to educate their children about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict before sending them off to college. If they fail to do so, they may be surprised when they return home, after a thorough indoctrination by their leftist Palestinian sympathizing professors, condemning Israel, supporting boycotts of its products, and worse. If Ms. Roberts’ parents were not negligent in this responsibility, their daughter certainly ignored their counsel.

Charles Lefkowitz
via e-mail

Let’s Hear About Jewish Accomplishments Beyond Hollywood

As a longtime reader of The Jewish Journal, I feel that you give far too much coverage to Jews in the entertainment industry. Where are the stories about Jewish artists, writers, academics, scientists, doctors and musicians, just to name a few areas, in Los Angeles? The Los Angeles Philharmonic has dozens of Jewish principal players, but your readers would never know this.

Why cannot your publication give similar coverage to, for example, Jewish doctors and scientists at UCLA, USC, Caltech or the City of Hope who are working on cures and treatments for diseases such as cancer or Alzeimer’s?

We really deserve a more balanced coverage of the interests and accomplishments of members of the Jewish community in Southern California.

Michael B. Farber
via e-mail

Bill Link Story Fascinates

Thank you so very much for the fascinating article about Bill Link — we enjoyed every word (“‘Colombo’ Creator Solves His Own Family Mystery,” Feb. 25).

Bill is a true American entertainment treasure.

We have been fortunate to know Bill and Margery for years and it was such a pleasant surprise to see Bill’s picture in The Jewish Journal.

Thanks for covering something cheerful and upbeat.

Fran Morris Rosman
via e-mail

Kaplan Rocks

Great piece (“ ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,’ ” Feb. 25)! I will take a look at your Journal for more gems.

Evelynn Culver
via e-mail

All aboard the case for an all-pervasive Metro

With all of the recent focus on Los Angeles Metro’s expansion plans and the 30/10 Initiative, it seems timely to consider what Metro’s ambitious plans mean for L.A.’s Jewish community. In case you haven’t been paying attention, Metro is moving forward with several important projects that will bring rail lines closer, if not all the way, to the synagogue door. Metro is working hard to win Congressional approval for the 30/10 Initiative, so named because it would accelerate financing for transit construction, allowing the agency to build 30 years of public transportation projects within a decade.

So here is a fifth question for the kids to ask at your Passover seder: “Is Metro’s expansion good for the Jews?”

How does one assess the merits of Metro’s plans, and where can we look for guidance? As the observant among us know, it is helpful to look and perhaps pray to the East. And in Los Angeles, east is where most of Metro’s existing transit lines have been built over the past 20 years. These critical rail projects all emanate from downtown — the Red Line to North Hollywood, the Purple Line to Wilshire/Western, the Gold Line to Pasadena and East Los Angeles, the Blue Line to South Los Angeles and Long Beach, and the Expo Line Phase I to Culver City — are, for the most part, east of today’s large L.A. Jewish communities. Until now, Metro rail lines have largely skirted or ignored Hancock Park, Fairfax, Pico Robertson, Westwood, Encino, Sherman Oaks and Beverly Hills, although arguably it could be said that it was vocal opponents in those communities who kept out Metro trains, rather than the other way around.

One public transit exception to the Jewish rule about Metro expansion is the widely lauded Orange Line, a dedicated bus rapid transit (BRT) project that opened in 2005 and runs across the San Fernando Valley from North Hollywood west to Woodland Hills. For the uninitiated, the term BRT can refer to a variety of rapid bus programs designed to speed commuters along dedicated bus lanes. The Orange Line, which passes several synagogues and other Jewish institutions along Chandler Boulevard, raised quite a ruckus when it was being planned and built. With hindsight, given the line’s current success, and the popularity of the adjacent landscaped bike path, the thought of opposing this critical project seems unimaginable.

Now, think about Metro’s building over the last 20 years, and put it on steroids. The agency’s next act includes a number of projects that would cut right through L.A.’s Jewish neighborhoods. Metro’s plans include a Wilshire BRT from MacArthur Park to the Santa Monica City Line at Centinela Avenue, Expo Line Phase II from Culver City to Fourth and Colorado in Santa Monica, the Wilshire subway extension from Wilshire and Western to the Veterans Administration in Westwood and, in the San Fernando Valley, a better north/south transit solution along Van Nuys Boulevard and an Orange Line extension north to Chatsworth. Metro is also building a light rail line on Crenshaw Boulevard, the downtown regional connector, and is expanding both the Gold and Green lines east and south respectively. All these projects are sure to happen in some form or another, and, in many cases, have already raised the ire of some members of the tribe, including card-carrying Neighbors for Smart Rail (NFSR) supporters from Cheviot Hills. For several years, NFSR has been fighting the Expo Authority’s plan to run the light rail line at grade along an existing Metro right-of-way through Cheviot Hills, which is within the Los Angeles Community Eruv.

But it is important not to confuse Jewish opponents of particular aspects of Metro’s plans with Jewish community opposition to public transportation. Indeed, the 1985 methane gas explosion at a Ross Dress for Less in the Fairfax District, which gave long-term Congressman Henry Waxman cover to ban the use of federal funds for tunneling under Wilshire Boulevard, will long be remembered as one of the more shameful uses of bad news to kill a critical public transportation project. Fortunately, today the association of Jews on the Westside with not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) opposition to public transportation is fading like the memory of a quick ride home on the freeway. Though the resistance of some Beverly Hills residents to potential subway tunneling under a portion of Beverly Hills High School to bring the Wilshire line to Century City has led some pundits to call the residents NUMBYs — for “not under my backyard.”

Greater Los Angeles’ natural population growth and demographic shifts, which have brought thousands more jobs west of the 405 Freeway, have worsened everyone’s commute. And the resulting jam-ups have, in turn, made more of us aware of the need for public transit solutions that aren’t at the mercy of freeway traffic. How bad have things gotten? In 1965, the 405 at Olympic Boulevard carried 100,000 vehicles per workday. Today, the 405 Freeway carries 300,000 vehicles each Monday through Friday, making it, according to The Source, Metro’s year-old transportation news Web site, one of the busiest roads in the United States. 

The fact that, in November 2008, Los Angeles County voters passed Measure R, a half-cent transportation sales tax, speaks to just how much attitudes about public transportation in Los Angeles have shifted in recent years. While some voters no doubt liked the fact that the freeways will get 30 percent of the money raised by Measure R, a full 70 percent, the rest of the sorely needed largess, will go toward mass transit. Indeed, the increased volume of news coverage of Metro and 30/10 has made many of us into transit policy wonks, ready to debate the merits of a BRT line versus a light rail or subway project.

BRT lines are typically less costly to build than light rail and subways. Light rail generally has a lower capacity and lower speed than heavy rail, but higher capacity and higher speed than traditional street-running tram systems. Metro’s existing light rail lines include the Blue, Green and Gold lines.

With the subway currently going through its final environmental planning process, and some in Beverly Hills concerned about what route the tunnel will follow, the meetings have been lively, including a particularly rowdy one I attended at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills.

Los Angeles today actually has good mass transit bones. Transit corridors date from a time when the city had an extensive streetcar system. Thanks to those still-existing rights-of-way and railroad easements, many of which were never relinquished by the agency, Metro is now building out projects like the Expo Line, due to open in phases beginning later this year.

Of course, transportation planning in this town often remains a game of politics, one that has killed many worthwhile ideas, including the earlier effort to build a subway to the Westside.  But the argument now is no longer Us versus Them in the most sectarian sort of way. Instead, Metro commuters, business owners, car commuters, bicyclists and pedestrians are now recognized as equals in the messy business of hammering out a transit solution that can serve the greatest number of Angelenos with the least disruption to homeowners and businesses. All of these parties are constituents whose concerns deserve a hearing before the Metro board and sometimes before the court of public opinion.

Twenty years into L.A.’s ever-expanding modern transit program, the fact that more of us have grown up with good transit options in the form of the subway, the Rapid buses, the Orange Line and the Gold Line has no doubt helped dispel the bubbe meise that Metro is only for L.A.’s poor and working class. Indeed many of our buses and trains already carry the rainbow of races, ethnicities and religions that live in this diverse city. But many seats still go empty on some lines, as commuters opt for the car, even when it means a long, stressful ride to and fro, and too much time idling in traffic.

Because some are skeptical that Jews ride public transit in Los Angeles, I conducted an unscientific survey.  Here is what I found:

Adi Liberman, a public affairs and communications consultant from Northridge, regularly rides the Red Line from North Hollywood to downtown. Still, Liberman said, “It’s stupid that you can’t find parking at the North Hollywood station,” because there aren’t enough free spaces, and it’s difficult to get a permit for one of the pay-to-park spaces. As for riding the bus from Northridge to the Orange Line BRT to the subway, Liberman notes that it just doesn’t make sense, as that would involve a two-hour commute by bus and rail.

Rebecca Epstein (no relation to this writer), a New York transplant and 40-something resident of Westwood who doesn’t own a car, regularly rides the Metro Wilshire 720 and 920 Rapids, as well as the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus and Culver City buses. Last year, when she was working in Glendale, she commuted on the 720 or 920, connecting to the 780, which dropped her off close to her office.  When she worked downtown, she regularly commuted on the Red and Purple subway lines.

Neal Payton, an architect with Torti Gallas and Partners Inc. in downtown Los Angeles, rides the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus 10 Express from his home in Sunset Park. Payton also likes to take the Crosstown Ride and the No. 3 Big Blue Bus to LAX.  His 17-year-old son is not interested in getting a driver’s license any time soon, as he can get everywhere he wants by bus and on foot.

Donald Spivack, a resident of downtown L.A., regularly rides the 16, 20, 26, 51, 52/352, 66, 70/71, 81 and 200, mostly for work and access to medical appointments, as well as the Red Line and 720 Rapid.