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When Politics Reach the Gaseous Stage

By Frank Gruber

November 2, 2009 -- Watching last Tuesday evening's City Council hearing on the latest developments in the case of the Expo line's maintenance yard (City Council Wants Larger Role in Rail Facility," October 30, 2009), I didn't know what to fear more, the methane gas that the Pico Neighborhood Association says could seep from the ground and cause explosions if Expo builds the yard on the north side of Exposition Boulevard, or the gas that seeped from the mouths of several members of the City Council endeavoring to show how concerned they are about something that suddenly has become not a problem.

The meeting reminded me of how the Treesavers people, after they'd saved 100 trees Downtown from an overly-ambitious replanting included in the initial iteration of the Downtown streetscape plan, went crazy because a remaining 50 unhealthy trees were still going to be removed to allow for the planting of 100 new trees. They just couldn't accept victory, and the whole thing ended up with Jerry Rubin chaining himself to a tree and going to jail.

Last Tuesday night should have been the occasion for the Exposition Boulevard neighbors and for the City Council to declare victory. All the attention they caused to be applied to the maintenance yard has resulted in the possibility -- okay, it's not yet a deal, but it's becoming a deal -- for a facility and related development that will bring stunning improvement to Exposition Boulevard and the nearby neighborhood.

Yet listen to Council Member Kevin McKeown lecture the representatives of Expo -- the good guys, mind you, bringing us the rail we so desperately want -- on how they need to mind their environmental Ps & Qs: "I am so discomfited by this process."

Oh, be discomfited, Council member McKeown.

What I'm looking forward to is for Mr. McKeown to chain himself to some piece of the Verizon van parking lot on the day of the maintenance yard's groundbreaking and get himself arrested. But of course that won't happen -- he'll be there cutting the ribbon.

So what's going on? The first thing to realize is that there will be no environmental impact from a maintenance yard. As someone who toured the Green Line maintenance yard in Hawthorne, I can tell you that the neighbors there said that there is no significant impact.

The second thing to realize is that in response to the concerns expressed by the neighbors and the City Council, City staff and Expo staff, working with Santa Monica College, have come up with a "hybrid plan" that spreads the maintenance facilities across the northern half of the Verizon site and the College's Stewart Street parking lot, liberating a "buffer" zone 100-120 feet wide along the north side of Exposition Boulevard.

All you need to know about the "impact" of a maintenance yard is that according to the City's staff report, this buffer would be a good place to locate housing. Chew on that for a moment: the yard will be so benign you could put housing in the buffer. (The only other evidence you need to know about the yard is that its critics are now reduced to making silly claims about methane gas -- there's nothing else to go on.)

The hybrid plan would do at least two great things for the neighborhood:

-- Turn the north side of Exposition, currently one of the uglier blocks in the city, into a mixed-use, walkable addition to the neighborhood to the south, giving the currently aggrieved neighbors there a congenial connection to the Expo station at Bergamot.

-- Remove the College's parking lot, which is currently a car-attracting eyesore.

Presented with this great plan, the council members showed no imagination. Bobby Shriver could only carp about how the City was "paying for" the deal by giving up land to replace the College's parking, ignoring the fact that the City would get to own and decide what to do with the buffer along Exposition.

Now, at the core of the council's concerns was one kernel of substance, a point that Mayor Genser could have made in less than two minutes but which became the focus for agonizing emissions of gas from him and from Messrs. McKeown and Shriver.

The point was that while Expo and its parent Metro could make the decision to use only the Verizon site on their own, the hybrid plan would require the City's approval (and that of the College), because of the land swap.

Mayor Genser's point was that because Expo has taken advantage of the additional land available in the hybrid plan to add some facilities -- a fully-enclosed paint and body shop and storage for about ten additional rail cars -- and those new facilities were not analyzed in the original draft environmental impact report issued in January, those facilities need to be analyzed before the City or the other agencies can make a decision.

Good point, Mayor Genser. Of course Expo had already promised to deal with those potential impacts in the final EIR, but, sure, hold them to it. But did you and your colleagues have to lecture the Expo representatives on this? Did you have to refer the matter to the City Attorney? Don't you think it's in Expo's interest to make sure you and the discomfited Mr. McKeown have all the environmental data you need to make a decision that's good for Expo (even as it's also good for Santa Monica)?

The only council member who spoke who seemed to understand any of this was Gleam Davis (on the honor roll for discretion were Robert Holbrook who said little, Pam O'Connor who said next to nothing, and Richard Bloom who said nothing), who pointed out that street car systems exist all over the world and the people live with them, that not everyone was going to be happy regardless what the yard finally looks like, and that the job now was to negotiate the best deal.

Other than that, it's now time to for the council to thank its staff, to thank Expo staff, and to get on with building this Expo thing.

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