L.A. Tries Bringing Subway to Land of Maseratis

Beverly Hills High School sits on top of a working oil field, where L.A.‘s transit planners want to tunnel. Credit: Shawn Magill on Flickr

At long last, the first phase of Los Angeles’ “Subway to the Sea” received final approval last week, ending years of contentious debate over a track extension that would connect the city’s center, including working-class sections of east and south L.A., to more affluent communities west of downtown, such as Century City.

Yet while environmental and engineering documents for the Purple Line extension have been certified for its entire 9.6-mile length, the approved segment stops short of that long-sought western reach. Standing in its way: A beleaguered, marginalized and forlorn polity known as Beverly Hills.

For the past two years, Tom Cruise’s hometown has claimed that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) is imposing itself on a powerless little berg. Civic leaders have described it as David vs. Goliath, with Metro as the Goliath. Residents confined to 10,000-square-foot mansions, and condemned to navigate Los Angeles traffic in such mean conveyances as Maseratis and Aston-Martins, have launched all manner of epithet against the transportation authority.

The concern? That the subway’s planned passage through a tunnel under Beverly Hills High School will make the swank public school a destination for terrorists, or potentially, a tinderbox prone to deadly explosion.

In short, the city that inspired a million Tudor-style McMansions is blocking the transit authority’s plans with a demand that it reroute the subway extension to avoid running below the high school that inspired everyone’s favorite bit of 1990s high school television greatness.

The city has requested a special hearing in front of the Metro board before the alignment is approved. The meeting is as-yet unscheduled.

“We don’t feel that MTA has done their due diligence with respect to uncovering potential safety concerns with the number of abandoned oil wells, methane gas, saturated soil, the impact that it may have on 80-year-old buildings on the high school site,” said Brian Goldberg, president of the Beverly Hills School Board.

But while the city’s adult populace seems to have its Calvins in a bunch about the whole thing, the kids supposedly at risk aren’t overly concerned.

“I feel as though hysterics have been a factor here,” said a junior class president who requested his name stay out of the spectacle.

For the past two years, debate about the subway has been the loudest conversation in Beverly Hills since the trial of Lindsay Lohan. Though Metro has held innumerable public meetings on the proposed subway dating back to at least 2006, it wasn’t until late 2010 that civic leaders raised concerns that some of the 17 alignments that Metro had published in its Alternatives Analysis might pose a problem.

Originally, the most clear and present danger — articulated by then-School Board President Lisa Korbotov — was that terrorists would use the subway to blow up the school.

This premise relied on the assumption that terrorists would not only still be agitated decades from now, but also that they would be able to smuggle onto the train a small explosive device powerful enough to rip through several feet of concrete tunnel and travel upward through 50 feet of earth.

It also assumes that these terrorists have no access to a motor vehicle and have never seen Heathers.

The debate has since shifted to slightly less fanciful grounds.

“We’re not asking MTA to mitigate terrorist attacks,” said Goldberg.

Goldberg said the school board has narrowed their protests down to two main concerns: The potential that the excavation would cause a dangerous explosion, and potential that the tunnels would prohibit future construction on the site.

To the first concern, Beverly Hills High School sits on top of — no joke — a working oil field. School officials simply do not trust Metro to construct tunnels safely.

“I’m not going to leave the safety of our students in the hands of an MTA board whose only goal is to tunnel underneath the high school,” Goldberg said.

(A video produced by the PTA rendered some of these outcomes in gripping A-Team-era special effects.)

The second, less-telegenic fear stems from a belief that the tunnels — the top of which would sit 50 feet below grade — would impede future development or construction on the site.

Goldberg maintains that ultimately, the city and the school district support the construction of a subway extension, just not one that runs under their school.

Meanwhile, metro officials contend the proposed route is the one that makes the most sense for the region, and will be safe for all involved parties.

“If we did anything that was unsafe, not only would it undermine that project but it would undermine everything that this agency is trying to do,” said Jody Litvak, community relations manager for Metro.

Litvak also pointed out that the agency has constructed dozens of underground miles in the county without incident. She said that some of those tunnels run under schools, as do segments of Bay Area Rapid Transit.

A map of the proposed Purple Line extension. Credit: Metro

Metro officials say that they are more than willing to collaborate with the school district to try to accommodate future development and to ensure that the place doesn’t blow up. If only the district would collaborate with Metro.

“I’m sure we could and I’m sure we would be willing [to collaborate], but we’re in a situation right now that makes it difficult because we were told some time ago that all communications between Metro staff and school district staff had to go through attorneys,” said Litvak. “There’s been a fair amount of saber-rattling leading one to infer the likelihood of lawsuits.”

The unnamed junior class president would prefer that all the adults in Beverly Hills quit their drama and let the subway take its course. He said that most of his schoolmates — they being the children that everyone wants to protect — likely feel the same way. He even conducted a Facebook poll to find out.

“The majority of the people who answered my poll said they didn’t care, which to me translates as they’re not really interested in our school putting up the fight that it is,” he said.

He has clearly been learning lessons that the school board has not approved.

“Subways run under all over metropolitan areas. They go under commercial buildings…they go under other public buildings,” the school pol added. Meanwhile, he continued, “the likelihood of a fatal automobile crash is very real, despite the safety precautions and airbag regulations designed to protect us. However, we drive anyway. To fight the subway is to drive away modernization.”

Editors of the school paper, the Highlights, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did Gabrielle Carteris.

Josh Stephens is the editor of the California Planning & Development Report. Opinions expressed herein are his alone. By way of disclosure, Stephens and Litvak both serve on the board of a local civic organization.

Josh Stephens is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Planning Magazine, Sierra Magazine, the Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report and Planetizen. His website is joshrstephens.net.

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