LA looks to revive mythic past with streetcars
LOS ANGELES—Half a century after the last of the lost Pacific Electric Red Cars rumbled through Los Angeles, a move has begun to return streetcars to downtown LA.
With a route chosen by the city and an environmental review begun, the proposed four-mile Broadway-to-Figueroa loop is a modest project compared to the region's subway extensions and freeway expansions, but would provide a link between the key spots of the downtown renaissance and a symbolic link with the city's mythologized past.
Los Angeles once had a thousand miles of streetcar tracks.
Along them ran the Yellow Car Line and the more famed Red Cars, and since they gave way to freeways in the early 1960s they've become a symbol of the city's lost intimacy and identity, celebrated by politicians looking to restore transit glory and by films like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."
While the streetcars of memory are invoked often -- the city's soon-to-open Expo light rail line has Red Car tickets etched into the concrete at its final stop and city leaders on a recent test run shared memories of riding it -- the proposed downtown project would be a far more direct restoration, starting with the route itself.
"Virtually every bit of this alignment is on streets that have historically had Red or Yellow car lines," said Robin Blair, director of planning for the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
While boosters are quick to point out that the new cars would be thoroughly modern, sleek and environmentally sound, nostalgia is their biggest emotional selling point.
"Everyone has a story about themselves or their parents or somebody riding these streetcars," said City Councilman Jose Huizar, whose 2008 "Bringing Back Broadway" plan started the push.
Broadway was once the busiest and brightest street in the center of the city, then for decades became a symbol of downtown's decay.
Huizar's $36.5-million plan has sought to revive the movie theaters and nightspots that have sat in disrepair.
It appears to be working, and the streetcar line could make its restoration complete.
"It's a beautiful corridor," Huizar said. "It's located in a perfect spot."
The Ace Hotel, a hot hangout for the young and hip in Portland, Palm Springs and New York, shocked many city watchers in December when, for its LA location, it passed up more gentrified neighborhoods for a seedy stretch of Broadway. The hotel will make its home in the United Artists Theater and the office building above it.
The Ace will join other fashionable spots like the Los Angeles Brewery and Umamicatessen, where highbrow and lowbrow diners can get foie-gras doughnuts and french fries with pig brain aioli.
"It's one of the bright parts of the region where people are actually still building stuff," Blair said.
Similar streetcar systems can be found throughout Europe and in U.S. cities like Portland, Seattle and Pittsburgh, with a Washington D.C. line set to open next year. And thanks to Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando, they're most associated with New Orleans and its "Streetcar Named Desire."
Unlike the light rail more common in public transit, streetcars run low to the ground on shallow tracks with the regular flow of traffic.
Because there are few barriers and they mix so intimately with cars, bikes and pedestrians, they sometimes bring safety worries, but supporters say they are no more dangerous than buses, and if anything safer because they have predictable paths and stop patterns.
Portland's streetcar has become a model for LA, and a visit there helped sell Huizar on the idea.
He was wary when he saw trains move so freely in traffic and come so close to the curb, but he was quickly won over when he stepped on and got a smooth ride in a packed car.
"It's like a sidewalk escalator ride," the councilman said, "and there weren't a whole lot of seats."
The proposed route would head south from First Street down Broadway, then turn around and head north past Staples Center and a possible NFL stadium that remains in the planning and policy stages, before ending near the Museum of Contemporary Art.
"The idea when we set out on this was to connect every major destination point in downtown," Huizar said.
Despite covering a very short distance, the loop functions like a tour of every economic level of LA, from the Ritz-Carlton to Skid Row.
"Some of that line is highly dense, highly trafficked, and some of the route needs a good incentive for investors to come in," said Paul Habibi, a professor of business at UCLA, who is acting as the project's director.
The current environmental review is expected to take about a year, with groundbreaking projected for 2014 and completion for 2016.
The money, at a time when cities are fighting over every scrap, is the biggest potential stumbling block. Cost estimates have ranged from $110 million to $125 million.
Ten million has already been raised through city sources. Of the remaining cost, supporters expect to get federal grants for half, but they first they must pass a local tax on property owners near the route. It would require approval from two-thirds of some 7,000 registered voters.
Streetcar organizers know they'll need to work to prove to merchants and landlords that they'll get a decent return on the investment, and they hope they'll have a stronger economy when the issue comes up for a vote in 2013.
"We've been doing our homework to talk to the property owners," Huizar said. "The momentum's there and we want to take advantage."