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Tuesday, Nov 28, 2023

VILLAGES—Transit Village Plans for Valley Hit Roadblocks

The big dream of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to dot the Valley with track-side residential/retail communities at MTA and Metrolink stations appears to have hit a few roadblocks along the way. Of four such communities initially planned for the San Fernando Valley, only one has actually been completed. Developers have been chosen for two others, but those projects are still in the design stage, and the developer who had been selected for the third project pulled out last year. The city’s Department of Transportation, MTA and Metrolink came up with a plan in the late 1990s to construct these mixed-use projects at transit stations across Southern California as a way to ease congestion. In addition to housing, the plans included station-based conveniences, such as day care centers and grocery stores as a way to “Europeanize” L.A.’s public transport system. The idea was to create somewhat self-sustaining communities that would rely on public transportation instead of clogging the freeways. But while a few success stories outside the Valley can be noted, only one project, the Village Green housing complex at the Sylmar Metrolink stop, has been completed so far. Although a developer has been recommended by the MTA to build one of MTA’s proposed “transit villages” on land next to the North Hollywood Metro station, it looks like it will be years before the first scoop of dirt for that project will ever come up. Irvine-based Legacy Partners has been recommended by the MTA to construct a 400,000-square foot, four-story housing/retail project at the NoHo station on MTA-owned land. The complex would consist of about 400 high-end apartments with roughly 15 percent set aside as low-income units, according to John J. Abraham, development director for Legacy. The $88.6 million development consists of roughly 20,000 square feet of retail space on the ground level and a two-story subterranean parking lot. It is one of two such projects on the table for Legacy that the MTA is recommending to the Los Angeles City Council for approval. The developer is also proposing a $51 million-housing/retail complex next to the metro station at Hollywood and Vine. Even if Legacy’s two projects are approved by the full council before year’s end, it will be roughly four to five years before they are built, and another few years after that before they are sold. And, according to Genevieve Giuliano, professor of policy planning and development at USC, it will likely be years before a proper reading can be taken on the measure of their success. Part of that success, she said, will hinge upon both need as well as convenience. “These kinds of projects can only really work if they are built where there is a lot of density and a lot of demand for housing,” said Giuliano. “If the accessibility of the transit service is not that significant, then it’s likely not going to have that much of an impact. I know the redevelopment in some parts of Hollywood is a very organized and deliberate attempt to make something happen, but it will actually be a long time before we can determine how successful they will be.” Developers had hoped to build an affordable housing complex around the Chatsworth Metrolink and Amtrak station on city-owned land, but they pulled out last year after failing to attract enough funding. Metrolink, with help from the MTA, did manage to complete construction of a daycare center there called Transit Tots West, which is privately run. The center’s director, Colleen Ruane, said she has 73 children enrolled with capacity for seven more, and that roughly 25 percent of the parents of those children use the train. Also next to the station are a coffee shop and a travel agency and future plans by the city call for installing a small museum spotlighting Valley history. But there have been no new proposals for completing the second phase of the project, which focuses on housing, and little indication when or if one will ever come. “We had been in exclusive negotiations with a developer a couple of years ago but we were never able to come to an agreement on the size and scope of the housing component,” said Andrea Burnside, a Metrolink project manager. “So that project was dropped and at this time MTA hasn’t pursued it. But it’s not to say we won’t in the future.” According to Francisco Oaxaca, a Metrolink project manager, there is a shortage of land around the Chatsworth station because of the presence of large parcels set aside for equestrian zoning. The MTA is also hoping to put in a similar housing/retail project at its Universal City stop, but so far there are no proposals on the table beyond completing the access road leading up to the parking lot. “We’ve had no requests for proposals for Universal City yet, and we are still working on the roadway system around the station, said Lillian Burkenheim, a project manager with the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. “We are also still in negotiations with the studios about what kind of project would best suit the area,” she said, indicating the studios will have a significant say in the final outcome of that plan. To date, the only Valley transit-oriented project that has been completed is the Montage Village Green complex at the Sylmar Metrolink station. Village Green was built by Tarzana-based Montage Development with some funding from the MTA and the cities of Los Angeles and San Fernando. Of the 109 houses in the project, 46 have been put on the market, 16 have closed escrow and are occupied, and an additional 13 are in escrow now, said Stephen C. Ross, president of Montage. Ross said he’s pleased with the pace at which the houses are selling at Village Green. He said three of his buyers are using the Metrolink. “I think we are doing well, considering,” Ross said. “We are very pleased with that number. We subscribe to common sense and I think if you talk to anyone that’s stuck in traffic here going from one end of the Valley to the other, they want a choice for where and how they live. It’s politically correct to do this right now, but if you look around there aren’t that many (transit villages) on the table and we need there to be.” Ross added that because the homes at Village Green are affordable (they start at $219,990) and sit adjacent to a public transport stop, they carry a potential for a better return for the buyer down the road. “I think there’s a premium associated with being close to some kind of mass transit,” said Ross. Although there is no retail surrounding the Sylmar station, yet, there is Transit Tots East, also owned by the same company who owns the Chatsworth center, which has 67 children enrolled out of a maximum of 77. According to the director, Sara Dias, 12 of the parents whose children are enrolled use the train. “It’s slowly coming along, but it’s going to take a while I think,” said Dias. Even Metrolink’s Oaxaca conceded that the concept of living near public rail stops in Los Angeles is about as foreign as they come. He thinks the key to generating more public support for the idea is in how his agency and developers like Montage market the projects. He said there are strong signs the folks who are looking to buy at Village Green also intend to use the train, but added that it’s too soon to quantify any increases in ridership since they went on the market. “This whole concept, where you’ve got the integration of housing around transit is kind of new in this part of the world, and I understand that,” said Oaxaca. “But I know that we are already seeing that the concept is drawing people to the homes, and we are getting anecdotal information that these dwellers are using our trains.” Metrolink is marketing new and potential Village Green residents three-month passes for the trains. “It’s too early to quantify the numbers but part of what we are doing is going through the educational process and trying to get people to think about access to public transit when they are deciding where to live and work,” said Oaxaca. Although Giuliano agreed that, with such a high shortage of affordable housing in Southern California, getting folks to buy station-side homes shouldn’t be too difficult. The real challenge, she said, is getting them built, and then, getting commuters to give up their car keys for the day. “A lot of these projects are done on pure faith and in the hopes that people will change their behavior, but that’s really a tall order for a place like Los Angeles,” said Giuliano. “And even if we get some people to use the transit system, it’s not going to have that significant of an impact. Most of L.A. was built after the automobile came along, and you can’t rebuild a city like Los Angeles based on a 19th century model.”

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