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Saturday, Jan 28, 2023
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Shuttle Finally Touches Down

It arrives 40 years late and won’t come with the Space Age whoosh of a monorail, as originally advertised. But a trolley – or at least a shuttle service – will finally hit the streets of Warner Center later this year. Privately funded and operated by Westfield Corp., the shuttle will ferry shoppers between the Orange Line bus station and the company’s Promenade and Topanga malls. But perhaps most importantly, it will serve as a test case for a local transit system that could reduce traffic and finally transform Warner Center into a pedestrian-friendly environment attractive to tech and entertainment companies – and their auto-averse millennial employees. Michael S. Adler, chief executive of Adler Realty Investments Inc., of Woodland Hills, hopes the Westfield experiment turns into reality – and soon. It’s a key reason his company decided to invest $80 million to acquire the 13-building Warner Center Corporate Park in May 2013. “If the plan is for Warner Center to be a true transportation hub, there will be more people coming here who will need to be able to walk or hop on a bike to get someplace,” he said. The discussion about a trolley isn’t just whimsical. The Warner Center 2035 Plan, adopted in December 2013, calls for a local transit system funded by $65 million in future developer fees. The need is spelled out: About 100,000 people work locally and a comprehensive traffic analysis showed 216,000 current car trips in and out of Warner Center every day. By 2035, with anticipated future development, that figure would almost double to 368,000 daily trips, potentially devastating a region already fighting gridlock at rush hour. At a Warner Center real estate conference sponsored last month by the non-profit Warner Center Association business development group, speakers – including L.A. City Councilman Bob Blumenfield – lined up behind the trolley. Conference attendee Misty Kuckelman, head of corporate real estate for Farmers Insurance Group, said the trolley will be important as her company is in the middle of moving its headquarters from its longtime location on Wilshire Boulevard to its new Warner Center offices on Owensmouth Avenue. “Our employees would love to get off site and out of the office quickly for lunches, meetings and collaborative events,” she said. History lesson This isn’t the first attempt to make the area more accessible. In the late 1960s, when developers first dreamed of turning movie mogul Harry Warner’s horse ranch into “The Downtown of the Valley,” they planned to link the region to the Ventura Freeway via a Disneyland-style monorail. The idea persisted for decades and was taken seriously enough for buildings to be designed with second-floor entrances, including at Warner Center Towers on Oxnard Street, the district’s largest office complex. “It was partially wishful thinking and partially optimistic. It was a plum that was put forth by (L.A. County Supervisor) Mike Antonovich for years and years,” said Brad M. Rosenheim, executive director of the Warner Center Association and a land use consultant at Rosenheim & Associates Inc. in Woodland Hills. The idea never came to fruition, killed by cost and local opposition. But in 1993, a free 3.8-mile DASH shuttle ran the length and width of Warner Center every weekday between 10:55 a.m. and 2:08 p.m. It was a cooperative effort between the city’s transportation department and the Warner Center Transportation Management Organization, paid for by the partly developer-funded Warner Center Traffic Mitigation Fund. The DASH operated every 10 minutes in both directions and later expanded to provide all-day service. City Transportation Planner Phil Aker said a funding deficit eventually quashed the shuttle, which had the lowest ridership in the system. The City Council finally killed it in August 2010. The deficit has now been remedied and the department is in the midst of a year-long study of all its transit services and how they can be improved, with an emphasis on connecting communities to Metro’s regional bus and rail system. “As Warner Center land uses intensify, there may be an opportunity to use local traffic mitigation funding to reinstitute service there,” Aker said in an email. Early steps Sometime this fall, the Westfield-funded shuttles will start plying a 1.5-mile route linking the Warner Center Metro Orange Line bus station on Owensmouth Avenue with the Warner Center Marriott, Westfield’s Topanga and Promenade malls and its newest property, The Village at Topanga, a $350 million open-air retail development connecting the two malls. Larry Green, a senior vice president at Westfield, said the operation will coincide with the grand opening of The Village. The exact schedule and vehicle to be used are still under discussion. “We’re kicking around different ideas, but we want to make it fun. It’ll be the kind of thing that will get people talking and excited about riding it,” Green said. He sees the shuttle primarily as a way to get mall-goers from one end of Westfield’s retail empire to the other, and allow bus riders an easy way to access shops and restaurants if they aren’t able to walk – or don’t want to hoof it in the heat. “We will track ridership and be in a position to provide the city with reports on how well it is being utilized,” Green said. “We hope to get good ridership and good data out of it so we can use it to make the case to restore some kind of broader transit system here.” Armen Hovanessian, a senior transportation engineer with the city who worked on the 2035 master plan, said the document not only calls for a local transit system, but calls for other improvements that taken together can have a substantial impact. They range from enlarging ridership capacity on the Orange Line with an eventual shift to fixed-rail, to breaking down the area’s long blocks into shorter, pedestrian-friendly “paseos” to make walking easier and more attractive. If those changes occur, gridlock could be cut by almost a quarter, even with anticipated growth. “It’s extremely essential, if you’re going to grow this area without growing traffic, that people can go to work on public transit and be able to get around during the day. Or come in by car, park once, and then have a shuttle to get them to lunch, meetings or shopping,” he said. David Allison, president of Allison Asset Management Co. of Newport Beach, takes a long view. He was around in the 1970s when his father, Robert, brokered early land deals and worked with real estate developer Robert Voit to develop the first Warner Center projects. David Allison worked for nearly eight years on the 2035 plan and is happy to see the local transit option beginning to come to fruition. “Creating this type of transportation infrastructure will enhance Warner Center’s appeal to businesses and residents, especially among millennials and those employed in creative class industries,” he said.

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