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Editorial: Metro Board Should Press Pause on Gutted Union Station Pedestrian Project

11:32 AM PDT on October 22, 2020

Tomorrow, the Metro board is looking to approve final environmental documents for a project designed to make the front of Union Station better for walking and bicycling. The trouble is that, over the past year, L.A. City departments gutted the project, watering down designs to the point where drivers are being prioritized at the expense of pedestrians.

What's the rush? The Metro board should delay approving these Union Station plans. There's no need to move forward with a design that no longer serves its stated goal of enhancing pedestrian and bicycle access and safety to and from the station.

Some project background: Metro's Union Station Forecourt and Esplanade Improvements focus on the connection between Union Station and El Pueblo, L.A.’s historic central plaza. El Pueblo, including its Olvera Street, is a popular heavily-walked destination for tourists and locals. New adjacent housing is enhancing the area’s already-strong walkability. In 2018 Metro approved a station frontage design that included expanded sidewalks with a substantial shade canopy. The design restricted driver left turns from Los Angeles Street onto Alameda Street, in order to create a landmark fifty-foot-wide raised crosswalk between Union Station and El Pueblo.

In refining the approved 2018 design, L.A. City Departments - Transportation (LADOT) and Public Works Bureau of Street Services (Streets L.A.) - substantially backpedaled. LADOT and Streets L.A. concerns eliminated tree cover, prioritized driver turns, and scaled back the landmark crossing.

One factor in the city's negotiations with Metro has been the absence of a seated city councilmember. After a corruption scandal drove José Huizar from office, the 14th Council District seat has been vacant. Just last week, new City Councilmember Kevin de León was sworn in to serve the 14th.

When the Union Station plan was heard at the Metro board Planning and Programming Committee last week, architect and mobility advocate Michael MacDonald urged:

Unfortunately, at a time when Council District 14 has no elected representative, some city of L.A. departments have requested modifications that will substantially downgrade the achievement of project goals to improve active transportation access to Union Station. I ask that the Board direct the project team to work with the office of incoming Councilmember de León to ensure the city of L.A. is collaborating with Metro to achieve project goals.

The Union Station item was approved at Metro's Planning and Programming Committee last week, so for tomorrow it appears on the board agenda's consent calendar.

Items on consent are past the point for public comment. Only Metro boardmembers can delay approval. Tomorrow, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti or L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis (who both represent the Union Station area) - or any other boardmember who cares - can and should hold off approval until the new year. Along with postponing the vote, the board should direct Metro staff to work with the office of Councilmember Kevin de León.

In an email to Streetsblog, MacDonald reiterated that, "Obviously it is really disheartening for advocates to put in years of work to ensure critical projects like this are oriented towards building a safer and more sustainable city, only to have those goals undermined at the last minute by city staff behind closed doors. This is why we elect officials to represent us in City Hall, and why it is unfortunate that these changes have been rammed through at a time when Council District 14 had no elected leader to steer decision-making towards adopted mobility goals." MacDonald urges Metro to heed community concerns including those in comment letters from L.A. Walks, the Central City Association, and the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition.

Please Metro boardmembers, it's up to you to get this project back on track. Press pause for a couple months to give Councilmember de León time to help bring city departments to the table, focused on Metro's own goals for a more accessible Union Station.

Delay approving the Union Station Forecourt and Esplanade Improvements Project as currently configured. Make sure that these improvements really do improve the safety and mobility of people on foot. Restore core pedestrian-priority features that you, the board, approved in 2018.

This project can transform one L.A.'s most prominent pedestrian crossings for people riding Metro. And Metrolink. And Amtrak. And someday California High-Speed Rail.

Metro is investing billions of dollars to further upgrade Union Station in the coming decades. New rail connections, a new concourse, a new busway station, and new run-through tracks are improving capacity and attracting new riders.

This is the historic center of Los Angeles. The heart of the region. It's a place where, despite the worst excesses of car-centric planners and engineers, walking has remained the dominant mode for millennia. People have been walking there since indigenous people settled there. People continue to walk there in huge numbers today.

This is a historic decision. Don't fuck it up.

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