By Jorge Casuso
August 4, 2009 -- After more than a year unsuccessfully scouring the Westside for available land for a maintenance yard for the proposed light rail line to Santa Monica, Expo officials next week will ask the City Council to begin planning for the facility at the Verizon property neighboring residents oppose.
Expo Construction Authority officials said they will ask the council members to scrap their plan to split up the yard after vocal opposition from area residents and a key landowner at a council meeting last month. ("City Council Greenlights Alternate Plan for Rail Yard," July 17, 2008)
Approved 4 to 2 on July 14, the plan would have used a city-owned parcel at 1800 Stewart Street and a Santa Monica College-owned parcel, as well as the originally proposed site currently owned by Verizon near Olympic and Stewart streets.
"There was no support for the hybrid site as was being proposed," said Samantha Bricker, the chief operating officer for the Expo Construction Authority. "The concern was that (we would) pursue and environmentally clean a site that had no support.
"We're all in favor of looking for things that make sense for our project, and this seemed to stoke more opposition," Bricker said. "I think the City heard that as well."
Expo officials said they -- as well as City officials -- have exhausted the hunt for a property adjacent to Phase 2 of the line, which will run from Culver City to Downtown Santa Monica.
"Unfortunately on the Westside, there are not many parcels adjacent to the line that meet the criteria," said Bricker. "We need an evenly shaped parcel" that is big enough.
"The City hired their people (consultants), we hired our people, we searched everywhere and didn't find anything," said Rick Thorpe, the Expo Construction Authority's CEO.
"We've spent over a year going over 32 different locations," Thorpe said. "Now I think we're at the point" of deciding on the Verizon site and start planning ways to make it work.
City officials, who are in constant contact with the Construction Authority, said they are continuing to explore options, but are also moving ahead with plans for the Verizon site.
"We're working on other things, including what the Verizon site would look like with a buffer and what kind of buffer we can get," said Kate Vernez, a senior analyst with the City Manager's office.
The council's move last month to relocate the noisier functions of the Expo maintenance facility further away from homes in the Pico Neighborhood came after Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) -- some of whose top officials own homes in the area -- opposed the proposed Verizon site earlier this year.
Opponents of the Verizon site called the proposed facility a "toxic triangle" and accused the City of engaging in “environmental racism,” warning the facility would have “many intolerable impacts” on Santa Monica’s poorest and most ethnically diverse neighborhood.
But the alternative plan the council approved failed to please the two dozen residents who testified at the July 14 meeting that the "hybrid" site did not adequately address health and safety issues and that it would snarl traffic on Stewart Street.
The plan also was opposed by officials at the Lionstone Group, a real estate investment firm that has a ground lease with the City until 2030 for the land at 1800 Stewart, a key component of the plan.
College officials, on the other hand, said they are willing to give up the adjacent college-owned student parking lot if the City helped them find an alternative site.
City and light rail officials said they would be reaching out to the community next Tuesday, when the council is expected to give the green light to move ahead with the Verizon site.
The Construction Authority will hold a community workshop to gather input on how to make the site work, and officials have offered to give neighboring residents a tour of a maintenance facility that has operated successfully next to a condominium complex along the Green Line.
"Tuesday will be very telling," said Bricker. "Hopefully we can sit down at the table and start discussing the issues" of placing the facility at the Verizon site.