It is impossible to address the broad crisis facing California without affecting some preexisting plan in some way. Whether it's the transmission lines needed to carry power to cities from a solar plant in the Mojave Desert or the Carrizo Plain or whether it's building a light rail line next to an LA high school or something else entirely, solutions to the economic, environmental, and energy crisis aren't being built on a blank slate. We have to implement them within the built and the natural environment we have, and that means when we want to build high speed rail, it may mean other plans have to be shifted to accommodate it.
The latest instance of this intersection of plans is along the Los Angeles River. If you've ever seen the movie "Grease" you've seen the LA River. Once a meandering seasonal stream which sometimes took an entirely different course to the Pacific Ocean than it does now (prior to 1835 it joined Ballona Creek and emptied into the Santa Monica Bay), it has become a largely concretized flood channel of the kind you see all over Southern California (including in the backyard of the house I grew up in).
Along with this "modernization" the LA River has also become a major transportation corridor. It was always thus, from Native American times to the late 1700s when Spanish padres marked the El Camino Real along its course. In the 1800s railroads were built along its banks, and in the 1950s several freeways, including the Golden State and the Long Beach freeways, were constructed alongside it.
Since the 1970s there have been a series of efforts to restore the "old" LA River by removing some of the concrete, which would both slow down the river (making it less dangerous during winter flash floods) and make it more hospitable to wildlife. There have also been plans to conduct urban renewal along some of the older industrial sections of the LA River, including those areas currently used by trains.
These plans will be impacted by the high speed rail project, and the intersection of those two projects is the topic of an in-depth article in the LA Times today. The article, by Ari Bloomekatz, is generally a good overview of the concerns some of the river revitalization activists have about high speed rail:
The plan to build a network of high-speed bullet trains across California is facing opposition from the heart of Los Angeles, where community leaders fear the line will hurt efforts for another grand project: revitalizing the L.A. River.
The rail plan, which has picked up considerable steam since voters approved the nearly $10-billion bond measure in 2008, would use Union Station as a major hub, and the line probably would run along the Los Angeles River.
But some elected officials and residents believe the proposed rail alignment would seriously clash with their vision for the area, which involves replacing the dilapidated industrial proprieties along the river with green space, recreation areas and community facilities.
The situation makes for delicate politics. Many L.A. officials strongly support the bullet train concept and believe that the Union Station hub would fit into the county's efforts to expand subway and light rail service. But they also believe that revitalizing the river is an important part of making the city core more livable for residents and attractive to visitors.
Part of the problem here is that some of the revitalization advocates do not appear to have considered trains as part of their vision for "making the city core more livable for residents and attractive to visitors." Others, still operating in a late 20th century mindset, see any major transportation project as producing the kind of "blight" they associate with the current situation along much of the LA River. Instead of railroads and industrial zones being a thriving hub of activity, by the 1980s they had fallen into disuse as state and federal policy and economic shifts rendered those sites undesirable. Unfortunately, many took the lesson that "railroads along the river produces blight," which doesn't predispose those types to support a train.
The specific area under discussion in the article is known as the Taylor Yard area of the "Glendale Narrows" - the area alongside the Golden State Freeway and the Metrolink ROW. This region has been an important transportation corridor going back to the Native American days, and as anyone who's been on Metrolink through here knows, it is already heavily used by trains. It is also one of the few places along the LA River that has not been fully concretized - it has what is officially described as a "soft bottom" and is therefore seen as a prime location for ecosystem restoration. But the closure of Taylor Yard suggested to many in the area that the day of the train was done, and that a post-railroad vision for that section of the Glendale Narrows was desirable:
The proposed rail routes would run near Taylor Yard, a 247-acre freight switching facility in Cypress Park that was closed by 1985. Part of Taylor yard, which is north of Union Station, is still used for rail maintenance and storage, but it also includes Rio de Los Angeles State Park and sites for a planned high school, green space and a mixed-use housing development. The Los Angeles River runs next to it.
"To take a step backward, to put in a train, it's not going to help the quality of life," said Greater Cypress Park Neighborhood Council chairman Gustavo Lizarde.
Lizarde grew up in Lincoln Heights, moved to Cypress Park in the early 1980s and 25 years ago took over his father's auto service shop on North Figueroa Street. He used to live near Taylor Yard.
Last week, Lizarde walked past a new soccer field at the park off San Fernando Road to the concrete bank of the river. A blue heron swooped by a path littered with foam plastic cups.
The soccer field is one part of the city's long-term effort to transform the area along the concrete-sided river that was once synonymous with crime and graffiti into a place residents can enjoy.
Lizarde is articulating exactly the vision I described above - one where railroads are bringers of blight. Because Taylor Yard was undesirable in the 1980s, and because that led to it becoming a haven of crime and decay, Lizarde believes that any railroad use of the site would inherently produce those conditions again. To someone like Lizard, the Taylor Yard region exists in a perpetual 1985, where any expanded use of the area by trains would inherently blow up the plans to revitalize the river and the surrounding neighborhood.
LA City Councilmember Ed Reyes, whose district includes the Taylor Yard area, thinks HSR should simply avoid the area entirely, even if it meant abandoning the Union Station terminus:
But if the high-speed rail goes through Union Station, some officials and environmental advocates say, it would be difficult to find a route that doesn't run near the river.
Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes said he would like to see other alternatives for routes from Anaheim to Los Angeles and from Los Angeles to Palmdale. He said he supports the high-speed rail but doesn't want to sacrifice the river or the progress of the communities the bullet train would pass through.
"The river right now is in a straitjacket. Lined with cement, constrained by railroad lines. . . . But the way they're approaching it, they're going to put the last strap on the straitjacket," Reyes said. "I support it, but let's not be hasty, let's be opportunistic."
So what's really going on here? Is there a huge anti-HSR backlash forming in LA that can give hope to the Peninsula NIMBYs? Will community organizers like Gustavo Lizarde and local electeds like Ed Reyes undermine one of HSR's most important, most vital aspects - using downtown LA's Union Station as a primary hub?
Not so fast. A look at the details suggests that not only was HSR taken into account in the LA River revitalization planning process, but that the plans envision HSR as a possible solution - instead of a barrier - to achieving some of the plans's key goals.
First, let's have a look at the area in question:
View Taylor Yard/HSR in a larger map
With a proposed high school and state park in the way, one might think "omg this is totally unworkable." But in fact the issue seems to be whether the San Fernando Road alignment or the existing Metrolink/UP alignment is used. As you can see, the location is already heavily used by rail, and Metrolink's primary maintenance hub is located just south of the Taylor Yard area.
Much of the non-railroad land is owned by the California State Parks. A lawsuit several years ago stopped the city of LA, UP, and Lennar (a real estate developer) from new industrial development on the site. Described as "the brass ring" for river activists, the Taylor Yard area is seen as a keystone in the "green" vision for the LA River.
But what does "green" mean? Does it include electric, non-polluting, sustainable high speed rail? Or does it mean essentially turning the area into a park?
The City of Los Angeles's River Revitalization Plan makes a clear statement that trains are an essential part of the River, and that HSR can actually serve as a method of reconnecting neighborhoods to the River:
High Speed And Light Rail Lines Could Be Opportunities To Connect To The River: While heavy rail poses the challenges noted previously, existing and proposed future light rail lines could be opportunities to connect a multi-modal system with the River....
The proposed California High-Speed Rail system would travel from San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento in the north to Los Angeles and San Diego in the south, and would connect California’s major metropolitan areas. The proposed corridor alignment has been loosely identified in the Los Angeles area, and it traverses a portion of the project area. The preferred alignment is along both sides of the Los Angeles River: one proposed track crosses the River from Mission Yard towards Union Station and continues south while the other passes through Union Station and splits to cross the River south of US-101 and south of 1st Street. Should the rail system be implemented as studied, it offers the potential to bring visitors from outside the region to the City. A revitalized River could provide an important regional recreational destination, as well as an amenity that could draw more visitors to the City. (pages 3-16 and 3-17)
It also presents an opportunity to reconstruct the tracks in the area - consolidating rail lines and putting them in either a viaduct or a trench, creating the possibility of at-grade connections to a riverfront park. And as that segment of the plan notes, both UPRR and BNSF (which operates further down the river, south of Union Station) are not only heavy freight users of rail corridors along the river, but are likely to explore options to expand the rails to accommodate future freight traffic.
Ultimately the plan makes it clear that rails are part of the River's future, instead of an impediment. Neither the freeways nor the rails are going away anytime soon. In fact, electrified passenger rail is a key element of improving the quality of life in Southern California, including for the residents of the Cypress Park and other nearby neighborhoods.
Few of the people quoted in the article are HSR opponents, and the article itself recognizes the environmental benefits of HSR. The ultimate question here is how to reconcile two efforts to produce environmentally friendly uses of urban land.
What this situation primarily demonstrates is that the issue really isn't about the environment. It's instead about perceptions of what urban life should be like. Some of the neighbors near the Taylor Yard have a fundamentally 20th century vision in mind - they're afraid any new rail projects will return the site to 1985, but their own vision is essentially the 1950s - a low-density community with green space and access to a quiet, meandering river.
In this way they're not so different from the Peninsula NIMBYs, who seem to prefer a permanent 1975, even at the expense of Caltrain's survival. They're all motivated by a belief that trains bring blight, that trains are not a part of a desirable community. That is a belief unique to the late 20th century, but that belief runs deep.
Nobody is yet articulating a truly 21st century vision: one where sustainable land use and transportation, including high speed rail, produces cleaner and quieter communities, bringing economic security for the many and protecting everyone from the looming catastrophes our dependence on oil is about to produce.
The LA River presents a particular problem here. But it's not an unfamiliar problem. Stanford history professor Richard White would have well understood it. In 1996 White, then a University of Washington professor, published a remarkable little book titled The Organic Machine. Ostensibly a history of dams and fish management along the Columbia River, it in fact was something more of a meditation on the impact of modern man on the natural environment.
White's argument was simple: in modern societies, there is no easy separation of the "natural" and the "man-made". A single key sentence explains White's thesis: "We might want to look for the natural in the dams and the unnatural in the salmon." The Columbia River dams became part of nature, and created new ecosystems. The dams brought changes, some of which were positive, some of which were negative. White's goal isn't to praise or damn the dams (heh) but to instead show that for humans to think about saving salmon or managing the Columbia River, they have to accept that there can be no such thing as "purely natural" - instead the river is an "organic machine" whose consequences have to be weighed before they are acted upon.
High speed rail will function as an "organic machine" in California. It will change the surrounding environment, whether that environment is a Peninsula city, a Central Valley grassland, or the banks of the Los Angeles River. And it won't have been the first - compared to the urbanization of California, the agriculturalization of the Central Valley, the building of the first railroads and freeways, high speed rail is really just an upgrade of the existing machine to make it more environmentally friendly and more effective.
And it can serve as an "organic machine" along the Los Angeles River. It can reconnect neighborhoods to the river depending on how the tracks are built. It can help produce a cleaner river, a cleaner sky, and a more sustainable use of the river's watershed. Lizare and Reyes want to see HSR as some kind of invader. It's not. It's instead a way to reconnect human uses of land, just as it is in Palo Alto.
Ultimately what all this shows is that in building HSR, we aren't battling "NIMBYs." We're battling an obsolete model of California. The key dividing line is whether people see a train as a valuable part of the future, or an unwanted relic of the past. Palo Alto residents who design tunnels for HSR are embracing the possibilities of HSR, whereas those who sue to kill the project just don't seem to want trains around at all - including Caltrain, which their HSR denial is putting in jeopardy.
There are ways to revitalize the LA River and build HSR at the same time - and in the same place. Let's hope that residents and lawmakers prefer to embrace a 21st century vision of high speed rail as an organic machine, instead of the 20th century vision of trains as an undesirable and somewhat embarrassing reminder of a past they have rejected, for a present that has totally failed the vast majority of Californians.
UPDATE: Thanks to Rafael, have a look at the CHSRA's Taylor Yard simulation video, produced by NC3D. It shows that in both the Metrolink and San Fernando Road alignments the tracks would be trenched, and there would be two "lids" connecting the Cypress Park neighborhood to the Rio de Los Angeles State Park and riverfront. To see a good example of a "lid", look at the Mercer Island Lid, built over Interstate 90 on Mercer Island, Washington in 1993. The park is a very popular location in one of the Seattle metro's wealthiest communities and does an effective job of providing green space connectivity over a major transportation corridor.
Assuming CHSRA is able to construct the trench-and-lid model shown in the video, the complaints offered in the LA Times are much ado about nothing.