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Solimar Research

Subway Controversy Offers Beverly Hills A Lesson In Planning

Josh Stephens on
Dec 15, 2010

As its location suggests, Beverly Hills High School enjoys its share of amenities: a gym that converts to an indoor pool; a planetarium; a professional-quality theater. But, like most high schools, it does not have a class in urban planning or transportation. Now that the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority has proposed extending the Purple Line subway under school grounds, Beverly High is getting a few lessons.

On its way from downtown Los Angeles to Westwood, the alignment that would pass under the high school would lead to a station in the middle of Century City, a location that Metro planners favor for its centrality. A less expensive alternative would follow Santa Monica Boulevard but arrive at a station that some contend would be less convenient for commuters. The debate over these two alignments has brought out an array of concerned citizens. Some of them express informed, nuanced opinions about cost, walkability, and local control. Others fear for high schoolers' lives.

The latest voice to pick up the children's crusade is Lisa Korbatov, the incoming president of the Beverly Hills Unified School District Board of Education. Incongruously, Korbatov said that her "first priority" as board president would be "fighting the MTA's plan to possibly tunnel under the high school." 

"If the tunnel is built under the high school," Korbatov told the Beverly Hills Patch last week, "there will be interruptions in education from noise, pollution, traffic and other factors, and both the quality of our education and our property values will suffer."

As if all that weren't enough, she nearly invites nefarious forces to marshal against Beverly Hills: "I am also very worried about the high school being the subject of a terrorist attack. Terrorists have bombed subway lines in Madrid and London. Our high school, with its reputation as having affluent and Jewish students, would make a good target." (I'm sure she didn't really mean to say "good.")

If this world hasn't figured out how to get along with itself in the 20 years that it will take for the subway to reach Beverly Hills, then we have a lot more to worry about than a subway route. Moreover, they would have to be some very patient terrorists who would wait that long rather than pack a van full of explosives and drive it on to campus tomorrow. I don't mean to scare anyone -- I just mean to point out the absurdity of stoking unnecessary fears. 

Where's steely-eyed Dylan McKay when we need him?

As for those "other factors," presumably they include everything from underground vibrations to the possibility that the tunnel could collapse and swallow the school whole. If this comes to pass, it would be, as far as I know, the first such instance of a subway with such a large appetite for teenagers. But this gruesome, if incredibly unlikely, prospect must be what Korbatov means when she says, "everything I do will be for naught if there are subway tunnels under the high school." In other words, the mere presence of the subway could obliterate every new hire, every tough budget decision, every ounce of learning, every essay, every math problem, every drama production, every athletic contest, every eager freshman, and every proud graduate. Little will the straphangers of the 2030s know of the havoc they are causing up on the surface.  

Good planning is supposed to be built on research and, whenever possible, on data and valid analysis. Plenty of that is right there in Metro's draft EIR/EIS. These methods have their limits, but planners have reasonably effective, though not foolproof, tools to quantify the danger posed by a subway. And they have other tools to determine the relative efficacy and cost effectiveness of one alignment over another.


I don't actually have a position on the subway alignment, but I do have a position on the uphill battles that planners have to fight despite, or perhaps because of, these quantitative methods. For better or worse, planning has embraced metrics and objective measurements of everything from walkability to regional planning (see CP&DR Vol. 25, No. 14 July 2010). The principles that planners learn everywhere from Harvard and MIT to UCLA and Cal Poly somehow go out the window when they are pit against an emotional public figure like Korbatov -- someone at the heart of this country's education crisis -- and the public at large. So passion, not planning, still rules the day.

And yet, one of the very purposes of education is the containment of passion. We gain ideas and analytical methods from books and teachers so that we are not always held captive by our own whims. 

Korbatov did not respond to repeated interview requests, so neither I nor her constituents may ever know the basis of her concerns. But in her published statements she cites no data, no studies, and no statistics. She does not even present discursive arguments to support her doomsday claims.

For a few years, I taught high school and coached debate not far from Beverly Hills High. As an educator, I know what grade I would have given to a student who presented an incendiary, hyperbolic argument with no research or analysis to back it up. But we all deserve a re-write now and again. So I hope opponents of the high school alignment come out with more measured arguments to explain their opposition to the proposed alignment -- if not for the gratification of planners and the elevation of public discourse, then at least to set an example for the very students whom they hope to save.

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