Will Streetcars Invade California?

 

Streetcars are the hottest thing in the downtown revitalization business these days. They’re in operation in Portland and Seattle and in planning and construction stage in places like Washington, D.C., Oklahoma City, Cincinnati, Fort Lauderdale and Kansas City. And don’t worry – California will get its share of streetcars as well, especially Southern California. The Downtown Los Angeles streetcar appears all but certain to be open by around 2016, and three Orange County cities – Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Fullerton – are exploring the idea.

At last week’s New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Kansas City, one of L.A.’s leading streetcar advocates – Shiraz Tangri, a lawyer for Alston & Bird and the general counsel for LA Streetcar Inc. – laid out the game plan for how the downtown streetcar will be built. A critical piece of the puzzle was put into place last fall, when downtown voters approved a Mello-Roos District to help finance the streetcar. It’s one of the few cases in California history that a Mello has been successfully adopted in an urban location – which, all by itself, may be a harbinger of things to come.

At first glance, streetcars would not seem to have much of a place in the 21st Century. These self-propelled single-car vehicles are much slower even than light-rail trains and they typically run in the street with regular traffic. Yet they’re catching on all over the country as a more efficient downtown circulator than the typical bus or shuttle – and one that will generate new real estate development along the way.

That’s clearly what’s happened in Portland, where the streetcar connects downtown with the hopping Pearl District and with the South Waterfront, where it connects to an aerial tram to Oregon Health Sciences University, which is located atop a nearby hill. Other cities are trying to replicate the Portland story. Virtually all streetcar projects seek to connect disparate destinations in or near downtowns. They’re all starting with only a few miles of service and compared to other rail transit investments they’re cheap -- $100 million or so on average.

But, as Tangri pointed out in his presentation in Kansas City, no city in the country is better poised to use the streetcar well than L.A. “It’s a history project and an identity project,” he said of the L.A. streetcar. “We should be the most pedestrian-friendly city in the world. We have a great climate. It is incredibly dense.”

Downtown Los Angeles is already experiencing an amazing renaissance. The opening of the Staples Center in 1999 and the city’s pathbreaking adaptive reuse ordinance shortly thereafter kickstarted a rejuvenation that has increased downtown’s population from 10,000 to 50,000. Downtown is the hub of a burgeoning regional transit system that is likely to double in size over the next decade, thanks largely to Measure R. 

Even so, as Tangri pointed out in his Kansas City talk, Downtown L.A. is big – it’s a long way from Staples to the hip lofts east of City Hall – and it can be tough to get around. Furthermore, some parts of Downtown have not shared in the rebirth. For example, along Broadway – once Downtown’s premiere shopping street – the upper floors of 12-story buildings remain mostly empty even as neighborhoods all around have new life. (Tangri says there is 1 million square feet of vacant space on Broadway.) Indeed, Broadway is the focal point of the streetcar project; Councilmember Jose Huizar has assigned the same staff member to be the point person for both the streetcar and Broadway.

Like so many other streetcar projects around the country, the L.A. project is being put together entirely outside the traditional public transit structure. (L.A. Metro is supportive but has nothing to do with the project.) And as Tangri and others often point out, when business leaders promote – and pay for – a transit project, it’s going to have different a completely different goal: economic development rather than mobility. “We talk a lot about transit-oriented development,” he said, “But this is development-oriented transit.”

Though some cities around the country are relying on state and federal funds to help pay for their projects, L.A. – like other cities, including Kansas City – is relying almost entirely on what amounts to a parcel tax.  Among other things, the Mello is levied as a gradient – those close to the line pay more. And, as Tangri and other streetcar experts frequently say, you’ve got to link those places that are hot in the real estate market with those that aren’t. It’s a way of extending the hot market to new locations.

The Mello-Roos victory last November is an especially interesting and important aspect of the L.A. streetcar effort. Originally a Proposition 13 workaround, Mellos have traditionally been used only in greenfield locations because they require two-thirds voter approval. In areas with few voters, the vote is among property owners only, which means developers and local governments have typically negotiated an infrastructure finance deal and than the developer (often the sole landowner) votes the Mello district into existence. Cities have usually stayed away from urban Mellos because they fear voters won’t go for the extra tax.

In Downtown L.A., though, all those new hipsters helped the cause. Whereas many property owners may have been reluctant to tax themselves for the streetcar, the new downtown residents – the voters – were more than willing deliver the two-thirds vote for the additional tax, which of course falls in the property owners and not – at least not directly – on those residents who are renters. The streetcar vote could flip traditional California thinking about urban Mellos on its head.

Tangri said the streetcar should begin construction next year and open in 2016. This is a similar timetable for many other streetcar projects around the country.