In September 2010, Metro released a draft environmental study with a surprise: the announcement of the Constellation station "option." The next month, on Oct. 28, Beverly Hills community leaders stormed a Metro meeting, telling Villaraigosa, Yaroslavsky and other Metro board members that the idea of tunneling under Beverly Hills High School was unacceptable.
"We do not want the subway to run under our high school," Beverly Hills City Councilwoman Nancy Krasne told Metro board members.
Since then, school board president Korbatov says, Metro staffers and board members have only shown heightened interest in the Constellation option. "It really troubles me," Korbatov says, "and it troubles my colleagues. They're telling us, 'Wait, wait, the process isn't done yet, we haven't decided yet.' But it seems they have."
Villaraigosa, in particular, is publicly "promoting it. They appear to have made up their minds, but they just haven't formalized it," she says.
The exchange of words has grown ugly. Korbatov says neither Yaroslavsky, who represents Beverly Hills, nor Villaraigosa has visited the high school campus, although invitations were extended to both. Yaroslavsky, in turn, criticizes Beverly Hills Unified, saying, "It's been very difficult in dealing with the [Beverly Hills] school district, because they won't give anyone their development plans."
But David Mieger, the Westside Subway project director, says Yaroslavsky's claim is not true. Beverly Hills Unified made a "good-faith effort to dig through their files and give us whatever they've got." Korbatov calls Yaroslavsky a liar, saying his statement is "uncategorically, 100 percent false."
Yaroslavsky also snaps that a comment made by Korbatov several months ago, that subways are prime targets for terrorists, is "just absurd." He belittles the plan to build subterranean parking at the school, declaring, "I don't think anybody is going to spend money to build an underground garage."
Yaroslavsky has taken no public position on where to place the Century City subway route, but he uses the talking points promoted by Century City boosters. "Any 6-year-old can you tell you where the center of a circle is," he says, and Constellation Boulevard is that "center," while Santa Monica Boulevard is not.
Yaroslavsky even came up with his own slogan: "The center of the center."
Huffs Korbatov: "Zev is very much for the 'center of the center' — their version of it."
For his part, Villaraigosa's spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton says the "mayor has not yet taken a position, as there is currently not enough information available."
But that's not true.
Villaraigosa three months ago made his position clear, publicly embracing the station on Constellation Boulevard at an April 7 Century City breakfast sponsored by the Century City Chamber of Commerce, military contractor Northrop Grumman, the Pollack PR Marketing Group and others.
In a YouTube video produced by Mike Carlin's Century City News and featured on the Chamber of Commerce's website, Villaraigosa busily works the room with a wireless microphone and says, "I think you all know that I'm on record that [the subway station] needs to be right here in the heart of Century City!"
Villaraigosa triumphantly thrusts an arm in the air, while Century City's elite applaud. Someone lets out a whoop. They all understand: The mayor has just publicly backed the route to Constellation Boulevard desired by JMB and the other developers.
Since Villaraigosa is chairman of the Metro board of directors, his cheerleading for people who have showered him with political money is seen as unseemly.
"The mayor is certainly entitled to his opinion," says Bob Stern, president of the L.A.–based Center for Governmental Studies. "At the same time, he listens to [Century City developers] more closely than to me, who hasn't contributed $300,000."
Other politicians are more careful than Villaraigosa. California State Assemblyman Mike Feuer says he hasn't taken a position because "it would be inappropriate to champion one route or another until the analysis has been completed." A spokesperson for Rep. Henry Waxman tells the Weekly the congressman wants to "see the final report of the geotechnical and other studies" before deciding.
Meara, the senior VP at JMB Realty, tells the Weekly that Constellation Boulevard is the best place to put a subway station because of larger civic needs. He doesn't mention that it will stop almost directly beneath a JMB skyscraper. He says JMB's heavy contributions to Villaraigosa are solely because "the mayor puts a priority on things that we're supportive of: education, the environment and the business health of Los Angeles."
Century City booster Susan Bursk is confident that Metro's final environmental impact statement and report (EIS/EIR) later this year will unveil new findings that make a strong case for Constellation. But such predictions make outside experts uneasy about the influence being brought to bear on Metro employees who are writing up the EIS/EIR.
Tom Rubin, an Oakland-based mass transit consultant and former chief financial officer of the Southern California Rapid Transit District now known as Metro, says, "It would be a very, very brave CEO of a transit agency to tell the board they are wrong. That's not something you see very often."
He warns: "Government transportation doesn't have anything to do with what's best for transportation, especially at Metro."
Later this year, Metro's 13 board members — including Yaroslavsky, Villaraigosa and his three appointees, Mel Wilson, Richard Katz and Jose Huizar — will approve the final route for the Westside Subway. The former Subway to the Sea will run from Vermont Avenue nine miles west, ending at the VA Hospital near the 405 in Westwood. If the Metro board of directors selects the Constellation route, how they reached that decision likely will come under scrutiny.
"Carmageddon," the July 16-17 closure of the 405 in Los Angeles, focused attention on how fears of a lawsuit by local residents can force Caltrans and Metro to back down. Caltrans and Metro surprised residents along the 405 early this year with a cheaper "alternative" plan for replacing Mulholland bridge that threw out an earlier design. Locals fought back. To avoid a potential years-long delay of the 405 widening project, Caltrans and Metro returned to the original plan.
The parallels to the war between Century City and Beverly Hills are plain.
Metro is in a situation where they're pretty darn sure there's a legal challenge coming," says Rubin, the outside consultant. Metro will be "very careful" not to appear as if it slanted the findings to satisfy the desires of politicians or their friends.
Hollywood developer Jerry Schneiderman, who hammered Metro throughout the 1990s for its numerous mishaps and scandals including the collapse of Hollywood Boulevard during subway construction, says Beverly Hills officials could make life a nightmare for Metro — especially, he quips, if they hire him as a consultant.
In 1994, when he was president of the Hollywood Property Owners Association, Schneiderman recalls, Metro officials threatened to bankrupt him if he ever filed a lawsuit against the Red Line subway. So, "I decided I would bankrupt them first."
When a giant sinkhole collapsed Hollywood Boulevard, Schneiderman made Metro's life miserable. He hired a law firm that sought damages for numerous businesses on Hollywood Boulevard, and he and mass-transit watchdog John Walsh frequently made headlines attacking the costly boondoggle. The sinkhole, lawsuits, negative news coverage and other events helped boost Metro's annual insurance rate for the Red Line from $16 million in 1994 to $61 million in 1998, Schneiderman says.
"We did so much damage to [Metro's] reputation," he says, "that any politician looked silly supporting it." He says its federal funding plummeted between 1994 and 1998 — and many credited the Hollywood activists in part.
That year, Yaroslavsky authored a ballot measure that banned the use of county sales tax money for further subway tunneling, and voters effectively killed new subways in L.A. Ten years later, in 2008, voters changed their minds and approved Measure R, the half-cent countywide sales tax that will gradually pour $30 billion into the Westside Subway and other transportation projects across L.A. County.
Land-use attorney Robert P. Silverstein, who is battling Metro in a dispute over the Gold Line, says Beverly Hills Unified could challenge the validity of Metro's final EIR, a move that could soak up nearly two years and probably would delay construction of the Westside Subway. A judge can order the agency to re-study the issue and write another EIR — which can add another year of delay. If Beverly Hills officials don't like that revised EIR, they can sue again.
School district officials also could sue Metro for damages. "If Metro takes the land," explains Silverstein, a graduate of Beverly Hills High School who is not involved in the dispute, "Beverly Hills Unified probably can't build underneath the campus. That damages your property value."
The idea that it's crucial to move the subway stop two blocks, to the foot of Century City's skyscrapers, is seen by some as a symbol of L.A.'s leadership woes. "If this was New York, London, or Paris," says mass transit expert Wendell Cox, "that argument would be laughable."
In a room at the Century City offices of Sitrick and Company, Beverly Hills School Board president Lisa Korbatov is flanked by two PR consultants and an engineering expert. The district has approved $500,000 for legal, lobbying and consulting fees to fight the subway tunnel under Beverly Hills High School. Of that war chest, $350,000 came from the district's bond measure aimed, in part, at modernizing the high school built in the 1920s.
Korbatov is not happy about these expenditures, thinking the money would be better spent on students and facilities. "To make a little school district fight for their existence on this — to me, it's unconscionable what they're forcing us to do."
Cox says Beverly Hills officials have a good argument for sticking with their battle. The data show that neither proposed station will outdo the other, with Santa Monica attracting slightly more riders than Constellation. The possible lawsuits and delays attendant to tunneling underneath a high school campus can be avoided if Metro board members choose the Santa Monica station. Yet no elected official on the federal, state or local level is hinting at support for the Santa Monica subway stop.
"You can avoid the downsides," Cox says. Or you can roll the dice.
Century City News publisher Carlin, who's also a member of the Century City Chamber of Commerce, doesn't want to hear such talk. "Let's take care of Los Angeles for a change," Carlin says. "Beverly Hills is always taken care of."
Korbatov says she hopes "people aren't doing things on a handshake or backroom deals. I hope they put the public's needs first. But I'm realistic as well."
If Metro board members approve the Constellation station this fall or winter, they'll likely follow their frequent behavior after taking a big vote: They'll announce that a "historic day" has come to Los Angeles. The more likely reality is that the Beverly Hills versus Century City showdown has only just begun.