MyFigueroa! Needs a Hero as Livable Streets Villains Line Up Against City’s First Cycletracks

Listening to yesterday’s City Council Planning and Land Use Committee over the phone, it felt as though I was listening to a parody of a hearing. What should have been a major moment for the MyFigueroa! project, the city’s most important bicycle and pedestrian project on the books. turned into an almost baffling show of city government at its worst.

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The end result was that the City Council committee requested staff return “in 30 days” with a report answering some questions they’ve already answered many times and to examine streets outside the project area to see if there could be cycletracks put on them. They were supposed to decide whether or not to advance a challenge to the environmental documents prepared by City Planning or a motion by Councilmember Curren Price which requires a new traffic study for the corridor.

As I said. It was baffling.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. My Figueroa! was supposed to be a legacy project for both Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his successor. The first separated bike lanes in the city. The first truly complete street. It was supposed to be a wonderful unifying moment for the city and a proud moment for the leaders that made it happen. As recently as last week, it was the centerpiece of the “new” Los Angeles that the city bragged about when seeking partnerships on bicycle projects.

But instead of a wonderful unifying moment, we got a muddled meeting and a sad replay of the old argument about car culture and the need to preserve street space for the private automobile.

In short, yesterday’s meeting was something of a comedy of errors: There was no leadership shown from the City Council Members present, with the possible exception of Councilmember Gil Cedillo helpfully suggesting that the project could move into his district. Staff seemed unprepared for some of the hardest questions, even as the General Manager of City Planning hung out in the back of the room while his staff was getting grilled. While staff from the Mayor’s Office was present, they didn’t take to the podium to speak for the administration.

The Councilmember representing the area, Curren Price, seems to want the project to be built, the $30 million to be spent in his district and no traffic lanes to go away. Accomplishing all three of these things is, unfortunately, not possible.

A lawyer for Darryl Holter’s Shammas Automotive Group suggested a bunch of other streets  (for example Hope and Olive, on the other side of the freeway) that should be studied instead of Figueroa Street for dedicated bike lanes that would be in Curren Price’s district. The owner of these car dealerships is still pretending he supports this project, even as he fights to overturn the environmental documents and threatens a lawsuit.

The lawyer’s suggestion was taken seriously, even though anyone who’s followed this project closely knows that former Councilmember Jan Perry asked for the same study to happen.  The result was that the lack of connectivity between the suggested streets and streets on the west side of the I-110 made them outside the project area. That is, there is no funding on the table to do a MyFigueroa! style road treatment to these streets, even if it were a good idea.

Besides, the grant that paid for the planning and would pay for the implementation is entitled, “Linking South Los Angeles to Downtown: Figueroa Corridor.” It’s unlikely bike lanes on Spring Street would somehow meet the requirements of the grant.

If that’s not enough, the LACBC explains from a planning perspective why MyFigueroa! is the street that makes the most sense for the city’s first true cycletracks.

To top if all off, the Film and Television Industry even showed up to complain that with separated bike lanes they wouldn’t be able to park film trucks on the side of the street anymore.

Will it be?

That’s not to say the meeting wasn’t filled with advocates for safe streets, for cycletracks, for better pedestrian crossings. The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, Community Health Councils, Trust South L.A., USC Bicycle Coalition, Los Angeles Walks and other community groups all put out the word and packed the room. An overwhelming majority of speakers were in favor of the project. It was truly a show of the people v the powerful.

And while the result was a head scratcher, all the Planning and Land Use Committee truly did was buy itself some time. Thirty days from now, there will still be a road diet on the table, a rich guitar-playing automobile dealership owner and the Film and Television Industry will still be opposed to it, and safety advocates and residents will still show up in number to support it.

The only difference will probably be whether or not Councilmember Price or Mayor Eric Garcetti come out strongly for or against the project. Even if they do, the decision to move Price’s motion to study the project further or Holter’s appeal will still rest with Chairman Jose Huizar and Councilmembers Mitch Englander and Gil Cedillo.

My favorite memory of the City Council Transportation Committee came in 2010 when Jaime De La Vega, then the Deputy Mayor for Transportation, rescued the Measure R local return “set-aside” for bicycle and pedestrian projects when Councilmembers Bernard Parks nearly derailed it in the name of being a budgetary watchdog. De La Vega wasn’t scheduled to appear that day, he was just listening to the meeting on the Internet, heard what was happening, and intervened on behalf of the administration.

Anyone hoping for a re-run yesterday was disappointed.

Mayor Garcetti made a flowery speech on the importance of thinking about the environment when building out the city earlier in the day. But his staff wasn’t there to come to the rescue of MyFigueroa! later in the day.  Price is caught in a tough situation. As the LACBC noted in their coverage of the meeting, the new Councilmember is caught between a desire to see this legacy project happen and some of the most powerful interests in his district opposed,

But, nobody said leadership is easy. That’s why these people were elected…to show leadership.

Meanwhile, we still await word on whether or not funding for the project expires at the end of the year. The original grant stipulated that funds had to be spent before 2015, but a new state law created extensions for some projects for a number of reasons, including the dissolution of the state-sponsored Community Redevelopment Agencies. The CRA-LA funded the MyFigueroa! project, but project staff confirmed they have yet to receive official word that MyFigueroa! qualifies for the extension.

Time will tell what the Council decides to do. The clock is ticking.