The MTA As Stealth Development Agency

The 'Subway to the Sea' project in Los Angeles isn't just about transportation- it also opens up a world of development opportunity, say architects Ernesto Vasquez, AIA and Jeff Mayer, AIA of MVE & Partners.

With the passage of Measure R in November, the voters of Los Angeles County determined to set aside $40 billion for mass transit, including that longest-simmering of metropolitan infrastructure dreams, the "Subway to the Sea."

The route and station stops for the Subway to the Sea have yet to be determined, although the front-running plans are westward extensions from either the Wilshire-Western subway stop, underneath Wilshire Boulevard to the sea, or from the Hollywood-Highland stop, tunneling west below Santa Monica Boulevard.

The Subway to the Sea will no doubt become one of the most memorable mass transit projects of the era-and yet it is also something much larger: A once-ever opportunity to responsibly boost and channel real estate development through the Westside, creating a connected, less-congested and breathing city. The Subway to the Sea has the potential to be not only tunnel and trains, but rather a necklace of urban jewels, known more prosaically as 'transportation-oriented developments,' or TODs.

Though thought of as a transit agency, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA) - builder of the Subway to the Sea - is actually the region's stealth developmentagency, much more powerful than any other entity that bears such a title. Unlike other development agencies in name, the MTA can not only determine subway stop locations, but then can strongly encourage large-scale real estate development on and around subway stops-which is exactly where future construction should take place.

Scarcely known to the public, or even local urban planners, is the fact that the MTA has the power of eminent domain, in addition to its legal authorization to buy land. Indeed, not only does the MTA obtain land for subway stops, it must buy surrounding parcels for 'staging areas,' so that the heavy work of building underground can proceed. These staging areas become surplus when the subway stops are finished, creating a perfect opportunity for dense, omni-use development. The MTA, in fact, has already proceeded down this very course by undertaking 'joint development' on MTA subway properties, most notably the huge Hollywood/Highland mall - the star-crossed yet still catalytic and successful development in the revitalized Tinseltown - and also at its Hollywood and Vine stop.

The Hollywood and Highland mall, featuring a subway entrance and the Kodak Theatre.
The Hollywood and Highland mall, featuring a subway entrance and the Kodak Theatre.

The exciting reality is that the MTA must do more of the same on the Subway to the Sea, but on an even larger and more sophisticated scale. In assembling land parcels for the project, the MTA might do well to overshoot, and buy more rather than less. Then, working in concert with private developers to better assure market validation, the MTA should move forward with dense, mixed-use TODs, creating lively, breathing, vital 'urban villages' or 'mini-cities' around each stop.

Ideally, such subway neighborhoods should be somewhat self-sufficient to encourage walking-having such amenities as grocery stores, dentist offices, paseos and libraries-but also be inviting to surrounding streets. National design competitions should be held for each subway neighborhood, to help assure that evocative or iconic architecture rules the day. It is liberating to consider that among its many strengths, Los Angeles has a complete lack of suffocating context-any architectural style could fit in West Los Angeles, from Streamline Moderne to Tuscan. Imagine a string of subway neighborhoods, each remarkable for its beauty, vitality and functionality. What is truly remarkable is that with the passage of Measure R, such a vision is not so utopian as practical, possible and necessary.

Subway neighborhoods would not only provide homes for the inevitable growth in Los Angeles' population, they can also relatively reduce traffic-the greater the number of subway neighborhoods, the greater the chance a resident can become a commuter who rides the subway to work, a reveler who visits nightspots in the evening by the tube, or a parent who takes the family to the beach by rail come Sunday.

With the Subway to the Sea, we can make Los Angeles a better city to live in, reduce congestion and pollution, and help preserve and enhance property values. It is a time for bold visions.

Ernesto Vasquez, AIA, Vice President and Partner of MVE & Partners, believes that smart and beautiful architecture improves the urban environment and provides transcendent experiences for metropolitan denizens. Among many other projects, Vasquez designed Fruitvale Village, a transit-oriented development on a BART stop in Northern California. Vasquez holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree, with honors, from the College of Architecture and Environmental Design (CAED) at California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, where he is a member of the CAED, and has served on the President's Council.

Jeff Mayer, principal of Irvine-based MVE & Partners, is also the current Chair of the Orange County District Council of the Urban Land Institute (ULI). Mayer is widely recognized for more than 30 years of accomplishments in the architectural field, including master planning, strategic planning, feasibility analysis, entitlement planning, interiors, entertainment design and and "edutainment" architecture. Mayer earned a Bachelor of Science in Planning and Landscape Architecture from the University of Virginia and completed graduate work at the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania.



stealth development

I agree the opportunities are great for the MTA to bring substantial change to the way the L.A.'s urban corridors redevelop. However, MTA should be wary of the potential pitfalls of such a strategy. The RTD in Denver has encountered a vocal opposition to using its eminent domain powers to purchase land occupied by small businesses and residences, just to turn around and sell or lease the land to private development. How the public sees such measures can be critical to whether or not such strategies are accepted by the community, regardless of the great value that planners envision.


The end of this article sounds to me like a planner on crack. Are we seriously totting LA's promise as a planning utopia of numerous subway stop neighborhoods!?

I agree that the LACMTA's power of eminent domain is great tool to have as a planner and more importantly as a transportation agency; however can we get out of the "amazing TOD" for a minute and remember that people have to live there and might not want the LA version of a mixed-use Long Island strip mall.
We all agree that LA needs more pedestrian development, and walking among other things is good for ones health and well-being esp. among the smog of LA... but seriously what ever happened to having an "the economic engine TOD" here and there, and working on actually planning communities where smaller shops and ambiances like people and neighbors interact on a level where they actually know each others names? We need to improve transit,yes; but placing changing landscapes of "any architectural style from Streamline Moderne to Tuscan" in does not exactly spell out tradition and consistency.
Building subway stops also cost ALOT of money, and literally banking on an area without having a established reason for people to WANT to go there seems to be something that planners are not yet grasping...leading to media-hyped development areas of less than expected results and angry stakeholders.

I felt like I was reading a cheap advertisement, rather than an informative planning article.

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