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Downtown LA residents to vote on tax to fund streetcar

People walk by the L.A. Live entertainment complex, which includes the Staples Center and Nokia Theater, on September 19, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
People walk by the L.A. Live entertainment complex, which includes the Staples Center and Nokia Theater, on September 19, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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This weekend marks the last opportunity for residents in downtown Los Angeles to vote on a special property tax.  It would fund construction of a four-mile electric streetcar in their neighborhood. Backers say it would be a boon for residents and businesses.

KPCC's Frank Stoltze says the detractors claim the tax is unfair, and that the benefits of a streetcar are overblown. 

If the streetcar happens, it will run for 10 blocks down Broadway Street in Downtown Los Angeles. It would definitely be a convenient way to transport downtown dwellers throughout the day and night, but does the area near Staples Center really need a streetcar?  Naturally, Shiraz Tangri, general counsel and spokesperson for LA Streetcar Inc., says yes.  

"I'm up on Bunker Hill, I'm in City Hall from time to time, I'm in South Park, I'm on Broadway and a lot of the time I'm doing it by car because there's not a good circulation system right now," said Tangri. For four years, Tangri has led the charge for an electric streetcar as a way to enhance downtown's revival.  

"The idea of a streetcar is exciting because it gets you from point A to point B without having to think about parking," said Jessica Lowenstein, a downtown property manager. "With my daughter here next to me it makes it a little easier to travel with her." 

Lowenstein and 10,000 registered voters in a new Community Facilities District created by the City Council are voting on a property tax to raise up to $85 million for the $125-million project. Backers hope the feds will kick in the rest.

L.A. used to have a network of electric streetcars, but they were taken out in the 1960s to make way for freeways. Bringing streetcars back to downtown gained steam a few years ago when Councilman Jose Huizar started his Bring Back Broadway Initiative to revive what was once a thriving commercial and theater district.  The longest stretch of the proposed streetcar would run 10 blocks down Broadway.  Huizar's point person on the streetcar is .

"While the streetcar is a very large part of bringing back Broadway, the streetcar is far broader than just Broadway," said Jessica Wethington-McLean, Huizar's point-person on the streetcar initiative. "It serves many, many different neighborhoods downtown."  

Wethington-McLean cites a study commissioned by supporters that says the streetcar would bring a billion dollars in new investment over 30 years, and create 9,000 jobs. However, there are plenty of people against the idea, who doubt the fiscal benefits of the streetcar.

"They're overselling this when they talk about development dollars. I mean, that's nonsense," said Jim Thomas, CEO of Thomas Properties Group. With three million square feet, Thomas is one of the largest property owners downtown. He's upset that only area residents — not commercial property owners — can vote on the property tax.

"This is very aggravating to us, because we don't have any representation but they want to impose this tax on us," said Thomas. 

The tax is based on the amount of land you own within three blocks of the streetcar line. For example, a skyscraper would pay the same as a parking lot if both sit on 10,000 square feet. 

Thomas Properties would pay about $40,000 a year, according to streetcar officials, which is higher than most. The median tax  for condo owners would be just $60 annually.  AEG, owner of Staples and LA Live, would pay the most - $550,000.  Despite what seems like a large amount of money,  AEG has been a big supporter. 

"What the streetcar's vision is, is the ability to make all of downtown connected once and for all," said AEG President Tim Leiweke a year ago. In addition, the electric streetcar could help AEG meet public transportation and carbon emission requirements for its proposed football stadium, according to Wethington-McLean of Councilman Huizar's office.

"As part of the community benefits package and the development agreement that was developed for the stadium, the streetcar was actually identified as a first priority project for purchase of carbon credits, if AEG needs to purchase them," said Wethington-McLean

The streetcar would run past Staples on Figueroa, cut over to Hill, go up to City Hall, then back down Broadway.  Streetcar officials predict 6,000 riders a day. It's not certain, but the city likely would operate it with a subsidy of several million dollars needed. The developer of the incoming ACE Hotel on Broadway, John Blanchard, says it's worth it.

"Great for hotel guests to go from our hotel to L.A. Live to enjoy a Lakers game or a Clipper game or a show and obviously go up to the financial district for a meeting and come back down," said Blanchard.

The property tax needs a two-thirds vote to pass. Streetcar officials concede that's a tall order, and if the tax fails, the streetcar comes to a screeching halt.