Chinatown residents are fighting to stop former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt from building an aerial gondola just 40 feet above their homes.
On Thursday night, Chinatown residents turned out to an LA Metro hearing to voice their concerns about a controversial transit project: a 1.2-mile aerial gondola connecting Union Station and Dodger Stadium.
“At first we heard the news about this proposal, and we were like: This is the proposal that’s being made for Chinatown?” said Katie Wang, an organizer with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development. “We hear lots of different kinds of projects coming in, but this one almost felt the most outrageous.”
The $300 million private project, officially called LA ART (Aerial Rapid Transit), was proposed by Frank McCourt, the former Dodgers owner who drove the franchise into bankruptcy in 2011. It remains unclear how LA ART will be funded, or how much of the price tag will be passed onto taxpayers through Metro’s sponsorship.
LA ART, LA Metro, and McCourt Global, Inc. didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“Everybody who pays sales tax in all of LA County goes into funding Metro and its operations,” said Douglas Carstens, an attorney representing the California Endowment in litigation against the project. “But what Frank McCourt in this operation is doing is privatizing those dollars, taking public land like the rights of way over Alameda, or portions of the State Historic Park that are public property, [and] privatizing it for their own purposes.”
Thursday’s event was the last of five public hearings on LA ART’s Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), a nearly 1200-page document that’s meant to disclose all the environmental effects of the project.
But according to Carstens, “The document that’s out there right now is a sales brochure that’s providing misleading information, and not giving the full story or the full measure of impacts that will occur.”
According to the Draft EIR, the gondola would carry an estimated 6,000 Dodgers fans round-trip to the stadium and back on each game day. LA ART claims this would take 3,000 cars off the road, clearing up traffic and significantly cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
However, a UCLA analysis found that LA ART would have a less than 1% effect on traffic volume. According to their models, the number of passengers who would choose to take the gondola to the stadium is closer to 4,690, with only 1,380 using it for the return trip. Rather than wait in line after the game, most fans would be more likely to call an Uber or take the Dodger Stadium Express — the free shuttle bus to Union Station that already exists.
If there’s already a shuttle bus connecting Dodger Stadium to Union Station, why, one might ask, do we need a $300 million gondola soaring over the parks and residences of Chinatown?
While the Dodger Stadium Express bus only runs on game days, the Draft EIR suggests that LA ART could provide “daily service between 6:00am to 12:00am,” even on days when there are no events at the stadium or the nearby Los Angeles State Historic Park.
But that raises another question: Why would large numbers of people need to go to Dodger Stadium when there’s no event happening?
“There’s a driving force behind this project, which is development of the Dodger Stadium parking lots and what’s called the Next 50 plan, and that is not even mentioned in the EIR document,” explained Carstens.
In 2008, McCourt proposed a renovation plan called “Next 50” that would turn Dodger Stadium’s vast parking lots into an urban center, complete with restaurants and retail stores. The project was jettisoned the next year, according to court filings. But McCourt still owns 50% of the stadium’s parking lots — and stands to benefit from any project that would draw visitors to the property.
“Frank McCourt wants to build a giant complex up on the Dodger Stadium parking lot. It’s not a secret,” said Phyllis Ling with Stop the Gondola. “If he has a permanent transit stop, that would give him incentives to build a bigger and bigger and bigger development there.”
Nearby residents worry that the theoretical development-cum-tourist-trap would drive gentrification and push out the local community. The gondola alone would already require LA ART to buy up land around Chinatown for towers and passenger stations.
“A big concern is the flow of people and traffic in Chinatown that will not support small mom and pop businesses, that I could see really not causing a positive effect on our housing market either,” said Wang. “We’ve seen how things like art galleries and other kinds of shifts also caused rent to rise.”
The gondola would also affect the quality of life for the community. Beyond the eyesore of the 200-foot towers running cables over residential neighborhoods and public parks, the Draft EIR states that the project would have “significant and unavoidable impacts” regarding noise and vibration in the area.
“They’re not unavoidable. They can be avoided by just saying no to the gondola or choosing an environmentally superior alternative,” Carstens pointed out.
There are currently only two cities in the United States with commuter gondola systems: New York City’s Roosevelt Island Tramway and the Portland Aerial Tram. The latter, which runs over a residential district, drew similar criticism from locals, even before its budget ballooned to nearly four times the initial estimate during construction.
Some homeowners filed lawsuits against the city of Portland, claiming the tram violated their airspace rights. Eventually, the city offered to buy out properties under the route at market value.
Despite LA ART’s massive impact on the community living just a few dozen feet under it, Chinatown residents organized with Stop the Gondola say they haven’t been given any meaningful input in the project.
The public hearing on Thursday felt more like a science fair, with informational posters about the Draft EIR set up along the perimeter of the Cathedral High School gymnasium. Rather than allowing community members to speak, those who wished to give public comment were handed a written form and ushered behind a curtain to fill it out.
“They destroy the unity of the people that are opposed to the project by making you just fill out a written comment. They don’t want to see the community united,” said Hugo Garcia, an organizer with Save Elephant Hill in neighboring El Sereno. “So what we’re doing about it is turning it into our own … and having a conference right here, without their permission.”
Twenty minutes into the hearing, members of the Stop the Gondola coalition commandeered the gymnasium with a microphone and an barrage of posters and banners. For the next hour, community members took turns voicing their concerns while Metro representatives and a handful of LA ART supporters stood timidly at the side of the room.
“This is not a public service. This is part of building an infrastructure so that Dodger Stadium can continue building its commercial resources, and so that Chinatown is continually gentrified by these big developers buying up these buildings,” said Gabe, an Elysian Park resident.
Security officers eventually forced the anti-gondola protesters to leave after they overturned a few poster boards.
Although this was the final public hearing on the Draft EIR, the fight to stop LA ART is far from over. “Elected officials could come in and say, we already can tell that this project is not worth pursuing, we’ll just put a stop to it right now,” said Carstens.
The Draft EIR mentioned several possible alternatives to the gondola, such as expanding the existing Dodger Stadium Express service — a commonsense solution that’s more in line with the community’s needs.
“If you live in Chinatown, if you live somewhere else where there’s working class folks who aren’t getting their needs met, continue to speak up for those things,” Wang said. “Because there’s always going to be interests that are gonna fight for stuff that you probably don’t need.”
Disclosure: Knock LA is a project of Ground Game LA, which opposes the gondola project and has received funding from The California Endowment.