Transit Expansion in LA’s Southside Sparks Hope, Concerns for Residents

West Angeles Cathedral sits in the backdrop of new construction on Metro’s Expo/Crenshaw rail line station which is set to open in 2019. The new station will feature retail shops and access to transit lines that will serve Los Angeles, Inglewood, El Segundo and portions of unincorporated Los Angeles County. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – At a hair salon on Los Angeles’ Southside, owner Mae Shaw sits in a barbershop recliner, chatting with a friend as seven-year-old Darren Rickenbacker gets his hair cut. Outside, a two-way river of traffic trickles across the bumpy street.

Pedestrians pour out of the Metro light-rail trains and convulse into a stream of people darting towards their destinations. The prominent black church West Angeles Cathedral towers over the junction as the clangor of earth-mover engines bellows from a construction site across the street.

Shaw’s shop sits in a small shopping plaza at the intersection of Exposition Boulevard and Crenshaw, steps away from a major transit hub set to open in 2019.

When the underground Expo/Crenshaw rail line station opens it will add a critical Westside transit node to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority system. The rail project, which broke ground in 2014, will provide a highly sought rail connection to LAX, one of the busiest airports in the world. It will extend south from Crenshaw and connect with the Green Line in the South Bay.

The massive transit project covers three parcels of land near the Expo and Crenshaw intersection. It’s one of 12 projects funded by Measure R, the half-cent sales tax approved by Los Angeles County voters in 2008.

Crenshaw has one of the highest concentrations of black people in Los Angeles, 71 percent in Baldwin Village/Crenshaw and 79 percent in Leimert Park, according to data analyzed by the Los Angeles Times.

In a statement, Metro said the project will provide an “alternative transportation option to congested roadways” and provide “economic development and employment opportunities.” The line will serve the cities of Los Angeles, Inglewood, El Segundo, and portions of unincorporated LA, Metro said.

Darren Rickenbacker gets his haircut at A Kut Above Hair Design in Crenshaw in South Los Angeles. His father, Damon, has been going to the shop – which serves as a community space – for 20 years. Owner Mae Shaw hopes the new Metro station opening in 2019 will bring more business and opportunities for residents. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

At the shop, Darren finished his haircut and sat down next to his father Damon Rickenbaker, who said he is excited about the future rail line.

“It would be great to get to LAX on a clean and safe transit option,” he said.

Rickenbacker, who has lived in the community area for 43 years, said he is a “progressive thinker on transit.” He hasn’t found it easy to find information about the transit project.

He said he would like Metro to demonstrate its progress to ease residents’ frustration with increasing car traffic.

“People feel out of the loop and inconvenienced,” Rickenbacker said. “We need to know there is an end in sight.”

Shaw’s business has been disrupted for long stretches of time during construction. Clients couldn’t access the shop because sidewalks were blocked. Others stayed away from Crenshaw because of traffic. Some days, the shop’s water would be cut.

Metro connected her to support that provided some financial relief funds.

“The grants helped us stay open financially but they didn’t cover everything, in terms of operation costs,” she said. “We are just trying to come back now.”

She said she has seen an increase in traffic and police visibility. There is more racial diversity, which she said she likes. She said she wants to hire people of different races to serve the changing community.

“[Racial diversity] brings people together,” she said. “It demands improvement in the community.”

Local hair salon A Kut Above Hair Design, owned by Crenshaw resident Mae Shaw, sits in a small shopping plaza next to the Crenshaw station on Metro’s Expo Line. Shaw, originally from Arkansas, has owned and operated the shop for over 22 years. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

Shaw first moved to nearby Leimert Park in the late 1950s, after political leaders in Arkansas shut down schools due to a mandate of racial integration. She didn’t mind the switch. “The California weather can’t be beat,” she said.

Shaw said she is optimistic about the project, hoping it will bring in more businesses that residents want such as grocery stores. The opening of the Expo Line station in 2012 was good for the community, she said, because it reduced some congestion initially, and offered residents a path to visit Santa Monica beach.

Both Shaw and Rickenbaker said they want to see more housing in the area.

County developers plan to build transit-oriented housing on a plot of land across from the station where the County Probation Department facility currently sits.

Down the street in Leimert Park, the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall waits to be redeveloped. The new complex that takes its place will house the Martin Luther King station on the Crenshaw Line.

But some longtime residents fear the new developments will drive up housing costs and lead to displacement. Last week, members of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, which advocates for affordable housing and robust public transit, gathered at the Crenshaw Method Church to discuss the impact of the mall redevelopment.

The organization has its roots in a campaign stretching back more than a decade against Metro. At the time, residents demanded the Crenshaw line be put underground and that a station be added at Leimert Park Village. Residents argued the community was an important cultural center for black residents of Los Angeles.

Residents won the battle.

Affordable-housing advocates in the coalition believe residents will be indirectly displaced by surging rent spurred by rising property values surrounding the new development at the mall.

Dr. Amee Chew, a researcher with advocacy organization Housing Is A Human Right, said residents of the area are at risk of being priced out if rent increases and landlords seek to capitalize on rising property values.

Chew said two-thirds of residents are renters in the 90008 zip code, which covers Crenshaw, Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills.

Coalition representative Damian Goodman told members the area is “already strained by gentrification” and said it is “one of last urban communities that is mostly black and stands as a cultural center for black people.”

Goodman said the project is not considerate of local residents struggling to afford rising rents. He said Metro, and city officials, need reframe the mall redevelopment in a way that meets the housing needs of the community.

“This is not a mall, this is housing development,” Goodman said, pointing out that the proposed redevelopment calls for 961 market-rate units.

Heavy equipment used to build the Metro line station. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

Market rate is not affordable to working class people in the community, he said. By not including enough affordable units in the proposal Goodman said the project would severely impact residents.

Goodman points to data finding black residents make up 47 percent of the city’s homelessness population, despite being only 9 percent of the overall city population.

Ramon Judkins, a local resident and coalition member, said he doesn’t believe his children will be able to purchase a home in the area even though they make three-times what he did when he bought his home in the 1950s.

The coalition is calling on city and county officials to conduct a “full health impact assessment” that considers the health and equity impacts of the project on the communities surrounding the Crenshaw Mall.

Lena Hobson, a 20-year resident of Leimert Park, said she is struggling to balance the excitement around new development and concern about neighbors being displaced.

“[Development] should be done in a thoughtful way,” Hobson said. “I want mom-and-pop shops to be included in planning so they don’t end up priced out.”

For years, Hobson has had to go to the Westside for services or to shop for things she can’t buy locally. She tried to change that by joining an effort that uplifts local businesses.

“I want to counter the mentality that we don’t have gems in Leimert Park.” she said.

Development has already had significant impact on some residents.

Weeks after construction began on the Crenshaw Line, some residents noticed large cracks in the foundation of their homes, as well their garages and fences.

Engineers from the construction contractors inspected the cracks, but approved claims were scarce. The contractor, Walsh Shea Corridor Constructors, has received 166 such claims since heavy construction began on the line in 2014.

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