Mass Transit: The Crucial Ingredient in the Recipe for a Boomtown

How a single light-rail stop transformed a sleepy L.A. suburb into a vibrant, buzzing business hub.

September 22, 2017

The Expo line travels between Culver City and downtown Los Angeles

Jarrett M/Flickr

When I first moved from New York to Los Angeles, I lived in a nondescript corner of the city formed by the intersection of two of Southern California’s biggest freeways, the 405 and the 10. Across a wide boulevard near our bungalow was the small, independent municipality of Culver City. In New York I had grown accustomed to the many pleasures of living in dense and walkable neighborhoods, so naturally I was excited to check out Culver City’s downtown, the area immediately adjacent to Sony Pictures Studios. I imagined it to be a buzzing hive of restaurants, bars, shops, theaters, and other diversions befitting any downtown—especially one right next door to a place where actors, producers, and entertainment executives spent their days.

In reality, downtown Culver City—aside from the tidy, modest homes lining its residential streets and the formidably walled-off movie studio itself—was a ghost town. Its sidewalks were empty and unwelcoming; no one was walking anywhere, alone or in a group, much less window-shopping or dining alfresco. The few shops, restaurants, or other businesses that opened onto the street felt utilitarian or perfunctory. This downtown wasn’t a destination for anyone, not even for the people who lived nearby. I, for one, certainly saw no reason to walk over the busy boulevard again.

That was in 1998.

Fast-forward to today, and that same stretch of downtown Culver City would be unrecognizable to anyone who once disappointedly walked along its main thoroughfare. In 2012, as part of Los Angeles County’s expansion of its Metro system, the Culver City light-rail station opened for business—and with it, you might say, downtown Culver City dramatically opened up, too. Even before the station arrived, businesses, restaurateurs, and retailers had begun moving to the area and reshaping it, in anticipation of the new stop and the riders that it would bring.

The ripple effects have been nothing short of astounding. In the past 10 years, downtown Culver City has become one of Los Angeles County’s newest and most dynamic creative hubs, on par with Hollywood to its north or (much swankier) Santa Monica to its west. Employers in creative fields such as tech, film, and design have flocked here, leading to a familiar symbiosis in which commercial development geared toward the area’s throngs of new daily visitors—including a disproportionately high number of millennial workers—increases in order to accommodate them all. That increase, in turn, draws more employers and workers to the area.

This is actually a common pattern: In many cities, all it takes is the promise of a new transit stop to spur billions of dollars in new investment and increase property values. What happened in Culver City has also taken place in Charlotte, Portland, Minneapolis, and Seattle, among other cities.

Nearly everywhere it pops up, and assuming it’s done right, transit-oriented development (TOD) brings the same set of salutary effects. Mixed-use development that incorporates retail, office space, and residential space and is located within half a mile of public transportation stimulates economically depressed communities, whose microeconomies tend to grow and flourish. Property values rise. If affordable housing is part of the equation (and it should be, always), middle-income and working-class citizens have the new choices and opportunities that come with living in a neighborhood marked by new housing stock, better services and amenities, and easier access to workplaces. TOD’s most thoughtful iterations also incorporate parks, trails, and bike infrastructure, features that encourage healthier and more active lifestyles.

And let’s not forget the environmental perks realized whenever people opt to take public transportation instead of clogging up our streets and highways with their personal vehicles. At the local level, the benefits come in the form of reduced smog and air pollution; globally, there is a reduction of carbon emissions, the kind that lead inexorably to climate change. And make no mistake, TOD—again, when done right—increases ridership on public transportation. One landmark study showed that 52.5 percent of Californians who moved to a home within half a mile of a rail station switched from driving to work every day to taking mass transit. When given the choice, and when it’s made easy for them, most people will happily trade a slow and frustrating commute in the car for a quick trip on the train.

So now, nearly 20 years after I first walked down Washington Boulevard in downtown Culver City and wondered where in the hell everybody was, comes word that a brand-new, $300 million mixed-use development project is going up on the very spot where I once stood, scratching my head and pining for a vibrant community within walking distance. The Ivy Station complex is just one of nine projects representing more than a billion dollars of investment in the blocks immediately surrounding the light-rail station. By late 2019, thousands of workers, Culver City residents, cyclists, bus riders, and any of the 64,000 daily passengers on Metro’s Expo line between downtown L.A. and Santa Monica could enjoy 200 apartments, a hotel, a 200,000-square-foot office building, an enclosed bike station (with on-site bike mechanic), dozens of new restaurants and shops, and a centrally located park and performance space, among other amenities. You can drive there, if you must; this is Los Angeles, after all. But the whole idea is to make driving there an option, not a requirement.

None of what’s taken place in downtown Culver City would have been possible without publicly supported mass transit to lead the way. I’ll be back in my old stomping ground soon enough. And when I return, I’ll be bringing my whole family with me. We’ll take the train. We’ll make a day of it. And my kids won’t believe me when I tell them how the place used to look.


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