Imagine a sunny Saturday afternoon. Families walking home from shul along quiet streets cross a well-worn thoroughfare, once the site of a rail system running through the neighborhood like a gentle stream, now transformed into a freeway for high-speed buses. The light changes and the families begin their journey across the street -- but not fast enough.
Suddenly, the peace of the day is shattered by an oncoming bus. A mother pushing a heavy stroller struggles to get out of the way, but there is barely time to scramble back onto the curb to avoid the oncoming vehicle.
This is the scenario at the heart of the controversy over Chandler Boulevard. For more than a decade, a battle has been building in the East San Fernando Valley that threatens to make the story of David and Goliath look like a ping-pong match. On the one side stand the neighborhoods of Valley Village and North Hollywood, on the other the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. At stake are both the future of mass transit in the San Fernando Valley and the fate of the second largest Orthodox Jewish community in Los Angeles. The two sides are at war over the possible conversion of Chandler Boulevard to a segment of the proposed East-West Transit Corridor busway.
The debate at the MTA is whether to use the median on Chandler -- once a part of the old Southern Pacific rail line, now a mess of abandoned track and weeds -- as part of the dedicated route for the high-speed busway or to continue the busway on nearby Oxnard Street mixed with traffic from other commuter vehicles. To put the busway on Oxnard would be less expensive, but it would slow down buses and increase congestion on a busy street; to put it on Chandler would mean establishing a nightmarish labyrinth of pedestrian walkways and sound walls that would physically, if not psychologically, divide a close-knit residential community.
The Transit Authority's intentions, of course, have been to solve a problem, not create one. The East-West Transit Corridor is meant to provide a badly needed alternative route for commuters between the MTA's Red Line subway station in North Hollywood and Warner Center in Woodland Hills. But the MTA might as well be building the reincarnation of the Berlin Wall as far as East Valley residents like Howard Feigenbaum are concerned.
"I'm very worried about the effects on our community," Feigenbaum said. "How are elderly people going to be able to cross the street within certain time limits? How will the kids be able to go to programs after shul? How will this busway help our community grow rather than stagnate? If this project goes through, we will not be able to enjoy the same growth of the past 30 years."
Feigenbaum's remarks echo those of many residents in the neighborhood surrounding Chandler Boulevard. The area contains a high number of pedestrians, primarily Orthodox Jews who walk to the many synagogues and religious schools lining the wide, divided road. On Saturdays, hundreds of people, many of them parents pushing strollers or holding toddlers' hands, walk to services at shuls such as Shaarey Zedek and Toras Hashem. Services are often followed in the afternoon by youth group meetings, after which children walk home in large groups sans adults.
The possibility of buses driving through here at speeds as high as 55 miles per hour and hitting one of these groups of children terrifies local parents and is at the heart of their resistance to the busway.
"I cross Chandler every day about four times, walking my child and another child to and from school," said Anne Greenfield, a local realtor and mother of five children ranging in age from four to 19. "[The MTA] has talked about putting in a pedestrian walkway, but what if you can't make it across in time? What happens when your toddler decides they want to take their shoe off in the middle [of crossing] and you're stuck?"
In addition to the Orthodox presence, the area has attracted students attending nearby Valley College as well as retirees who enjoy riding their bikes, walking or jogging to the nearby health club. These folks, too, would be adversely affected by the stream of buses coming through every few minutes, Greenfield said.
"It's not just a Jewish issue," she said. "Because of the nature of the community and the layout, we all know our neighbors. Jews and non-Jews alike, everybody is concerned about this issue."
In order to air their concerns formally, Greenfield and other residents created the Concerned Citizens Transit Coalition (CCTC), which aims to persuade lawmakers and the MTA Board of Directors to abandon Chandler Boulevard as part of the busway and seek other alternatives. Toward that end, the coalition will hold a rally on Sunday, June 17 at 10 a.m. at Shaarey Zedek, 12800 Chandler Boulevard.
The coalition has been able to draw some support from local politicians, most notably Rep. Howard Berman, who in a letter to a CCTC member noted that he knew from personal experience the unique characteristics of the neighborhood. "As one who fought hard to support and maintain a vibrant Orthodox Jewish community in North Hollywood, I am keenly aware of the disruptions that could be caused by the proposed busway," he wrote.
Shaarey Zedek's Rabbi Aron Tendler has also been a strong supporter of the Coalition. As a community leader and as a parent himself, he worries both about the dangers the busway presents and also its effect on the growth of the Jewish community. In the six years since he became leader of the congregation, the number of member families increased from 280 to 360 "with no end in sight," he said. But talk of the busway has had a chilling effect on this growth.
"People who were considering moving into the community have reconsidered," Tendler said. "We had one couple, former students of mine who live closer to Woodman Avenue, who wanted to move closer to the synagogue. They turned down what would have been their dream house and are now reconsidering where they should live. We get a lot of people visiting, [but] I've been reluctant to speak out forcefully against the busway because people who are thinking about moving to the community may not do so."
The suspense will be over soon. The MTA is slated to hold several public hearings this month and take a final vote by the end of July. During a recent interview, MTA board member and L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky declined to say in which direction he or the board is leaning -- to use Chandler or to move to an alternate route on Oxnard (which nearby residents are also organizing to protest), but said he anticipated no further delays to their decision.
"All I will say is I am determined and committed to approving a route," the supervisor said. "We're evaluating the pros and cons of both of them, serious and substantive pros and cons, but this very short segment will not and should not nullify the larger objective, which is to have a cross-Valley busway."
Yaroslavsky acknowledged that using Oxnard would actually cost taxpayers less. According to a June 2 Daily News report, what the MTA calls the Lankershim-Oxnard alternative would cost $245 million versus $285 million for the Chandler-Burbank route.
"On the other hand, Chandler is the more direct route and has a right-of-way the public has paid thousands of dollars for," Yaroslavsky said. "Even if we go down Oxnard now, that doesn't mean the MTA couldn't revisit the Chandler corridor later."
That's exactly what local residents fear most. "We suspect that eventually the MTA would like to convert the Burbank-Chandler route into a light rail system, because the original bond that the public voted on a number of years ago [Proposition A] was for a light rail system, not buses," said Tom Herman, former president of the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center who fought putting in such a rail system back in the early 1990s. "There is a real suspicion here that this is the camel's nose in the tent."
Herman said the community understands the need for mass transit and would not have the same objections to a subway system.
"The concern is that anything put in at grade-level would impact the community significantly. We would support a deep-bore subway," Herman said. "The Valley deserves the same kind of services the city gets, and it is odd to many of us that the city deserves a first-class subway system but the Valley is only considered for a light rail or bus system. There's a very basic issue of justice here, that the Valley continues to be treated like a distant cousin."
Ironically, it was Yaroslavsky who killed any possibility of a Valley subway by authoring Proposition A. The measure, which passed overwhelmingly in 1998, prevented the use of sales tax dollars to plan, design, build or operate any new subway lines once Metro Rail reached the San Fernando Valley. Valley voters approved the measure by over 65 percent.
As for the safety concerns of residents, Yaroslavsky's response was blunt. "There are things we can and will do to make things safer. This is not going to exacerbate safety problems," he said. "What's the alternative -- to have safety through gridlock? If people don't want to take a chance on getting run over, the logical extension is don't ever come out of your house. One of the best things about the busway is it's on a fixed guideway separated from traffic. That is why it is safer to put it on Chandler."
Still, the opposition maintains there must be better choices than the current ones being offered by the MTA.
"The community is very much in support of an east-west corridor," Tendler said. "The only reason the MTA is considering this is because they bought the right-of-way, not because it is the best place to put it. There are alternatives that make more sense."
The MTA will hold two public hearings to discuss the East-West Busway routes: Thurs., June 21, 5-8 p.m. at the Pierce College Campus Center, 6201 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. Tues., June 26, 5-8 p.m. at Valley College's Monarch Hall, 5800 Fulton Ave., Valley Glen. For information, contact the MTA at (213) 620-RAIL or visit its Web site at http://www.mta.net.