Metro’s Next Stop: Lasky-Robbins-Young Neighborhood

Metro’s purple line extension entered a new phase when tunnel boring machines began to chew their way from Century City to the future station at Wilshire & Rodeo. The route taken by these enormous rock-gobbling machines has taken them underneath Beverly Hills High School and now they are somewhere under the streets near Lasky and Robbins. Metro has secured easements under multifamily properties all along the way. For some Beverly Hills landlords it’s a Metro payday.

About the Purple Line Extension Tunnel

Metro is extending the purple line from its current terminus at Wilshire/Western to the Century City in section 2 of the the $9.3 billion project. Section 3 will take the purple line to the future station at the VA hospital in Westwood and someday this ‘subway to the sea’ which reach the beach. In the near future it will make stops in Beverly Hills at Wilshire/La Cienega and Wilshire/Rodeo. These stations open in 2023 and 2025, respectively.

Tunnel route map
The purple line route in the Lasky-Spalding area where the tunnel turns to follow Wilshire to the Rodeo station.

But first it makes an unannounced layover in the Southwest area as two boring machines make their way through 2.6 miles of bedrock between the Constellation and Rodeo stations.

Purple line tunnels run 50–75 feet underground generally but under this section of Beverly Hills they run considerably deeper — between 80 and 120 feet below ground — which provides an added margin of safety under the high school.

This Metro fact sheet describes the project. Each tunnel is 21 feet in diameter and they are spaced 16 feet apart. The tunnel portals at the Fairfax station show the scale of the effort.

Wilshire-Fairfax station tunnel tubes
The twin tunnels where they enter the Wilshire/Fairfax station box. Each tunnel is 21 feet in diameter.

Easements are are not disclosed publicly so we don’t know how many easements have been granted to Metro or what rights they confer. But Renters Alliance has viewed a Metro easement for a rental property in the Lasky-Spalding area and it put some specifics to the fact-sheet generalities that are provided to the public.

Tunnel Easements

Building a subway poses all kinds of challenges and one of them is the need to secure permission from each and every individual property owner in the path of a subway tunnel. That permission is called an easement. An easement is a non-possessory interest in real property that allows the holder of the easement to use real property even though they don’t own it. It is a very limited property right that exists only within the confines of the land described in the easement. Metro has no right to access the grantor’s property except through the easement (via a tunnel).

Easements are recorded in the deed and on parcel and assessor maps. They consist of a legal description of the land (down to the foot) to which Metro enjoys access. In actuality this easement describes a three-dimensional polyhedron section of land far below the surface. To simplify this concept, the Metro fact sheet illustrates an easement in two dimensions (i.e., in cross-section).

metro tunnel easement fact sheet illustration
Metro’s easement fact sheet shows generally how a subsurface easement is situated but it does not illustrate the three-dimensional space deeded to the tunnels.

When Metro comes calling for an easement it is a deal that a property owner literally cannot refuse! Either the agency and the landowner find voluntary agreement to accord the public-purpose easement to Metro; or Metro invokes eminent domain to take the land with fair compensation.  Parties have an incentive to agree, though, because it saves the agency time and the property owner has some certainty as to compensation.

What Does the Property Owner Give Up?

The agreement deeding Metro an easement merely allows the agency to “construct, maintain, repair, operate, replace, relocate, remove, use and occupy” the land for a tunnel to be used only for mass transit and related purposes. The property owner does not relinquish any groundwater, mineral, oil or gas rights in granting the easement.

Also in practice these tunnel easements will not limit or otherwise affect the property owners’ ability to develop the land according to the current use. The easement is located sufficiently far below the surface that it will not interfere with, for example, subterranean parking. We’ve seen the cavernous pits excavated for  parking garages. That won’t interfere with the easement?

We put that question to Ryan Gohlich, the Community Development Director for Beverly Hills. “In the multi-family areas we typically see no more than two levels of subterranean parking, and with the more recent parking reductions for density bonus projects I am starting to see most proposals with only one level of parking,” he said. Those excavation depths “aren’t anywhere close” to the location of the easement, according to Gohlich.

Additionally, the height of multifamily construction is limited by height districts. To a great extent that also dictates the parking requirement. For example, the height limit ranges from 3 stories and 33 feet to 4 stories and 45 feet in this multifamily area near the high school.

Multifamily heights map southwest Beverly Hills detail
Beverly Hills height district map.

The height limit of course limits the floor area that may be developed on a parcel. And that limit puts an effective cap on the number of units that can be constructed. And the number of units, in turn, will dictate the minimum required parking. So in low-height multifamily areas, the parking garage need not be more than two levels.

In fact the easement for the Lasky-Spalding area describes a tunnel at least 80 feet below the surface and as much as 120 feet below. Two levels of parking would not even reach a third of the way to that easement. And even if an additional floor is added (through the state and local ‘density bonus’ incentive) the parking requirement triggered by those additional units would not interfere with the easement.

What about the taller projects on Wilshire that are allowed under the city’s mixed-use ordinance? “With respect to mixed use along Wilshire, I also do not think there will be any impact,” Gohlich said. “We are seeing 3–4 parking levels on most projects, which again is well clear of the easement depths.”

Metro has covered its bases though; the easement that we viewed requires the the property owner to clear with Metro any future construction “above or adjacent” to the easement.

Metro has undoubtedly secured scores of similar tunnel easements under the multifamily properties near the high school. We don’t know because the deeds are not public information.

No Tenant Impact, Says Metro

Nextdoor discussion thread about Metro poleMetro says that purple line tunneling will not affect the property owner’s enjoyment. That is spelled out in the easement. “Based on the current project engineering studies and findings [we] do not foresee any discernible noise or vibration impacting the easement grantee’s use of property.”

While the agreement does include a clause that could provide compensation if tunneling affects the landlord, no tenant will benefit because tenants are not party to the easement agreement.

As far as we know, tenants impact is limited to this new addition to the street: a series of 10-foot poles that are topped by geotechnical instruments. They prompted some chatter on Nextdoor by Lasky-area neighbors.

Metro clarified that the purpose of the instrumentation was to “monitor ground movement and settlement” should it occur coincident with the tunneling. These instruments will move with the boring machines as they progress toward the Wilshire/La Cienega station site.

‘Harriet’ & ‘Ruth’ Make Some Headway

Harriet and Ruth tunnel boring machines
These two contestants won the naming contest for the section 2 boring machines. The winning entries: Harriet & Ruth.

In mid–2020 two boring machines (named Harriet and Ruth, respectively) were launched from the Century City/Constellation construction site. They have already passed underneath Beverly Hills High School and Metro projects they will arrive at the La Cienega station site in mid–2023.

At the current boring rate of about 70 linear feet per day, say Metro’s June newsletter, Harriet and Ruth should reach the Wilshire/Rodeo station site much sooner — perhaps by this fall.

In related news, a different set of boring machines recently broke through the La Cienega station box having completed their journey from Western Avenue. Metro also broke ground on the section 3 tunnel that will connect Century City/Constellation with the future VA hospital station. This subway thing could really happen!