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Valley neighborhoods brace for more density around future transit stations

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Attitudes about density and transit are changing—just in time

The Orange Line’s station in Van Nuys.
EMBARQ Brasil via Flickr creative commons

A five-story apartment complex might draw serious ire in some density-averse Los Angeles neighborhoods. Not so in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.

The Van Nuys Neighborhood Council is endorsing such a project on Van Nuys Boulevard, between Sherman Way and Vanowen. Councilmembers and residents expressed excitement at a meeting January 10 for a 170-unit apartment complex planned in that area, on the site of an auto-repair outfit on the neighborhood’s main drag, just a few blocks from a future transit station.

“I think you’ll find we’re pretty friendly to housing in Van Nuys, especially looking forward,” councilmember Jason Ackerman told Curbed after the meeting.

Looking forward means imagining Van Nuys after Metro has built multiple high-capacity transit lines through the neighborhood. You might not know it by looking at the sprawling, low-rise neighborhood today, but Van Nuys is on the verge of becoming an important transit hub for Los Angeles.

The wildly successful Orange Line already runs through the neighborhood, and voter-approved Measure M outlines two mega projects that are bound to fundamentally alter how people can traverse Van Nuys, along with the rest of the Valley and even Los Angeles.

One of those projects is the East San Fernando Valley Transit Corridor, a high capacity transit line that would run between Sylmar and the current Van Nuys Orange Line station, the same spot where the Sepulveda Pass Transit Corridor project will begin its course to south to Westwood (and later, LAX).

Also in Metro’s Valley pipeline: converting the Orange Line to light rail.

Because the Valley is finally going get the mass transit it deserves, Los Angeles city planners are drafting new transit-oriented neighborhood plans for several Valley neighborhoods. The plans will eventually guide dense development near high-frequency transit lines.

East Valley light rail rendering
A rendering of what a light rail transit station at Van Nuys and Victory—part of the East San Fernando Valley Transit Corridor—would look like.
Via Metro

For now, that means the Orange Line. Over the next year, transit-oriented plans will be drafted for areas around five Orange Line stations in North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Sepulveda, Reseda, and the Sherman Way station in Canoga Park.

These plans will zero in on the areas within about a 15-minute walk of the selected transit stations, considered to be the sweet spot for dense and walkable city-spaces.

Van Nuys doesn’t have its plan yet, but that didn’t stop the neighborhood council from giving its blessing to the 170-unit apartment building.

Though there are plenty of very dense pockets in several Valley neighborhoods, the Valley is, for the most part, still a low-density place.

“When you look around, the tallest building you have is maybe a three- or four-story building,” says Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian, who represents a wide swath of the Valley between Northridge and the Cahuenga Pass.

“With this high capacity corridor, you know, it’s gotta go up,” he says, referring to Van Nuys Boulevard. “That’s controversial, and it’s necessary to debate and get a feel for what everybody thinks, but, at the end of the day, it’s going to go up.”

Whatever is built, the Valley will still look and function differently than the heart of LA.

“I don’t see the Valley becoming a mini Mid-City area. It’s its own place,” says Claire Bowin, a senior city planner for the city of Los Angeles.

But it will become less suburban, especially when it comes to transportation.

Right now, she says, there’s a lot of pavement dedicated to cars on Valley streets.

“People think you need all these lanes in traffic… well you do if you’re in a car,” Bowin says. “Hopefully our Valley streets are going to be more supportive of different uses. Hopefully we’ll see protected bike lanes, streets with really great transit services, and trees to make it comfortable on hot days.”

Nazarian says retraining the Valley to accept density presents an opportunity for widespread civic discussion.

“New transportation options give us a chance to really talk about how our neighborhoods work,” he says. “At transit hubs, are you going to be providing a parking space for each unit? Will we relax parking requirements and build for people who come in with the idea that they aren’t going to be car owners? What about how you are going to change the landscape so that, within walking distance, they can get something to eat, buy a pair of socks, and get medical attention if they need it?”

That’s no small task. Nazarain says only two of LA County’s 90 rail stations—North Hollywood and Universal City—are located in the San Fernando Valley, largely because of past neighborhood opposition to public transportation.

He says attitudes have changed, that residents are much more amenable to transit and density than they have been in the past.

But there’s still the task of rebuilding the cityscape and educating residents in order to accommodate new styles of dense development.

“It means we now have to go through an expedited evolution,” Nazarian says. “But it needs to come with education, because otherwise we’re going to get a lot of fights and resistance.”