A typical morning for Frank Cardenas includes mapping out his commute to Koreatown from Boyle Heights. Although Cardenas has been a frequent commuter since 2008, he was forced to change his route in 2020 when Metro shut down its Little Tokyo station as part of an ongoing project to reconfigure its downtown train system.
“They had to cut off the Gold line to do the Regional Connector,” said Cardenas, who like hundreds of Eastside commuters on the Gold Line was forced to jump into a shuttle bus to travel between the Aliso Pico station in Boyle Heights and Union Station.
“It was unreliable and I had to take the 18 [bus line], which added 30 to 40 minutes to my commute”, the Boyle Heights resident said.
The temporary nightmare ended for commuters in June, when Los Angeles County’s transit agency finally opened the Regional Connector project, which created three new downtown stations – including a replacement for Little Tokyo.
“It’s been a great thing,” said Cardenas. “Going into downtown you used to need to take the 18 all through Whittier, it would probably take you 45 minutes to an hour to get there. Now with the new [E] line, you can get to Little Tokyo in 15 minutes – a huge difference.”
Lasting 10 years and costing over $1 billion dollars, construction of the Metro Regional Connector may have caused some instability for its lifelong riders, but the agency hopes that the 1.9 newly added miles of track will help the average rider save about 20 minutes per ride.
As part of the reconfiguration, the former Gold Line was replaced by two new lines – the A-line running between Azuza and Long Beach, and the E-line between East Los Angeles and Santa Monica – that connect at Little Tokyo. The reconfiguration eliminates the need for Eastside commuters to travel to Union Station to connect to the Red (now B) and Purple (D) lines – faster transfers can now be made at the 7th Street/Metro Center station.
The system reconfiguration also meant the alteration or elimination of bus line service, including the 30 and 720 lines that no longer run through East Los Angeles or Boyle Heights.
“For so many years during the project, you couldn’t [connect communities], you didn’t have a direct line,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor and Metro board member Hilda Solís, who attended an opening celebration in June. “Now you can take a one-seat ride from East LA all the way to Santa Monica – who’s not going to want to do that, right? But more importantly, [we’re] going to be able to share our neighborhoods”.
But that idea of “sharing neighborhoods” scares some Eastside residents who foresee an inevitable gentrification of the area.
Martin Alcaraz Jr. is a Ph.D. student who commutes to UCLA regularly. The East Side resident grew up using public transportation to get around in the city.
“It was so hard as a kid growing up going from the east to west side because when your parents are working, there’s no car availability, only the trains and buses and it was a hassle having to transfer out all the time”, said Alcaraz.
“[Now] these [East and West side] communities are becoming available via transit,” he added. “And that’s great, I love that, but that’s going to increase the cost of living [in the Eastside] and only transfers [from other parts of the city] would be able to afford that.”
“It makes it easier for more [residents of more] affluent parts of the city to come into the Eastside,” agreed Cardenas. “But it goes hand in hand, because we can’t cut off bus service or train service to this side. You have a lot of people, including myself, that work on the Westside of LA and we need to get to those parts of town.”
Already, the effects of gentrification accelerated by the new metro station are being felt in Little Tokyo, where the owners of legacy Japanese restaurant Suehiro Cafe announced this spring that they were being evicted from their location on First Street and forced to move to another downtown location.
In a column for the Los Angeles Times in May, Frank Shyong wrote that “it is becoming clear that rail development’s biggest benefits so far are for property owners, not historic communities and small businesses that rent their spaces.”
Metro said that it has allotted $3.3 million from its Business Interruption Fund to 56 small and local shops around the Little Tokyo and Historic Broadway Stations, and helps promote these businesses (and others along its construction sites) through the Eat Shop Play marketing program.
In July, Metro eliminated its daily, weekly and monthly passes and introduced a fare-capping system by which most riders max out at a $5 daily cap. And to address issues of safety onboard the trains, in May the agency rolled out 300 Metro Ambassadors spread out through stations and stops, intended to help users “navigate our system, provide extra eyes and ears on our buses and trains, and support riders who need assistance.” [See Metro riders express concerns over safety measures on buses and trains]
But for some Eastside riders like Cardenas, Metro expansion is “a double-edged sword type of situation.”
Earlier this month Xelas, a popular craft beer bar on First Street announced it was being forced out of its location steps away from the Mariachi Plaza station.
“Due to differences with our landlord, we have made the difficult decision not to renew our lease at 1846 1/2 E 1st St.,” the owners wrote on their Instagram page. “It’s important for us to be transparent with you about this decision, as our relationship with the landlord has posed challenges that no longer align with our mission to create a space of unity and celebration.”
While it’s unclear if the displacement of Xelas is directly related to Metro expansion, Cardenas fears that the perceived increase in property value brought on by gentrification may forever change Boyle Heights.
“They’ll see something like Mariachi Plaza and they may want to develop that area,” he said. “Then they start raising rents, and I do see why people can be very hesitant about that [Metro expansion] and I am too as well.”
“We do not want to displace the communities like East LA and Boyle Heights that are what they are because of community”.