Atlantic Cities

Beverly Hills's Juicy NIMBY Battle Goes to the Polls Today

There's an election in Los Angeles County today, which puts the political spotlight on America's juiciest NIMBY controversy: the path of a new $6.3 billion subway line beneath Beverly Hills High School.

The vulnerable official, on this day, is Beverly Hills Mayor William Brien. Is he leading a small town's effort to sue a federal agency and stand up for its rights? Or is he, in the words of Vice Mayor John Mirisch, an individual "for whom party loyalty trumps all else," whose contradictory conduct constitutes "a slap in the face" to the 90210?

In this famously posh enclave west of Hollywood, the tunnel under the school has been cast in apocalyptic terms. In April, the local parent-teacher association released a five-minute video suggesting that the Metropolitan Transit Authority was on the verge "of turning the school into a mega-disaster." Shots of the historic, white-walled high school explode into towering fireballs of methane gas.

The rest of the world does not seem so concerned. Study [PDF] after study [PDF] have confirmed the safety of the route. Unpaid consultants with the U.S. Geological Survey have also backed the tunnel. The Los Angeles Times called the city's opposition "embarrassing."

Today's election could shift the conversation. Brien, whose position as mayor is derived from his council seat, is in a field of six candidates vying for three seats. A mayoral primary in neighboring Los Angeles could also lead to policy changes.

The city of Beverly Hills and the school district have already sued Metro, and last month they filed suit against the Federal Transit Administration. A judge could force a rewrite of the subway's environmental impact analysis, ultimately resulting in a change to the route. Beverly Hills has also retained Exponent, the disaster analysis firm, whose report calls for further study of the two proposed routes [PDF].

But Brien was hesitant to join Vice Mayor John Mirisch in backing the city's lawsuit against Metro. The L.A. Times, in the same breath as shaming the subway route opponents, praised Brien's maneuvering on the subway issue, saying he had sought to avoid a costly fight. The Beverly Hills Courier calls Brien's contribution "weak, late and half-hearted." Mirisch, by contrast, had a star role in the doomsday video from last spring.

Worse still, as his City Council colleagues attested to the Courier, Brien actually joined L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at the "groundbreaking" for the Westside Extension -- "self-congratulatory publicity stunt," per Mirisch -- which is currently projected to run beneath Beverly Hills High. There, Brien called the new subway line a "tremendous" project "so dearly needed for so many people."

Could that be the same man at the helm of a municipal government suing to delay its construction?

Let's put that mystery to the voters of Beverly Hills.

Top image: Flickr/rauladefez.

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

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