Almost 50 years since the last Pacific Electric Red Car trolley left the San Fernando Valley bound for downtown, the Metro Transit Authority (MTA) confirmed recently that it is beginning a long-planned project to restore and reopen the historic North Hollywood train depot at the corner of Lankershim Boulevard and Chandler Boulevard.
The depot and the Red Car trolleys, along with the Southern Pacific Railroad, which also used the depot, were crucial components in transforming the area from a rural community at the turn of the 19th century to a bustling urban center by the end of World War II.
"It really was probably the most important thing that led to the growth of the whole area," said Guy Weddington-McCreary, a local historian and businessman whose family first came to North Hollywood — then called Toluca — in the 1880s.
See our related story: History of the 119-Year-Old North Hollywood Train Depot Explored
The MTA has owned the property since 1990, and in 2000 announced plans to fix up the depot and turn the Valley's oldest unmodified train station into a museum. But the depot sat undeveloped for the last 12 years surrounded by a fence as modern MTA projects sprung up all around it within a block, including the North Hollywood Metro Orange Line Station. It has been named a protected historic cultural monument by the city of Los Angeles, which means it would have to be restored or moved if the MTA were to develop the property.
The refurbishing of the depot will have two or three phases. Phase one, which is set to begin on March 16, will include asbestos removal, selective demolition, shoring, stabilization and materials abatement, according to the MTA's website. The contract was awarded to Miller Environmental, which estimated the project to cost $264,326, about $200,000 lower than MTA estimated. The project should take no more than 80 days to complete, according to Dave Sotero, a spokesperson for the MTA.
What ultimate purpose the depot will serve has not yet been determined, Sotero said, as the MTA is still taking contractor bids and ideas.
According to Weddington-McCreary, who is head of the Save Lankershim Train Depot Committee, a group that has been fighting for years to make sure the depot is preserved, many different ideas have been considered since 2000.
"At one time it was going to be a restaurant, that fell through. Then it was going to be — a small part of it — a (Los Angeles County) sheriff's station, and also have a historical area, but the MTA said they were going to take it over and sell tickets and all kinds of administration with the MTA," Weddington-McCreary said. "I personally didn't care for that, but hey, if it was going to keep it from being torn down, which there was a threat off and on that it could happen, it's better to have something there that we could protect."
Casey Hallenbeck, who worked for 12 years to restore and reopen Phil's Diner in NoHo, is preparing a bid to redevelop the depot and was given $3,500 by the Midtown NoHo Neighborhood Council in November to hire a computer artist to create an interactive 3-D computer model of his vision.
In December, Hallenbeck announced he had to close the diner after 8 months, saying the cost of developing the project and a 10-year delay in the finding him the land racked up a level of debt that was too much to overcome by the time the diner actually opened. The closing of Phil's taught Hallenbeck a lesson, he said, in that while he thoroughly enjoyed restoring the diner, actually running it was not as enjoyable. In the future, he said, he hopes to focus his passion on restoration of historic buildings, not operating them, and has outlined a bold vision for the depot. He said he plans on submitting a bid once the MTA officially announces it is taking them.
Hallenbeck is critical of the MTA's process of beginning the restoration of the depot without a clear end in sight.
"The bid process on the depot has been pulled back twice. After restoring Phil's Diner I understand what is constructed in the beginning affects the cost at the end. They are not thinking this way, which is wasteful with our public funds," Hallenbeck said. "Time is of the essence, for it will be going out to bid a third time with another incomplete plan."
Hallenbeck said he bid on the phase one abatement and cleanup project for the depot, and is critical of the MTA awarding it to Miller Environmental for $200,000 less than what the estimated cost was.
"To me, that is sketchy," Hallenbeck said. "It was at least $200,000 under the next bid."
Previous bids for the full restoration of the depot called for a budget of $3 million to $3.5 million, Hallenbeck said, and he is developing a plan that falls in that range. His vision for the depot would include two historic train cars displayed by the Orange Empire Train Museum, including either an original or replica Red Car trolley. It would also include a visitor center, MTA ticket center, a food vendor, a produce stand, a gift store and a magazine stand. He also said he is working with the Museum of the San Fernando Valley to operate a historical museum at the depot as part of the plan.
However, Hallenbeck said he feels his vision and plans for a bid are not being taken seriously by the MTA. Richard Hilton of the Museum of the San Fernando Valley hopes the MTA does start taking him seriously and supports his vision for the depot.
"The Museum of the San Fernando Valley supports its immediate restoration and revitalization. Casey Hallenbeck, the owner and restorer of the iconic Phil's Diner on Lankershim Boulevard, has been working steadily on potential plans for the depot's adaptive re-use and has wonderful ideas which include both retail and historic components for the building," Hilton said. "...We would also add the idea of adding a park in front of the building on the east, which was present during the teens prior to the widening of Lankershim Boulevard. It would be a very enticing addition and historically accurate. The Museum would encourage the City to use Mr. Hallenbeck's creative ideas and talents in commencing restoration directly. Every year, the cost of such restoration increases and a mere functional use for the building would not uplift the community, nor bus and subway commuters in a comprehensive way."
Hilton gives a frequent walking tour of the NoHo Arts District, which includes the depot.
Weddington-McCreary is also critical of the MTA's delay in starting the project. He and others with the depot committee were interviewed for a major story by the Los Angeles Times in 2005 after a contractor that had bid on the project was unable to move forward.
"It's just gone up and down and been tossed in circles," Weddington-McCreary said. "We had it all set to go in '04, but then whoever they chose didn't have the money, and he backed out of the thing. So that's the kind of problems that we've had. Too cheap, is what they did. Instead of picking someone that could do it, they picked someone that really couldn't afford to do it. It's been very frustrating."
Weddington-McCreary said he hopes the end result will feature some type of historical museum.
"What a beautiful deal, being right across the street from the new subway station, to bring students in and show them this is what it used to be like for 100 years," he said.
The MTA owns much of the land surrounding the depot, and had planned a $1 billion development, the NoHo Art Wave, which was to feature 562 housing units, three office towers, 1.72 million square feet of retail, a new YMCA community building and 6,200 parking spaces over 15.5 acres. It was to be the biggest transit project in the history of Los Angeles, but has been stalled since 2008. Sotero said the refurbishing of the depot was not connected to the NoHo Art Wave project.
Editor's Note: Special thanks to Terry Guy for letting us post his great historical photos from his Flickr page.