This history is the basis for a primary contention of the letter to HUD. Federal regulations require any development of the area to include an effort to find and preserve, if possible, remnants of the Zanja Madre, according to the environmental coalition, which is spearheaded by Friends of the Los Angeles River.
The civil rights premise is another key component of the coalition’s argument. It focuses on the evolving arena of environmental-justice law, which federal officials have sanctioned during the Clinton administration. A 1994 executive order stipulates that "each federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission" by addressing the "effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations."
The proposed Cornfields development violates this principle because "Chinatown has not a single park, and no middle school or high school. Use of this land for industrial purposes forecloses important opportunities. A mixed-use alternative that includes a park and schools, on the other hand, would do much to correct this historical disparity in commitment of public resources to the Chinatown community," notes the letter to HUD. The letter makes a similar argument regarding the Mead housing complex on the other side of the Cornfields.
"We’re using the civil rights law to influence the planning process before a project is started," said Robert Garcia, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, which co-signed the letter to HUD. "We’re not waiting to file a lawsuit down the road, after the project has been approved and started." He added, "To my knowledge, there is no shortage of warehouses in downtown Los Angeles."
Environmentalists and their community allies clearly see a higher and better use of the land — as an integral puzzle piece in their efforts to convert the L.A. River from a cement-lined flood-control ditch to a tourist and recreational attraction rivaling the revived riverfronts of other major cities. In the schema, the Cornfields property would once again link a natural river basin — with appropriate flood controls — to the city center.
"This is a critical location," said architect Doug Suisman, who chairs the design advisory panel of the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission. "It’s the best place to connect the river from the Valley and northeast Los Angeles into downtown. If there was ever a site whose development merited careful consideration, this is it."
In their letter, the environmental attorneys have asked HUD to pressure city officials to require a full environmental-impact report from the developer. Majestic’s John Hunter characterizes the move as a delaying tactic: "We would be forced to extend the project by a year or two, and forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to find out what we already know today."
Such a delay won’t necessarily bring environmentalists any closer to realizing their rival vision for the Cornfields. That’s why they’re placing great hope in a March bond issue that could provide funds for purchasing river-adjacent lands from private owners. They’d also like to keep the Brownfields money, but apply it to a proposal other than Majestic’s.
Hunter says the dreamers are dreaming if they think something better is going to come along for the Cornfields: "If our project fails, that property is going to sit there as a blighted railroad property for another 10 years."
Critics worry that if Majestic succeeds, its warehouses will stand as a physical impediment to a riverside revival for another 50 years.