By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A plan to save a historic site near the Los Angeles River from industrial development failed last week. Mayor Richard Riordan‘s newly appointed Central Area Planning Commission, meeting for only the second time since the new City Charter created it, voted 4-1 in favor of a 32-acre warehouse-and-factory project in the deserted and polluted Cornfields railroad yard, the last expanse of open space east of Chinatown. The River Station Industrial Park could rise beside a new Blue Line station in 2002.
“The Area Planning Commission has failed its first test,” said Lewis MacAdams, head of Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), who along with Robert Garcia of the Environmental Defense, attorney Joel Reynolds, architect Arthur Golding and some Chinatown business and civic leaders, want the site developed along the lines of San Antonio’s attractive River Walk and urban miracles in Memphis, New Orleans and New York City.
Members of the ad hoc Chinatown Yards Alliance came to the hearing with a “conceptual master plan,” as Golding described it, but no source of state funding. The drawing included a lake, parkland, retail outlets, a middle school and housing that would serve as a gateway to upriver trails and bikeways.
Chi Mui, California state Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco‘s senior field deputy, admitted that Golding’s pen-and-ink drawing -- based on a weekend workshop and several meetings, Golding said -- “is just a concept,” not a funded, buildable plan. Mui, who is part of the coalition but represents Chinatown‘s interests more than those of FoLAR, wants at least a piece of the property for a park or a Chinatown middle or high school, which the community sorely needs. This week, it looked like he might get the park.
Arrayed against the Cornfields coalition are some of the city’s most powerful people -- Ed Roski Jr., owner of Staples Center and a friend of Mayor Richard Riordan, George Mihlsten of Latham & Watkins (represented at the hearing by William Delvac, a top City Hall lobbyist) and Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo, an attorney formerly ensconced at O‘Melveny & Myers, another of the city’s most powerful law firms.
Ironically, as a private attorney, Riordan bought the Southern Pacific rights of way for the Blue Line on behalf of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission. Now, as mayor, Riordan is watching former clients, the city and the MTA put together a deal that promises 1,000 jobs.
In a 30-minute interview, Roski said his associates at Majestic Realty, vice presidents John Semcken and John Hunter, have each taken 20 percent stakes in the property, and that a recent departure from Roski‘s Majestic Realty, lawyer David Steele, is taking his 10 percent with him as he returns to work for Philip Anschutz. “Anschutz has nothing to do with this,” Roski said. The Denver billionaire was Roski’s partner with Jerry Buss in the $113 million buyout of the Los Angeles Kings hockey franchise and construction of the $200 million Staples Center. (Anschutz bought a small Rocky Mountain railroad in the ‘80s, leveraged it to buy the ailing Southern Pacific in 1988, and merged it with Union Pacific in 1996. He had a vision of his own for the Southern Pacific -- to use its 18,000 miles of track as a bed for fiber-optic cable. The Cornfields now has S.P. Telecom fiber optics owned by Anschutz buried underground, while his original idea blossomed into Southern Pacific Railroad International, or SPRINT.)
The Cornfields is a 47-acre, string bean--shaped property that runs between Broadway to the west and North Spring Street to the east. A tiny section overlooks the Los Angeles River at the property’s north end. Only a pack of wild dogs and a single homeless man were on the site during a recent tour. Chinatown sits on a bluff, north of Sunset and west of Broadway, where a steep hillside falls toward the property and an industrial area to the east.
Cleaning up the contaminated site is possible. Golding says a cautious sentence in a letter from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control offers hope: “Based on the material provided, it does appear that the site could be utilized as a park, once remediation activities were performed.”
MacAdams believes that the Cornfields site can be cleaned for less than $1 million -- far less than the $11.7 million in federal grants and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) loans Roski and partners will get with the city‘s help to clean the site if their $18.5 million offer for the property gets through escrow. The developers hope to attract food processors, garment manufacturers and the like, and to build four warehouses.
“It is not a warehouse project,” Roski said. He explained that his plans are for a number of light manufacturing facilities and four modestly sized warehouses of 40,000 to 50,000 square feet with 30-foot ceilings, all styled with “a classic brick facade with clean lines” after the old brick railway station that stood on the site for a hundred years.
The original irrigation ditch -- the Zanja Madre, or “mother ditch” -- connecting the city to the Los Angeles River once ran through and irrigated the Cornfields property, and now a 5-foot segment of it, uncovered in February by two amateur archaeologists, is visible at the southern end of the expanse, but is not in the project site. Majestic has agreed to preserve any remnants of the circular brick pipeline that carried water to thirsty Angeleno from 1781 to the advent of the railroad yards in 1913, when most of it was destroyed.