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“The only thing they’ve been using this property for in the last few years,” McCarthy says, “is for practicing truck driving.” (And, a couple of times, a rodeo, which brought the city not a single dollar.)
A while back, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy drew up plans for a park here, but the city of Compton had bigger plans: a mammoth “commercial power center” of shopping and housing opportunities that would bring much-needed cash into the long-struggling city. Last fall, the city published an environmental study in anticipation of the new complex, called Gateway Towne Center, which the Costa Mesa–based Prism Realty plans to build by the end of 2006. The study, which was commissioned, circulated and ratified before McCarthy, Alamillo or Kenefick knew it existed, described the lot as “covered over with impervious surfaces” with “no natural drainage or riparian areas.”
“They basically said there were no biological resources whatsoever here,” Alamillo says. “But that’s just not what we’re looking at.”
The mall is a popular project in Compton. “It’s extremely important to us,” Joe Lim, director of planning and development for the city of Compton, told me over the phone. “It has the potential to bring significant sales and property tax to the city, which we are in great need of.” To voice any opposition to it verges on blasphemy. Compton, a city of 96,000 with a poverty rate over 25 percent, has just begun to emerge from a legacy of citywide corruption under the reign of Mayor Bradley, and a near half-century of blight that can be traced back to the 1965 Watts Riots — after which middle-class whites and blacks both fled, and, in McCarthy’s words, “the world turned its back on Compton.” The people who have been working toward its renaissance, people like Lim and City Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux, are in no mood to entertain fantasies of quaint urban habitats. “You can’t stop progress,” Arceneaux told me. “We want this mall.”
Of course, to the advocates of open space who saw in Compton Creek the glimmer of a rare urban park within sight of water, the mall is a potential disaster. It’s not so much that the mall will be built — no one would dare oppose it completely — but that the mall is set to be built without any attention to the creek. Instead of incorporating the creek into its design, the way developers have for malls in other cities — San Diego’s Market Creek Plaza and Portland’s South Waterfront development, for example — Prism’s mall will have a concrete loading dock abutting the creek, architecturally snubbing it as wasteland that deserves no special favors, squandering any opportunity for green space or a strip of park along its east bank. Ironically, the design relegates the creek to the same indignity that Arceneaux herself has been fighting against for nearly a decade: the community’s trash ditch.
“Every year we pull out 10 tons of
trash,” says Meredith McCarthy.
When you live in a city long famous for its murder rates, gang violence and hardcore rap, a city with a per capita income just under $12,000 — half that of the city of Los Angeles — and an unemployment rate pushing 11 percent, it’s hard to imagine how a heron soaring above you on your morning walk can improve your life. You want jobs, schools, clean streets and an effective police force. And you don’t want a pack of outsider environmentalists marching in to tell you how to run your city.
This is why McCarthy, Alamillo and Kenefick, who each sit on the Compton Creek Task Force chaired by Arceneaux, don’t want to stop the mall; they simply want the blueprint altered to maximize the site’s natural features, a strategy they say would not only serve the community’s interest in recreation and open space, but bode better for the developer’s long-term economic prospects.
“You have this parcel of virgin land,” says Alamillo. “And you have the opportunity to make it something that will serve the community. We’re not talking about stopping the development. We’re talking about something to benefit the community, not something just built for tax-based planning.”
“The plan they have now is just like all the other malls close by,” says Kenefick, who is tall and thin and dresses khaki-and-denim conservative, despite the fact that he commutes almost everywhere by bicycle. He describes the Watershed Council as a forum where diverse interests, from Southern California Edison to city planners, can come together around watershed issues, and he tends to present those issues not as problems that demand resolution but as unrealized potential. “There is an opportunity here to turn existing conditions of the site into something that doesn’t rob you of a sense of place, like so much stuff that’s been built in the last 60 years,” Kenefick says. “You could go there and plug into the fact that, yes, a creek comes through here, and this site is unique, and this site is connected, and by going there you can have an experience with your family and your planet. It’s a more sophisticated idea to actually build a mall that takes in some kind of context of the community around it.”