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
It takes a little faith to drive up to the Crystal Park Casino Hotel, on Artesia Boulevard in Compton, with the idea that you’re going to commune with nature. At 8 o’clock on a Thursday morning, the driveway in front of the casino’s big glass doors is empty of all life but an underworked valet pacing idly in front of the dingy white building. The casino itself, which is up for sale by Pinnacle Entertainment — the same outfit that recently unloaded Inglewood’s Hollywood Park Casino — has the heartbreaking look of an operation designed for a grand-scale gaudiness it couldn’t quite pull off.
I have come here to see a creek, but as I drive down into the sunken parking lot, the very notion seems ridiculous. Am I at the right place? Then I spot three people waving to me from across the lot. One of them is Meredith McCarthy, who directs coastal cleanups for Heal the Bay, the nonprofit that determines the letter grades of local beaches; she’s with her colleague, James Alamillo, and another man, Alex Kenefick, who manages the Compton Creek Watershed Plan for the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council. To read Erin Aubry Kaplan's story of Compton's struggle for change, click here. Which means that somewhere around here, among the deteriorated concrete of south Compton, there is something someone calls a creek.
McCarthy, a tall honey-blond with a sprinkling of freckles and lips like a movie star’s, moves with the enviable self-assuredness of someone with a long history of getting things done. When a security guard stops us on the way to the creek, McCarthy negotiates with an efficiency that gives him no room to doubt her rights or authority. He lets us go, and the four of us head down to a locked gate in a tall fence topped with barbed wire at the south end of a decaying empty lot. With a key, McCarthy undoes the padlock, and we walk through.
The contrast is startling. It’s as if we had stumbled upon a diorama of the Emerald City in the middle of the Nevada Test Site. Behind the fence, there is a creek. A wetland, even. A bona fide riparian marsh. There are cattails and thick, green aquatic grasses, killdeer and red-winged blackbirds. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers encased the upper stretch of the creek in concrete, but these last four miles have remained a soft-bottom corridor of green that runs all the way to the Los Angeles River on its path to the sea. While the four of us stand on the creek’s banks, a bird of impressive wingspan flies toward us, carves a turn and blithely lowers its long legs to rest on a light pole. It’s a great blue heron.
“As you can see, there’s a wide variety of wildlife and plant life around here,” says Alamillo from under a tall cloud of curly black hair. “But no one has ever done a biological assessment or even a water-quality assessment to know exactly what there is.” The periodic water samples Heal the Bay has taken from the creek reveal high levels of coliform bacteria and lead. “But those are just snapshots,” he says. “There hasn’t been any sediment sampling, and sediment is where you find the real issues. But there’s obviously a great potential here.”
Alamillo, Heal the Bay’s urban programs manager, has the inflection of a California surfer but speaks with the precision of a biologist, and it would take a cynic more hardened than I to resist his enthusiasm for this small patch of urban wild land.
“You have no idea,” he says. “People are willing to write this stuff off as ‘This is just flood control and nothing more.’ But this stretch has miraculously survived that mindset.”
Parts of the creek have already been developed for recreation; trails line about six of its eight-and-a-half miles used by cyclists on one side and horseback riders on the other (roughly four miles of trails are maintained by Los Angeles County). One of the little-known secrets of Compton is that it has its own equestrian club, with riders who come to meetings about the creek’s well-being in their purple shirts and jodhpurs.
We head back to McCarthy’s Honda Civic Hybrid and drive over a land bridge to a vacant lot on the other side of the creek from the casino, once the site of an auto mall that disintegrated in the ’90s after losing the battle with Cerritos Auto Square. Stray dogs make large circles around us as we cruise its soft-gravel surface; a rabbit darts across a makeshift road strewn with errant slabs of concrete and various lanky yellow flowers. Above us looms a large white loopy sculpture, like some strange inversion of the Encounter building at LAX, with the words “Bradley Oasis Center” in a cheery font — an unfinished monument to the city’s former mayor, Omar Bradley.
“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.”
Compton Creek has made the news just a handful of times in the last few years, mostly in connection with pollution or crime: This past winter, a woman’s body, still unidentified, was found floating in its still water, and it was along the creek’s grassy banks in June of last year that LAPD officers beat 36-year-old car-theft suspect Stanley Miller with a flashlight. Otherwise, few people know that Compton even has a creek, and almost no one who does know about it considers it more than a storm drain. To some, it’s no more than a dump: Refrigerators, sinks, toys, clothes, shoes, rusted car parts and Styrofoam containers turn up in the creek bed; used motor oil and paint thinners sometimes poison the water. In 1996, the condition of the creek got so bad that Arceneaux, who lived on the creek and “smelled it every single day,” went to Washington, D.C., to plead for help cleaning it up.
“The corps had neglected this creek,” she says. “They weren’t doing the job they were supposed to do — maintaining it as a flood-control channel for the people who live here.” The next year, the U.S. House Energy and Water Committee included $500,000 in its 1997 appropriations bill earmarked for the “Compton Creek Channel.” Soon after, the corps spent $600,000 on erecting a tall security fence to protect the creek from vandals.
Initially, Arceneaux got little media attention for her efforts. But in August of 2001, a black pit bull–Lab mix was found whimpering in the water, its back broken, possibly from a 35-foot fall from a bridge. The story made local and national news, and quickly took on mythic proportions: Reports circulated, never confirmed, that local teenagers were tossing the dogs, mostly pit bulls and pit-bull mixes, off bridges into the creek. Animal lovers, actor Ted Danson among them, were outraged. Worried parents speculated to local media that if dogs could be so cruelly discarded, children would be next.
Arceneaux admits now that she was dismayed that it took dogs to bring attention to a human health hazard. Still, she knew better than to let the moment slip by — she milked the spotlight for all it was worth. “Of course it is tragic that animals are being abused in this way,” City News Service reports her saying at the time. “However, what is even more tragic is what has led people to believe that it’s okay to throw dogs into the creek in the first place.
“It’s the fact that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers simply has not been diligent in keeping the creek clean,” she said. “The reason pranksters find it to be a perfect dumping ground for dogs is because it appears to be abandoned. No one fears being caught because it’s obvious that no maintenance is going on there.” Arceneaux stopped just short of accusing the corps of racism. “I strongly doubt you would see this kind of mess in a Beverly Hills creek,” she said. “I definitely think this is allowed to go on because we are a minority community.”
Spokespeople for the corps objected to Arceneaux’s accusations, but it still took Sheriff Lee Baca, without the imprimatur of the federal government, to organize the first cleanup of the creek at the end of that August, enlisting prison inmates for his crew. Arceneaux used the momentum to organize the first meeting of the Compton Creek Task Force that winter.
Around the same time, the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council recognized the creek as a tributary and got involved in its rehabilitation, and Heal the Bay began moving its operations inland with the understanding that healing the bay means healing the rivers that feed it. For the last three years, the organization has led twice-yearly cleanups of the creek, on Earth Day and again a few weeks after Labor Day. “Every year we pull out about 10 tons of trash,” says McCarthy.
To Arceneaux, the issues were about health and safety, not habitat or aesthetics, or even parks and open space. To this day, she talks about the creek as a flood channel that could get clogged and overflow. But from the start, the task force aimed higher, at a “regional garden park” project to beautify the creek. Many of its members, who meet the first Thursday of every month at Compton City Hall, saw a greenbelt of bike and equestrian trails, new fencing and trees, to be completed in early 2004. So far, the group has only produced a 2.3-mile bike path for cyclists from El Segundo Boulevard to Greenleaf Avenue, which opened in March of this year. “It’s moving a little slower than I would have liked,” says Arceneaux. “I have to be honest with you. I would like to have seen more by now.”
But to some people working on the task force, the cycling path has offered a little taste of what creek restoration, like fixing broken windows or cleaning trash off the streets, can do for a neighborhood. After a meeting in early July, one of the task-force members, a man named Faramarz Nabavi, of the Executive Partnership for Environmental Resources Training (ExPERT, Inc.), told me excitedly, “There have been concrete measurable improvements in this community because of improvements to the creek. There have been huge gains in terms of safety, and law enforcement, and illegal dumping.” Crime has moved away from the vicinity of the bike path, he said, and community morale is up. “We’re starting to see a place where people dumped cars and dead dogs turn into a place people care about. Kids from local schools did a tree planting on Earth Day, and it gave them a tremendous sense of ownership in the park.”
Carl Houston, of Compton’s Municipal Law Enforcement Services Department, could not confirm the crime drop, but from anecdotal stories he hears around town, he thinks it’s true. He could, however, corroborate Nabavi’s impression about the dumping. “It’s subsided,” he says, “and it’s slowing down even more.”
And yet for all the good the task force has done, when I attended one of its meetings in July, the group seemed rudderless and unfocused. At several points, both regular attendees and mere visitors called for the appointment of a project manager so challenge grants wouldn’t go unmet and funding opportunities wouldn’t slip away. William Ordeñez, of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, went begging for more trees to complete the bike-path landscaping. Mary Edwards, of Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald’s office, complained that a timeline promised to her a year ago had yet to be delivered. “I’m sitting here thinking in my mind, ‘Who is accountable?’ ” said Edwards. She referred to a $13 million fund McDonald’s office had assembled from various sources, money that was supposed to have been funneled through the Army Corps for creek restoration. McCarthy brought up a $120,000 contribution that was supposed to have come from Southern California Edison, presumably for lights. It was on paper, but no one knew where the money actually was. “How can I go asking for more money,” asked Edwards, “when we don’t know where the money we’re supposed to have has gone?”
Still, “the bike path didhappen because of this task force,” said Vladimir Jefferson, of Compton Planning and Economic Development. That much, at least, seemed to augur a better future.
But Gateway Towne Center completely missed the attention of the task force. Edwards thinks the news may have come through somebody’s office, “you know, like a piece of paper you put aside and think ‘I’ll get to that later,’ but you never do. I don’t know how it happened.” Arceneaux herself rarely attends the meetings (she will, however, ask the committee’s members “How’s my creek?” when she sees them), and because she never saw the development as a threat to the task force’s work, she alerted no one when the environmental studies were in process. By the time anyone heard there was a new mall about to be built along a significant soft-bottom stretch of their creek, it was too late to have a hand in shaping the development. The environmental-impact report had been published, and the 60-day public-comment period required by California law had come and gone, as had the 30-day period after final approval in which it’s possible to file suit on the grounds that the site wasn’t adequately studied. Alamillo wonders about that secrecy. “If this is such a feel-good project,” he says, “then what’s the problem? Why didn’t they put the project in front of the task force and ask us what we think?”
It’s easy to see the controversy over the Gateway Towne Center as one of mostly white environmentalism running headlong into the harsh realities of the inner city, or conversely, one of an African-American city government unsympathetic to the benefits of ecological and aesthetic issues — the embodiment of what Carl Anthony, founder of the environmental group Urban Habitat, has called an “apartheid of consciousness.” In the inner cities, Anthony said in an interview with journalist Sarah Ruth Van Gelder, “people have tended to see jobs and economic development as a social, political and economic issue, and not as an environmental issue. And environmentalists tend to see their issues as being separate from the social- and racial-justice issues.” It is a problem almost as old as the environmental movement itself: How do you persuade the managers of a city with a soaring murder rate to value a riparian corridor where the egrets hang out? With a city budget shredded by a decade of corruption — last year both the former mayor and the former city manager went to jail — Compton can’t even afford its own police force. Instead, it pays $13 million a year to the Los Angeles County Sheriff for 75 officers to patrol its 10 square miles. How is it possible, then, for the people who make decisions about its future to include in that future a waterway where you can sit peacefully in the evening contemplating the connectedness of all things?
But among the people most enraged about the development is Edwards, a jocular black woman with a big laugh and sparkling brown eyes who exists in a state of near-constant exasperation with the inefficiency around her. “Of course, they should have told us what they were building on our creek,” she insists. “What if they just put a big, high wall up along the bike path? You’re biking along, looking up at a big wall — how would that feel to you?” And as Heal the Bay’s James Alamillo points out, Prism, an Orange County developer, is just as much as an outsider as any environmental group. Although local black hero Vince Evans, former USC and L.A. Raiders quarterback turned industrial real estate manager, is a partner on the project, Prism seems to be calling the shots in the 48-acre parcel’s layout and design. Besides, in the 2000 Census, Compton was well over half Latino — as Councilwoman Lillie Dobson admitted at a recent council meeting, “We have a lot of people in this city who don’t speak English.” It’s unlikely anyone involved them in the process.
“You have a Costa Mesa group that doesn’t even live in the area developing the area,” says Alamillo. “Were there any studies done within the community to see what the community wanted? Are they doing what the community wants?”
As a symbol for a recovering trash-choked waterway, it’s hard to think of anything worse than what Prism has planned, short of paving over the creek entirely. But Lim doubts the developer will budge for something perceived to be so incidental to economic development as ecological and aesthetic values. “The development has received all of its entitlements,” Lim told me over the phone, in a dispassionate tone that indicated the matter was not up for discussion. “There were no comments from anybody prior to those entitlements about how [the mall] should be designed, so at this point there isn’t any obligation on the developer’s part or the city’s to modify those plans, especially as it impacts the economic feasibility of the project.
“I’m not sure,” he continued, “why the task force wasn’t more involved in that development back when it could have been reviewed. That’s when they should have done something about it.”
Prism and Compton have already been stymied by a lawsuit that the casino company Pinnacle Entertainment has brought against the developer over access rights to the property. “They’ve had good discussions with potential tenants,” says Lim, “but they can’t even sign any agreements until that lawsuit is resolved.”
Lim claims the developer sat down with the task force. But McCarthy insists that’s not true, and that she had no knowledge of the project until about six months ago, when she found out about it in the course of planning Heal the Bay’s Urban Watershed Summit last February. “We used to [talk] about how this site would make a fabulous park, the way the lot is empty and near the creek, and the wildflowers come up in the spring — it’s so beautiful. So we looked into what was happening with the site, because we thought it could be a poster child for rehabilitation. That’s when we found out it was a done deal. The city basically said ‘Don’t bother. You’re too late.’ ” Part of the problem: “The city sees us as a group of people working on a bike path,” McCarthy said at the task-force meeting. “It would be good if, in the future, they could see us as a group of people working on a creek.”
Eric Eklund, who oversees the project at Prism Realty, at first refused to take my calls. One morning, when I managed to catch him picking up the phone, he sounded upbeat and friendly and promised to call me back. He didn't — at least not that day, or even that week. At the last minute, he called to confirm a few facts, but declined to comment further.
Without a big-box retailer within four miles of the Gateway Towne Center site, and with the Blue Line and several freeways nearby, Lim and other Compton officials hope the mall will keep local residents from driving up to Culver City or down to Long Beach to do their big-box shopping, and also attract shoppers from Gardena, Carson and Lynwood to the “commercial power center,” which will include in its half a million square feet more than one big-box retailer — Lim hopes for a Target or Costco — several restaurants and 220 residential units (whether that’s affordable or market-rate housing has yet to be determined). Lim estimates that the complex could add up to a quarter of a million dollars every year to the city’s coffers. For the first time in the 12 and a half years he’s worked for the city, investment is finding its way to the city.
“Private development has stayed away from Compton for so long,” he says. “But now developers are starting to realize that they’re going to get a lot more for their dollar here than in other places. Our land values are the most reasonable in all of L.A. County.”
Isadore Hall, the councilman for Compton’s 4th District, which includes the casino, the abandoned auto-plaza site and the stretch of creek between them, says there’s another reason for Compton’s turnaround: “We have made it very clear that we will be business-friendly as a council,” he told me over the phone. “We have made it very clear that we will not stand for corruption in our city anymore. Businesses like that. They will come to a community where the council is not combative, but friendly and harmonious.”
Hall describes the Gateway Towne Center as “one of the prized projects in the city. I’m blessed to have it in my district. The tax-revenue dollars are going to be tremendous because we’ll be able to attract people along several transportation corridors from the 91, 110 and 105 freeways, as well as the Metro Blue Line.” He had not yet heard the specific complaints about the mall design ignoring the creek, but when I explained it to him, Hall — who also sits on the board of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council — insisted it was still possible to persuade Prism to alter its design. I told him Lim had not sounded so optimistic.
“Joe Lim is a staff person,” he said. “City Council sets policy. And I am telling you right now that there is still a possibility to discuss integrating a new feature in the design that, in my opinion, wouldn’t take that much out of the original project, given the moneys that were allotted.” He mentioned a $3 million fund for creek “beautification” available from county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke’s office as a possible incentive. “I think such an enhancement to the overall project would add to the backdrop of the entire shopping center. It would only add to an attraction spot we can use to, if you will, market our community. And I, because I do sit on the council and also on the watershed board, I would definitely be willing to carry something like that. I would like to sit with the supervisor’s office to see how we can access those funds, and then sit down with Prism to see how we can build the project and beautify the creek. I will take that ideal,” he pledged, “and I will run with it.”
At the last council meeting of the summer, in late July, however, Hall, who greets the audience looking dashing in a double-breasted gray suit with a fluid drape, doesn’t breathe a word about the creek or the auto-plaza site. He does, however, exhort Edwards, when she gets up to announce Congresswoman McDonald’s schedule of events in places like Carson and Gardena, to carry a message to her boss: “Could you ask her to hold just one of her events here in the fine city of Compton? Just one? I mean,” he says, “this is the 37th district.”
And then there is the matter of Harless Cowan, a primly coifed black woman with several rows of pearls around her long neck, whom Mayor Eric Perrodin would like to hire, for $90,000 a year, to help “change Compton’s negative image.” It is the day after a Los Angeles Times story sent the city reeling with its front-page report on Compton’s homicide rate, which has suddenly jumped while neighboring cities’ rates have dropped. And after Perrodin, conscious that he rules under the specter of past corruption, assures the audience that he has “no personal relationship” with the elegant public-relations expert near the back of the room, he explains why Compton needs her: Because while Compton still has gangs and crime, it also has citywide softball games and community-service awards and City Council meetings like this one, where elderly men from the local VFW present the fire department with new American flags to replace the tattered ones on the town’s four stations. Compton wants tax dollars, yes, but its residents also want what everyone else wants — a better life for themselves and a better future for their children.
“Look,” says Perrodin, “we got some negative publicity yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, and I’ve been trying to put out fires ever since. That’s what I did all day yesterday, I put out fires. We had to have meetings yesterday to put out the huge bonfire yesterday regarding murders in the city of Compton.”
He has Cowan stand up; she smiles and waves, looking like a vision from the days when people went to charm school and read their Emily Post. “This lady is a professional,” he says. “If you don’t want to be professional, stay where you are. I’m moving on. And the city of Compton is moving on. We’re going to have to raise the bar and stop settling for mediocrity in this city.” Among the moves Cowan has planned, he says, is to “interface with Southern California Edison on a right of way so we can have a greenbelt.”
At that, Alex Kenefick, sitting in front of me, turns around and beams an approving smile. Later he tells me he thinks hiring Cowan is a great idea.
It is possible that Perrodin is right, that Compton is simply undervaluing itself. The design of the mall, then, is a case in point: To expand on Arceneaux’s argument about how things get done differently in Beverly Hills, were a mall to be built in a finer, tonier suburb, you can bet that any natural water would serve an almost sacred purpose in any developer’s plan.
A habitat in spite of itself
“We would like it if Compton weren’t cast as the bad guy here,” says Alex Kenefick, speaking for both his own organization and Heal the Bay. “The bad guy is Proposition 13 — the law that froze property taxes in California in 1978.” Starved of property-tax revenue, Kenefick says, cities have been forced ever since to chase down retail revenue, which brings in jobs and sales-tax money. And so he imagines a balanced alternative to the current Gateway Towne Center configuration, one along the lines of Market Creek Plaza in San Diego, built alongside Chollas Creek, which the city of San Diego is currently in the process of restoring to its native state. Working in partnership with local residents, the nonprofit Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation transformed the long-abandoned former site of an aerospace factory into a $23 million retail and housing development with several retail franchises offering “creekside dining,” a bank, a fitness center, a 500-seat outdoor amphitheater and a 57,000-square-foot Food 4 Less, all built to emphasize the landscape — the amphitheater even has a stage that rises and falls with the water level. Like Compton, the southeastern San Diego neighborhood around Market Creek Plaza is predominantly black and Latino; like Compton, it had been doomed as a high investment risk in a low-income neighborhood. Before Market Creek Plaza, supermarkets had avoided the area for 30 years.
Unlike so many Gallerias and plazas and towne centers that enjoy a few years of boom before the inevitable bust, a mall like Market Creek, says Kenefick, might endure. “Malls are almost never developed in a sustainable manner,” he says. “Investors and developers leapfrog from the next new thing to the next — they slightly change the configuration of the mall from indoor to slightly outdoor, from lifestyle centers to mega-malls.” The only good news is that the next new thing rarely hangs around for long. If Gateway Towne Center goes up as planned, it’s only a temporary setback for the creek’s advocates, who already have alternate plans. Currently, the city of Compton has committed to paper an organization called “Friends of Compton Creek,” which Kenefick’s organization and Heal the Bay would like to run, securing money from the Coastal Conservancy and other sources. “We want them to give it to us,” he told me. “But they’re worried the money won’t go into Compton, that other cities along the creek will get it instead.” Kenefick has so far agreed to promise that 50 percent of the funds will go into Compton-based projects, “but only if they promise in return to keep us fully involved — like letting us know when there’s an environmental-impact report on the table that might affect what we’re doing.”
And even if that negotiation fails, Kenefick is far from the point where he’d give up hope. “Right now in L.A., they’re building bike overpasses all along the Los Angeles River, but 10 or 15 years ago, they were at the stage we’re at now. I’m hopeful we can keep hammering away, and try to find ways to relate these things that are good for the environment to things the community really wants. I can wait 10 years.”