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.

The Friends of Los Angeles River’s vision came out of a series of 1998 urban-planning workshops called “The River Through Downtown.” What‘s sad is that a magnificent parcel of land that could be a great green swath leading to a river trailway for hikers, bikers, walkers and a talkers will probably yield only a sliver of land barely wide enough for public soccer fields and tennis courts.

The creation of jobs is what makes the project attractive to Councilman Mike Hernandez, who represents the area and supported the city’s application for a so-called Brownfields loan to clean up the polluted site.

Hernandez told a Planning Report roundtable in November 1999 that river activists stood by as the property lay vacant. “FoLAR has never proposed a project that could be funded,” he said. “And Majestic has a project that they believe can be funded. FoLAR has become more vocal because the project is up for approval. But we started considering this land as an Empowerment Zone in 1994 because the zoning already allowed for job creation — through light manufacturing and industrial.

”There were public hearings at that time, but FoLAR didn‘t pay much attention,“ said Hernandez, who has not officially endorsed or opposed the Roski project.”Now that a development’s on the table, they‘ve come out of the woodwork.“

After constructing the Blue Line station and parking for 1,000 cars, about six acres — including a steep hillside — will be left for open space, Deputy Mayor Delgadillo said. He added that the hillside would be terraced. Part of the HUD loan would be paid back by the developers from property, sales and utility taxes.

So why has the fight gone on? ”I am frankly perplexed why so much energy has been targeted to a site that has always been industrial in a community that desperately needs jobs,“ complained Delgadillo, who was born in East L.A. ”I don’t understand why the opposition is here on this site,“ he said, ”instead of Wilmington, South-Central and East L.A.“ Robert Garcia told the hearing that the absence of parks in Chinatown creates an environmental impact when the last usable expanse of land is taken away.

And Chi Mui noted that L.A.‘s Chinese residents have suffered through a series of racially motivated evictions.

Established near Olvera Street in the early 1850s, the Chinese were demonized by the Alien Exclusion Act of 1882 and then burned out by a mysterious fire that forced them across the street to the future site of Union Station.

When the grand station was proposed in the 1930s, Union Pacific negotiated a replacement property with community leader Peter Soo Hoo. After rejecting a more agricultural community in Wilmington and some other options, Soo Hoo and the Chinese community moved again into the area west of Broadway and the Cornfields, which was then a train yard. The Chinese, who built America’s railroads, were some of the earliest Los Angeles residents but among the very last to arrive financially, Mui added.

Unemployment runs around 11 percent in the Chinatown, Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park and Solano Canyon communities that surround the Cornfields, and Delgadillo promises more than 1,000 warehouse and manufacturing jobs that pay at least $10 an hour for local residents who complete a city-sponsored, company-designed training program to qualify.

Mui doubts the promised warehouse and factory jobs will materialize, saying most workers will come from other operations of relocated companies. But Deputy Mayor Delgadillo said the city will ensure that industrial tenants in the Cornfields hire local jobless people, and promises ”a line of qualified residents lined up at the doors“ when the first factories and warehouses open. ”Be mindful of the fact this is also the area for the working poor,“ he said. ”The per-capita income is $7,000 per year.“

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