LESS THAN 72 HOURS BEFORE last Thursday’s Metropolitan Transit Authority board meeting, a proposal to build a vast, “transit-oriented” luxury-apartment complex sprinkled with 30,000 square feet of shops on a little-used Park & Ride lot in Van Nuys got yanked from Metro’s agenda.

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“It needs more work,” noted County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s press deputy, Joel Bellman.

The proposal to build more than 500 apartments behind an old Wickes Furniture store on the former site of the Sepulveda Drive-in Theatre ran aground when MTA board member Richard Katz objected to the lack of affordable apartments and tiny parking allowances included by JPI West developers, the company selected by Metro’s Planning and Program Committee.

Something is amiss, but it might not be the lack of cheap rentals. The question might be whether anyone in charge has bothered to determine if the land wedged between Erwin Street and the Orange Line bus right of way is habitable, and whether the public has been told about Metro’s questionable adaptation of public land.

Under the deal, Metro would lease the Orange Line land to developer JPI and make a nifty profit by acting as landlord.

Drawings of the dense “luxury” complex show that it is clearly designed for families with children. Yet it would directly face Chevron USA’s Van Nuys Terminal — a gas-storage, -reprocessing and -redistribution plant less than 100 yards away. The garden/playground area envisioned in drawings would sit on land that today has a sign reading: “Warning. This soil may contain a chemical in concentrations known to the State of California to cause cancer.”

An official at the South Coast Air Quality Management District who wishes to remain anonymous because he’s slamming another agency told L.A.Weekly that putting hundreds of renters next to a gas-distribution center is “a really bad idea.”

So bad, in fact, that it’s not even legal. The Park & Ride is zoned for “public facilities.” Under public-facilities-zoning restrictions, any development has to conform to the zoning in the single-family neighborhood of Victory Park, just to the north. Metro can’t build highly concentrated dwellings without a major zone-change battle.

Moreover, this pocket neighborhood would be built almost on top of the Orange Line Sepulveda Station, where fast-moving buses stop and depart all day, heralded by a loudspeaker that echoes incessantly throughout the area: “The Orange Line arrives every four minutes.”

All of these concerns can be overcome, says Roger Moliere, chief of Metro’s Real Property Management and Development division. “It’ll have to go through the environmental cleanup process.” The required Environmental Impact Report will be financed and written by the developer — and in Los Angeles, 90 percent of EIRs back their projects.

Yet, Chevron’s plant belches emissions and leaches benzene, hexane, xylene and three other toxic isomers into the water beneath the site every year, according to a 2-year-old EPA report. In fact, Chevron’s emissions there have been increasing since 1998, and the documents released by the MTA and JPI West do not propose that the gas terminal be shuttered in the near future.

Chevron is doing nothing illegal in Van Nuys. This local minifacility has never been out of compliance.

The nearest neighborhood is Victory Park, a quarter of a mile north, across Erwin Street and behind an 8-foot separation wall that puts the leafy neighborhood of homes at a comparatively safe remove from the Chevron facility. (According to the EPA, the toxicity and cancer-causing hazards of chemicals emitted at the Van Nuys plant increase in direct proportion to human proximity to them.)

So far, not a single elected official in Los Angeles has publicly questioned the wisdom of building housing next to a functioning gasoline terminal so that Metro can collect $1.5 million to $2.5 million in rent annually.

According to the U.S. EPA, in 2006, the Van Nuys miniplant emitted 153 pounds of benzene, 269 pounds of hexane, 230 pounds of toluene and 158 pounds of xylene into the air. Chevron’s own records acknowledge seepage of 1,200 pounds of toxins annually into the local air and storm drains.

It’s quite a brew: The pollution-watchdog Web site Scorecard.org ranks benzene as “one of the most hazardous compounds (worst 10%) to ecosystems and human health.” The U.S. EPA adds that “the increased incidence of leukemia has been observed in humans occupationally exposed to benzene.”

According to the Weitz & Luxenberg research center, extended exposure to toluene can lead to irreversible brain damage. Scorecard also notes that the cancer-risk scores from Chevron’s Van Nuys Terminal increased 168 percent between 1998 and 2002.

In Metro’s May 14 memo announcing the selection of developer JPI West, there is no mention of Chevron’s gas facility, or of the hazards to future apartment dwellers. When reached by phone, JPI West’s area vice president and development partner, Heidi Mather, declined comment, referring the Weekly to Sandra Yamani, of the PR firm Marathon Communications. Yamani failed to return multiple calls from the Weekly.

MTA commissioner and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky also declined comment.

Jose Cornejo, aide to City Councilman Tony Cardenas, who represents the area around the site, blandly expressed opposition, saying the project includes too many retail outlets, and adding: “They have not been considerate of the neighborhood.”

Metro’s Moliere says his staff had met with neighborhood groups, including the nearby Victory Park Homeowners’ Association, whose members, Moliere says, were mainly concerned that the project would create, not relieve, traffic.

But that’s not the picture being painted by neighbors. Lydia Mather, president of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council, designated by the city’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment to represent the area, expressed fury that nobody had bothered to notify her council about the project, or to give its members any chance to weigh in on the proposed project’s expected 2,000 residents and 560 apartment units — and the gridlock effect they would have on streets.

“And where will the children who live there go to school?” Lydia Mather asks, pointing out that the local public schools are filled to capacity.

All of this points to the question of how the MTA came to be a partner in the land-development business, when its mandate is to help move people around. For one answer, look no further than Metro’s Draft 2008 Long Range Transportation Plan, outlining the agency’s strategies through 2033.

“As a County,” the document reads, “we must advocate for and implement incentives and disincentives to encourage alternatives to driving alone, including “smart growth” and “transit-oriented development.”

Metro board member Richard Katz hopes that, over time, the renters of apartments built on the Park & Ride lot “will adapt to using the Orange Line” right next door, and will get out of their cars — the dream of transit-oriented-development advocates.

But even if residents can be coaxed from their cars, what will they use? The wildly successful Orange Line is fast approaching its capacity of about 30,720 riders per weekday. Moliere suggests the purchase of larger buses.

Van Nuys Neighborhood Council president Lydia Mather is outraged, saying, “Words cannot express how upset my neighbors are that MTA has gone way under the radar” with its planned Sepulveda Park & Ride housing project.

Council president Mather vows to reach out to the communities east of Sepulveda Boulevard and to “hit the ground running with an army of opposition” to Metro’s plans. She insists that she and her council are not opposed to development, “but development needs to be balanced. This is just greed. These people were elected to office. How dare they destroy people’s lives with this nonsense?”

The proposed project, so hastily pulled off the agenda a few days ago because of the “affordable housing” concern, is next scheduled for discussion at Metro’s September general meeting.

LA Weekly