A $5 billion dollar real estate firm in Brentwood seeking city approval to build a 108-foot-tall high-rise in downtown's Arts District has agreed to bring in a state agency to oversee the cleanup of toxins at the site.
The real estate market in the Arts District may be booming, but the land in certain areas has absorbed decades' worth of contaminants from previous industrial use. Grungy scrap yards and one-level warehouses and sheds occupy the area near the railroad lines where the new multi-use facility is being proposed by Lowe Enterprises.
When the land-use lawyer for Lowe Enterprises spoke before the City Planning Commission in November, he said one of the reasons underground parking was not part of the plan was that "once you start digging up places with heavy metals, you will find some stuff that's very, very bad, and the better approach is to encapsulate it and build above," according to a fact sheet on the project released by UNITE HERE Local 11, a labor union critical of the project.
The lower four levels of the office tower that Lowe proposes to build will be a parking garage (a drawing of the development shows the garage will be decorated with murals). There also will be spacious retail shopping on the ground floor.
The City Planning Commission report on the proposal found elevated levels of lead, copper and chromium, among other contaminants in the soil at the site, located on Violet Street east of Santa Fe Avenue. The commission study determined, however, that the contaminated soil would have no significant effect on the environment.
The Planning Commission approved the project, sending it on to the City Council with the recommendation that the contaminated soil be removed by excavation prior to beginning construction. But Lowe Enterprises has accepted a request from the City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee to conduct the environmental impact study with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, a process that could delay approval for months.
Since January, the committee has heard numerous objections from environmental advocates and area residents critical of the development.
Denise Meraz, an Arts District resident who supports the more stringent cleanup, says that oversight from DTSC will make the Lowe development more accountable to the community. “[The proposed development] is a block away from Bestia, the No. 1 site for outdoor dining downtown,” Meraz says. “It certainly raises a lot of concerns.”
A representative from the group Food & Water Watch objected that the levels of PCBs and petroleum hydrocarbon, a substance found in crude oil, were above the limits set by the Regional Water Quality Board for commercial, industrial and residential uses.
Councilman José Huizar, chair of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, approached Lowe about the additional step in the process. Staff members with Huizar's office say that while resorting to DTSC oversight is uncommon, it has been done repeatedly in the Arts District, including last year at the retail and office complex At Mateo, located at Palmetto and Mateo streets, and the Butterfield Property at 590 S. Santa Fe Ave. in 2015.
As part of the state agency's involvement, DTSC gives the public the opportunity to review and comment on the work plan formed conjointly with the developer for removing contaminants for the site.
Per the agreement, Lowe will assume the additional cost of hiring state engineers from DTSC to oversee the cleanup. Lowe also agreed to conduct a second round of public presentations to neighborhood councils and community groups in the area regarding its redevelopment plan for the site.
"There's been a lot of misinformation that's been put out," says Tom Wulf, a senior vice president at Lowe. "We're looking for additional time to make sure we're getting the correct facts out to the community,"
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Wulf says Lowe Enterprises will absorb the additional costs from the state review as well as any losses resulting from the likely delay, which he estimated could be as long as six months. "It was a metal recycling or scrap metal yard, so obviously there's some leftover material that's made its way into the ground," he says.
Rick Coca, communications director for Councilmember Huizar, says the level of soil contamination in the formerly industrial downtown Arts District can vary from parcel to parcel and that decisions about cleanup efforts must be taken on a case-by-case basis.
“To give further comfort to our community members we’ve asked [Lowe Enterprises] to do a voluntary state compliance with the DTSC,” Coca says. “And they’ve agreed to do that.”
Huizar granted Lowe a 90-day extension to prepare its presentation to the committee for approval. The firm has until Aug. 19 to present its proposal before the committee.