Photo by Kathleen Clark

Environmentalists have ratcheted up their confrontation with the city’s highest-profile developer, requesting federal intervention in the fate of a historic but polluted site near the L.A. River. The activists want the 47-acre parcel, called the Cornfields, used for a school and a park with a lake. They view the site as integral to re-fashioning the L.A. River as a community resource. Developer Ed Roski Jr. — fresh off of his triumph of building the new downtown Staples Center arena — has other ideas: He wants to build a complex of warehouses, a plan his surrogates portray as both reasonable and viable for the fallow land.

What makes the project profitable for Roski is a pledge of $11.75 million in federal assistance in the form of so-called Brownfields money. These funds are targeted for the cleanup and development of contaminated urban land, but they’ve also provided the legal foothold for this latest challenge. Adversaries last week submitted a detailed letter of opposition to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which awards Brownfields money. In the letter, environmental attorneys portray the Roski proposal as violating provisions of the federal Civil Rights Act, among other laws.

The Roski plan represents de facto environmental racism because it unduly burdens low-income and minority residents with an industrial expansion, according to the opposition letter. The areas most affected would be Chinatown and the nearby William Mead public-housing complex, whose 2,000-plus residents include a substantial number of Asian-Americans. Mead’s residents council went on record last month opposing the Roski proposal.

“This project would put up such a barrier between William Mead and Chinatown,” said Chi Mui, a Chinatown activist who also works as a field deputy for state Senator Richard Polanco (D–Los Angeles). “Essentially, William Mead will be walled off. Its residents already have the county jail to their backs, and already have to cross one or two streets of warehouses to get to Chinatown.”

“Everybody would like to see the site cleaned up,” commented environmental attorney Jan Chatten-Brown, who helped prepare the letter. “This is not opposition to the use of Brownfields money, but to this use of Brownfields money . . . Using the land for industrial purposes is shortsighted.”

But to developer John Hunter, a thoughtfully designed warehouse district is a vast improvement over empty, contaminated land. “That property sat there for years as a homeless encampment and a hazardous-waste dumping ground, and no one came up with a development plan to put this property to a productive use,” said Hunter, vice president of Roski’s Majestic Realty Co. “Their plan has no economic funding and no economic reality. They don’t own the property.”

Federal officials have not yet formally reviewed the letter. A HUD spokesperson noted that a challenge to Brownfields funding is virtually unheard of. Typically, communities are united in their support of projects that include the cleanup of contaminated sites. “It’s very uncommon that local organizations oppose the project,” said Debbie Pickford. “I can only think of a few cases, and I can’t even place them, frankly.” HUD gives local agencies wide latitude in using the funds, but would be obligated to examine alleged violations of federal law, Pickford added.

The competing viewpoints could not be more starkly contrasting. Majestic Realty, an experienced builder of industrial parks, takes a predictable, narrowly mercantilistic view: The Cornfields property — also known as the Chinatown Yards — is zoned for warehouses, and it’s vacant. The feds will pay to clean it up, and that subsidy pencils out to a profit. This logic further holds that any new development means construction jobs, and that, finished buildings — in God’s good, capitalist time — will fill with tenants, and every tenant represents a net gain in the number of local jobs, a healthier economy and a better life for all.

That is not just the perspective of Majestic, but of a number of Chinatown property owners and merchants who welcome the River Station Business Park, as it is rather grandly named. It’s also the belief of the Mayor’s Office, which has strongly supported the Majestic proposal.

Majestic’s John Hunter insists that his company has taken commendable measures to make its $60 million, 940,000-square-foot project palatable. The warehouse designs, for example, would incorporate a four-sided façade that echoes the nearby and historic Capitol Milling building. In addition, Hunter said, Majestic can be counted on to erect high-quality structures because it intends to manage the property as the long-term owner after construction is completed, just as it has with similar projects in surrounding cities.

Majestic is in the process of acquiring the former rail-yard property from Union Pacific. The purchase will carve out the flattest, most buildable 32 contiguous acres of the 47-acre expanse.

Compared to Majestic, the environmentalists look both further back and further forward. To them, the Cornfields property is a focal point of L.A. history. They cite the Cornfields as the historic location of the Zanja Madre (“mother ditch”), which was completed in 1781 and ran south from the ever-shifting river bank to a point just north of the plaza that is now Olvera Street. The manmade channel allowed city residents to live a safe distance from a river that flooded regularly during rainy seasons. By the 1840s, the Zanja Madre and three smaller irrigation ditches supported about 1,500 acres of farmland, leading to the Cornfields nickname. It was a couple of decades later that the railroads took over the site for the next century or so.

This history is the basis for a primary contention of the letter to HUD. Federal regulations require any development of the area to include an effort to find and preserve, if possible, remnants of the Zanja Madre, according to the environmental coalition, which is spearheaded by Friends of the Los Angeles River.

The civil rights premise is another key component of the coalition’s argument. It focuses on the evolving arena of environmental-justice law, which federal officials have sanctioned during the Clinton administration. A 1994 executive order stipulates that “each federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission” by addressing the “effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”

The proposed Cornfields development violates this principle because “Chinatown has not a single park, and no middle school or high school. Use of this land for industrial purposes forecloses important opportunities. A mixed-use alternative that includes a park and schools, on the other hand, would do much to correct this historical disparity in commitment of public resources to the Chinatown community,” notes the letter to HUD. The letter makes a similar argument regarding the Mead housing complex on the other side of the Cornfields.

“We’re using the civil rights law to influence the planning process before a project is started,” said Robert Garcia, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, which co-signed the letter to HUD. “We’re not waiting to file a lawsuit down the road, after the project has been approved and started.” He added, “To my knowledge, there is no shortage of warehouses in downtown Los Angeles.”

Environmentalists and their community allies clearly see a higher and better use of the land — as an integral puzzle piece in their efforts to convert the L.A. River from a cement-lined flood-control ditch to a tourist and recreational attraction rivaling the revived riverfronts of other major cities. In the schema, the Cornfields property would once again link a natural river basin — with appropriate flood controls — to the city center.

“This is a critical location,” said architect Doug Suisman, who chairs the design advisory panel of the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission. “It’s the best place to connect the river from the Valley and northeast Los Angeles into downtown. If there was ever a site whose development merited careful consideration, this is it.”

In their letter, the environmental attorneys have asked HUD to pressure city officials to require a full environmental-impact report from the developer. Majestic’s John Hunter characterizes the move as a delaying tactic: “We would be forced to extend the project by a year or two, and forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to find out what we already know today.”

Such a delay won’t necessarily bring environmentalists any closer to realizing their rival vision for the Cornfields. That’s why they’re placing great hope in a March bond issue that could provide funds for purchasing river-adjacent lands from private owners. They’d also like to keep the Brownfields money, but apply it to a proposal other than Majestic’s.

Hunter says the dreamers are dreaming if they think something better is going to come along for the Cornfields: “If our project fails, that property is going to sit there as a blighted railroad property for another 10 years.”

Critics worry that if Majestic succeeds, its warehouses will stand as a physical impediment to a riverside revival for another 50 years.�

LA Weekly