Los Angeles, 1 August 2011
—In Los Angeles, development and redevelopment drive local economics and politics: building things and burying things to build over them. The South Central Farm and its working class neighborhood are development news again, and again the City of Los Angeles seems determined to sacrifice the struggling residents' community to the churning gears of development.
City Councilmember Jan Perry has reversed the position she held when she negotiated the sale of the Farm and has announced that the neighborhood adjacent to the site of the South Central Farm does not need a proposed park. The South Central Farmers are organizing residents and gathering petition
signatures in preparation for the Harbor Department's vote on the sale on Thursday.
Perry is pressuring the Harbor Commission and the City Council to sell the city's remaining 2.6-acre bit of the land at the site of the South Central Farm to developer Ralph Horowitz. Five years ago, while selling the South Central Farm out from under the residents, the City Council agreed with Perry to reserve the land for a community soccer field.
In March of this year, the Los Angeles City Council transferred the city's redevelopment funds to city coffers to protect them from a state budget that would eliminate redevelopment agencies, long viewed as a smoldering stew of insider profits and influence peddling. That put a $1 billion pool of money in the hands of Los Angeles City leaders to disperse to developers, just as candidates for 2013 city elections start on the circuit of seeking major campaign supporters.
Among the announced mayoral candidates is District 9 Councilmember Perry. Perry is notable for negotiating upscale downtown redevelopment, pushing the police to arrest her Skid Row constituents,, introducing a one-year moratorium on fast food to make room for expensive sit-down restaurants, and selling off the city-owned South Central Farm to Horowitz. The land lay fallow for five years. Perhaps predictably, it took just weeks after the city's transfer of redevelopment funds to its coffers that Horowitz was in escrow with a buyer for the 11.4 acres.
The Farm story is emblematic of a century of asphalting the City of Angels, the latest in a history of land grabs that include the Cornfields, Chavez Ravine, and the Ballona Wetlands. The South Central Farm, cultivated by low-income 9th District residents to feed their families, fell in 2006 to Perry's pressure to “develop” this last large tract of unbuilt land in the city. On behalf of the Los Angeles Harbor Department, the Los Angeles City Council, at Perry's insistence, sold all but about two and a half acres to developer Ralph Horowitz, reserving the set-aside for a community soccer field in honor of deceased community activist Juanita Tate.
When Horowitz posted an eviction notice on the Farm's chain link fence, hundreds of supporters occupied the Farm, and city residents, celebrities, and farmers from around the globe pressured the City Council to preserve the Farm. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa interceded between the Farmers and Horowitz until the developer declined a full-price offer from area non-profits to save the Farm. That chapter of the Farm, the subject of several documentaries, ended with sheriffs forcing Farm supporters off the land at gunpoint, arresting over forty of them, and rolling bulldozers across family plots as mothers and children clutched the fence in pain and anger.
Now Perry wants to revise the agreement she championed between the City Council and Horowitz in order to sell off the last vestige of the community's property, the soccer field set-aside. In an Associated Press story, the San Jose Mercury News
reported on Friday that the anticipated buyer of the last vestige of the legendary acreage at 41st and S. Alameda Streets is a clothing manufacturer, and the manufacturer is requiring all 14 acres as a condition of sale. Perry is pulling political levers to see that Horowitz gets what his buyer needs to industrialize the land that once fed 350 families.
Selling the last of the community land
On August 4, the Harbor Department will consider approving sale of the soccer field land to the developer for $3.6 million at the behest of Perry and the City Attorney. If approved, consideration by the City Council will follow, and if the City Council agrees, the Central-Alameda neighborhood will have lost both its famous Farm and a soccer field. Perry wants to sell the soccer field and use the money for existing recreational facilities in her district. It is unclear whether the money will go to the Recreation and Parks Department that has jurisdiction over the land.
In the 2003 sale of the adjacent Farm land, at the apex of the real estate boom, the City sold Horowitz the land for something slightly more than $500,000 per acre. Today, with the real estate market in shambles and vacant warehouses littering Los Angeles' industrial and commercial zones, Horowitz has agreed to contribute close to $1.4 million per acre to Perry's district, roughly three times the rate he and the city negotiated in the initial deal at the height of the real estate boom.
Looming environmental impact
Over three decades, the city has systematically expanded truck and rail traffic next to the Central-Alameda neighborhood. Residents suffer from depreciated home values, impaired health, and noise and diesel pollution because of their proximity to the Alameda Corridor, a major truck route between the Los Angeles Harbor and downtown rail lines. Until it was demolished, the healthy food, healthy air, and healthy lifestyle of South Central Farm was a measure of tangible relief for impacted residents. The Farm became an international symbol of low-income residents creating their own environmental justice.
In 2006 in an L.A. Superior Court hearing challenging the sale of the Farm, Councilmember Perry testified that the soccer field would be a public benefit mitigating the loss of the Farm. NBC LA reports
that now Perry has acknowledged the consequences of regional development on her residents, declaring that the soccer field is impractical area pollutants, citing an Environmental Impact Report. Even as she declares that the soccer field is no longer a public benefit, the Councilmember is angling for what may be thousands of trucks idling across the street from residents' homes and a few blocks from Nevin Avenue Elementary School.
The EIR is the result of community intervention. Three years ago, Horowitz drafted plans for a shipping center for clothing manufacturer and retailer Forever 21 that would have brought 1200 trucks daily into the neighborhood. The City Planning Commission issued a preliminary determination that the development plans had no significant environmental effects. Alarmed residents of the working class community, organized by the South Central Farmers Support Committee, collected thousands of signatures, packed a Planning Department meeting, and testified for hours in opposition. The Planning Commission reversed itself and required an Environmental Impact Report before the construction for shipping center could begin. Removing the planned park next to the industrial site would undoubtedly reduce some mitigation costs for the developer and the buyer, but it does nothing for the adjacent neighbors.
Earlier this month, the Mayor's office announced the formation of a Development Services Case Management Office to grease the wheels of large construction projects. Case managers will “be charged with settling any disputes that arise in the permit application process” according to KPCC 89.3 Radio
. If the deal with Horowitz is handled by a Development Services Case Manager, Central-Alameda residents will likely be among the first thrown into the new system, presenting their concerns for their neighborhood's health and value to a city official charged with paving the way for developers.
Few neighborhoods could withstand the battery of economic and political pressures, from the sudden availability of redevelopment funds to jockeying for position in the next mayor's race, arrayed against the meager resources of Central-Alameda. But few neighborhoods have the resilience, determination, and pride of the folks who used to pick their vegetables just across the street, and few causes can generate the broad support and goodwill of the South Central Farmers. The Farmers are planning to throw their shoes into the cogs of the sale of the soccer field and halt City Hall's rush to redevelopment. They are seeking 10,000 signatures to do it. The question is whether the Harbor Department and the City Council will risk another public fight against the determination of the South Central Farmers merely to stoke the development machine with the last two and a half acres of the Farm.