Advocates of the movement to "green" areas around the Los Angeles River are in a battle with a Miami Beach-based developer proposing to build an industrial park and commercial/retail center on a portion of the old Taylor Yard rail depot near Glassell Park a project that environmentalists say will undermine use of the park.
Friends of the Los Angeles River, backed by several environmental and community groups, is vowing to appeal to the City Council a decision by the Planning Commission last week that upholds approval of the project by city staff.
Lennar Partners is planning to develop 650,000 square feet of light industrial space, as well as a multiplex movie theater, shops and restaurants, totaling 118,000 square feet, on a 41-acre parcel no longer in use by Union Pacific Railroad.
But the river group and its allies contend the project's warehouses would destroy views from an adjacent 62-acre parcel on the river's banks that the state wants to develop into a park. Lennar's proposed industrial project would isolate the park from the surrounding neighborhood, environmentalists say.
They want the Lennar site, which the developer is in escrow to buy for $20.7 million from Union Pacific, to instead be set aside for soccer and other ball fields. The planned river park could then be dedicated to open space, passive recreation and wildlife habitat restoration.
"The community for years has been asking for balanced development at Taylor Yard, and so far that has not happened," said Melanie Winter, the former executive director of Friends of the L.A. River, who is representing the river group in the matter. "The community is incredibly under-served in park space, and needs more."
The battle is shaping up as somewhat of a replay of the "Cornfield" controversy, in which community activists opposed developer Ed Roski Jr.'s plan to build an industrial park on a former railroad and freight depot near Chinatown. That plan has now been slowed after an environmental group sued over it.
Like the Cornfield, Taylor Yard is also one of Mayor Richard Riordan's Genesis sites inner-city areas he is targeting for economic redevelopment and the Lennar proposal itself has strong backing from the Mayor's office.
But while opponents like the analogy, Lennar says it is unfair to compare the two projects, since its plan was developed after community meetings and has support from area Councilman Mike Hernandez.
"(Friends of L.A. River's) agenda is, quite frankly, that they simply want a park there. This has been raised now for the first time in the last two weeks," said Greg Morrell, vice president in charge of acquisitions for Lennar. "I have heard community residents tell me for the past one and a half years that they want jobs and a retail/commercial center to be brought back into the neighborhood."
Rocky Delgadillo, L.A. deputy mayor for economic development, had even harsher words for the river group.
"This project has been under way for several years now. The community is very interested in jobs and retail services that are lacking there. (Friends of the L.A. River) is once again late to the game," he said.
But the river group and other opponents claim that Lennar has pursued a bait-and-switch strategy by highlighting the theater, shops and restaurants to the community, which the company now acknowledges will have to be built as part of its second phase.
"I am shocked people do not listen to the community,'' said Clare Marter Kenyon, a 25-year resident of nearby Mt. Washington, who testified against the proposal at the Planning Commission hearing. "The commercial (center) will probably never get built."
Morrell contends that the company has every intention of building the commercial portion of the project, but said the current shakeout in the movie theater market has slowed down that part of the plan.
"Movie theaters are expensive and nobody is financing them right now," he said. "We are not pushing the theater development off, the market is. The theater is going to get built, I think in the next 12 to 18 months."
Friends of the L.A. River is basing its appeal on a contention that the city should have required Lennar to conduct a full environmental impact report on the project. But the group and its allies also say that, ever since the railroad began pulling back from Taylor Yard in the 1990s, lot after lot has been sold off for various developments. There are already 1.5 million square feet either built or approved, including a FedEx Corp. distribution facility and another industrial park.
"The community has seen a serious increase in industrial development, but what it hasn't seen is any recreation or open space," Winter said.
The group believes it could buy the Lennar site with $45 million the state has set aside for the park at the yard.
For its part, Lennar maintains it is trying to develop with as much sensitivity to community's needs as possible, but should not be held to plans drawn up years ago.
"I can't speak to what happened 10 years ago," Morrell said. "Planning done 10 years ago without a market overlay is wishful thinking."
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