Building Empire

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For years now construction crews have been tearing up Downtown Burbank. Caltrans is the lead agency on a huge infrastructure project which is remaking the I-5/Golden State Freeway corridor, as well as bringing changes to a number of Burbank’s surface streets. The actual name for all this activity is the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project. Here’s a brief overview from the City of Burbank’s web site.

“This project, lead [sic] by Caltrans and funded primarily by State transportation funds and Los Angeles County transportation sales tax funds, will relieve congestion along Interstate 5 while providing an important new access to the Golden State area of Burbank, including the Empire Center and Bob Hope Airport.”

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The I-5/Golden State Freeway as it passes through Burbank

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Traffic on Burbank Blvd. where it crosses over the freeway

Here’s a short list of specific changes that are part of the project.

> Full freeway interchange at Empire Avenue
> New freeway and railroad crossing allowing access to Empire Center
> Freeway widening including 2 carpool lanes and weaving lanes
> Burbank Blvd. Interchange Demolition & Reconstruction
> Railroad grade separation at Buena Vista Street
> Realignment / Closure of San Fernando Blvd near Lincoln Street.

You’ll notice one of the main goals is to improve access to the Empire Center. If you’ve never been there, it’s basically a massive mall that has all the same chain retail stores and restaurants you can find almost anywhere else in Southern California. But more on that later.

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Excavation next to the Empire Center

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Mounds of dirt rising above Victory Place

The project is way behind schedule. Various factors have pushed completion back substantially, including a dispute with a contractor and this year’s heavy rains. Demolition and replacement of the Burbank Blvd. bridge had been scheduled to start this year, but now Caltrans says they’ll start in 2020. It isn’t unusual for a project this big and this complex to take longer than expected, but Caltrans’ original 2018 deadline was ridiculously ambitious. Work has already been going on for over five years, and will continue for at least a couple more years.

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A barrier under construction at San Fernando and Winona

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Construction site at San Fernando and Winona

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Work on Winona where it passes under the freeway

In the project overview above, you may have noticed that it said funding comes in part from an LA County transportation sales tax. This would be Measure R, which was approved by voters about a decade ago. Measure R money funds a lot of different things, but the major categories are: 35% to new rail and bus rapid transit projects; 20% to carpool lanes, highways and other highway related improvements; 20% to bus operations; and 15% for local city sponsored improvements.

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Construction on San Fernando next to the freeway

LA voters have consistently approved new taxes for transit and road upgrades, but there’s an ongoing debate about the way these measures are structured, with many transit advocates saying it’s counterproductive to levy new taxes to fund both transit and highway improvements. Their argument is that if we continue to invest in infrastructure that makes it easier to drive cars, then people will just continue to drive cars, even though billions are being invested in new rail infrastructure. On the other hand, the people who write these measures say that voters won’t approve them if there’s no money for roadwork.

There does seem to be a conflict here, which may, in part, explain the dismal performance of LA’s investments in transit. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (or Metro) has spent billions on new rail infrastructure over the past two decades, and yet transit ridership is lower than it was in the 80s. Some commentators believe that LA voters like the idea of transit, but ultimately end up sticking with their cars.

You can take the bus to the Empire Center, but as you can see by the photos below, most folks drive.

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Parking lot at the Empire Center

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Another shot of the parking lot at the Empire Center

Burbank is a really car-centric town. Aside from the Empire Center, the Downtown area also has the Burbank Town Center and an adjacent outdoor mall. On weekends the parking areas/structures for all three of these malls are packed with cars. Burbank residents love to participate in the great American pastime of driving somewhere and buying stuff.

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A family heading back to the car

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Shoppers in the parking lot at Empire Center

And let’s not forget the other great American pastime of sitting in a line of cars waiting for food.

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Line of cars waiting for their turn at the window

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The line of cars looping back through the parking lot

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The line of cars extends back around the building

Let’s face it. This is what powers our economy. Which I’m sure is why two of the primary goals of this project involve making it easier for people to drive to the Empire Center. Cars don’t just make it easier for Americans to buy stuff. Cars themselves are products that Americans love to buy. For decades one of the main drivers of the US economy has been the auto industry. After WWII, car manufacturing helped make the US the world’s major economic power. The jobs generated by the industry helped to create the American middle class, and the fact that they were union jobs meant fat paychecks that pumped dollars into the consumer economy. When the big auto makers were on the ropes a decade ago, Washington stepped in to rescue them, and the rebound in car sales was one of the things that lifted the US out of the recession.

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Freeway onramp to be permanently closed

But it does seem like we have a problem. One the one hand, we have government officials telling us we need to get away from cars and rely more on transit if we want to fight climate change. On the other hand, we have government officials, sometimes the same ones, promoting efforts like the Empire Interchange/Interstate 5 Improvement Project. We’re spending tons of money on transit, and at the same time we’re spending tons of money to make it easier for people to drive to the mall.

Does this make sense to you?

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Completed section of new roadway near Empire Center

Here are some links to basic info about the project.

Burbank Empire Project Page

The Empire Project: A Virtual Tour

My5LA Home Page

And here’s a story from the Burbank Leader that covers some of the reasons for delay.

5 Freeway Project, Hampered by Winter Weather, Has New Finish Date

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Will Robots Replace People at the Port of LA?

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I have to admit I was initially ticked off that I couldn’t get into the LA City Council meeting on Friday. I’d taken the subway to Downtown that morning because I wanted to speak about an item on the Council agenda. But when I got to City Hall, I found a huge line of people crowding the entrance, and when I finally got inside it turned out they weren’t allowing any more people in. The Council chambers were full up.

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The crowd at the entrance to City Hall.

But sometimes you have to be flexible, and actually I was glad I made the trip anyway. It turned out that hundreds of people had shown up that day because they were worried that their jobs were going to be taken by robots. Earlier this month the Board of Harbor Commissioners approved a permit that would allow shipping giant Maersk to automate much of its operations at the Port of LA. But Councilmember Joe Buscaino, who represents the area, wrote a motion asking the City Council to assert jurisdiction in the matter and send it back to the Board for reconsideration.

It’s easy to see why people who work at the Port are freaked out. Maersk isn’t the first shipping company to push for automation, and it won’t be the last. Hundreds of jobs could disappear if Maersk goes forward, and as more companies follow suit it will probably lead to the loss of thousands of jobs. This, in turn, would be a devastating blow to San Pedro and Wilmington, where a lot of the local economy depends on those jobs.

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Workers gathered on the lawn outside City Hall.

The crowd that showed up at City Hall on Friday was mostly made up of members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Many of them wore T-shirts and carried signs protesting the move to automation. Those who couldn’t get inside gathered on the lawn outside City Hall where audio of the meeting was broadcast over a sound system. You could hear speaker after speaker telling the Council that they had to take action, and the meeting was frequently disrupted by roars of approval from those who had made it inside.

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The ‘Yes to Boots, No to Robots’ T-shirts were a popular item.

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Lots of folks carrying signs.

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It’s true, robots don’t pay taxes.

In the end the Council voted unanimously to send the matter back to the Board of Harbor Commissioners for reconsideration, but the issue is far from resolved. Even if the Board changes its mind and decides to rescind the permit, Maersk claims it’s legally entitled to go ahead with the conversion anyway. They argue that other ports are automating and that they have to do the same if they want to stay competitive. And another complication is that for years the City of LA has been pushing shippers to move from diesel to electric technology. There are huge pollution issues in Wilmington and San Pedro because the Port of LA burns massive amounts of fossil fuels. Maersk’s conversion to automation has the potential to radically reduce emissions.

This is really just one more battle in what promises to be a long and painful war. Automation advocates claim that machines don’t just take jobs, that they can also create jobs, but no one has been able to spell out exactly how that’s going to happen. Academics say that more automation will drive increased economic activity which will bring new employment opportunities, but they don’t go into details except to say that the unemployed can move into the service sector. Really? Retailers are already replacing clerks with machines. Transit network companies like Uber are planning to shift to driverless cars. And fast food chains are quickly building automated outlets. In classic fashion, economists who make six figures are telling low-income workers not to worry about automation, because in the long run it will boost GDP and everyone will be a winner. But people who live in the real world have been dealing with wage stagnation for years, while their paychecks are being eaten away by rising housing and healthcare costs.

The workers at the Port of LA are right to be scared.

For more details, check out this story from the LA Times.

City Deals Blow to Automation Plan at the Port of LA

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The Grand Avenue Project

Grand Ave Woman

No one will miss the parking structure that used to stand at the corner of First and Grand in Downtown. It was demolished recently to make way for the Grand Avenue Project, which will be rising on the site you see in the image above. I was walking down First earlier this month, on my way to the Disney Concert Hall, and as I rounded the corner onto Grand I was startled to see nothing but clear, blue sky on the opposite side of the street. It’s strange how the disappearance of something familiar can reshape the space around it.

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A view of buildings surrounding the Grand Avenue Project site.

The Grand Avenue Project has been in the works for years. The completed project will include a 20-story hotel and a 39-story residential tower with 20% affordable housing, as well as retail, restaurants, and a public plaza. The complex was designed by Frank Gehry, and will be situated in the midst of the Downtown cultural hub that includes the Colburn School, MOCA, The Broad, the Disney Concert Hall and the Music Center.

Even though nobody will be mourning the loss of the parking structure, I thought I’d post a few photos to mark its passing. I’ve been taking lots of pictures of Downtown in recent years, trying to document some of the changes that are taking place. It’s interesting to watch the landscape as it’s going through these transformations.

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A view of the demolished parking structure with the Disney Concert Hall in the background.

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A view looking down Olive.  The parking structure is on the right.

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Stairs on the north side of the parking structure.

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Interior of the parking structure.

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A view from the top level.

One loss I am mourning is the removal of a number of street trees along the west and north sides of the project site. While the ones on Grand were fairly young, the ones on First were fully grown and provided extensive canopy. I’m sure new trees will be planted once the project is completed, but that’s at least a couple years away, and new development is taking a heavy toll on the City’s urban forest. The folks at City Hall keep talking about how important trees are for sustainability, but they keep getting cut down. If there was a program in place to monitor the urban forest and ensure its growth, that would be one thing, but no such program exists and the City does a lousy job of monitoring the situation. We can have new development and a healthy urban forest, but we need to plan to make that happen.

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Trees that used to stand on First Street.

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Trees that used to line Grand Avenue.

Here’s an article from Curbed about the groundbreaking for the Grand Avenue Project.

Construction Kicks Off on Frank Gehry’s Next Big Project

I don’t know how long construction is expected to take, but I imagine we’re talking at least a couple years. I was a little concerned by a paragraph toward the end of the Curbed article that talks about financing. Apparently the funding that allowed this project to move forward was obtained last year from a couple of Chinese firms. My concerns may be groundless, but it made me think about the stalled Oceanwide project near the Staples Center. That’s also funded by Chinese money, and while nobody’s sure exactly what’s going on, it sounds like they’re having serious cash flow problems. For years there was a flood of Chinese money fuelling development Downtown, but that seems to be coming to an end. Hopefully the funding for the Grand Avenue Project is rock solid, and things will keep moving forward.

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The River After the Rain

We had a lot of rain in February. Not long after the storms passed I took some photos of the LA River along the Glendale Narrows. While it was nothing like the raging torrent it had been a few days before, the runoff from the rains was still flowing freely. It was a great day to take a walk along the river.

Angelenos 4 Trees: Get Involved in Preserving LA’s Urban Forest

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Are you concerned about LA’s urban forest? You’re not alone. More and more people are learning about the importance of preserving and enhancing our tree canopy, which cleans our air, captures stormwater, and keeps the city cool. Our urban forest is threatened by the increasingly dry climate, insect infestations, and new development. But we can take action to protect it.

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Attorney Sabrina Venskus

Angelenos 4 Trees is a group of concerned citizens who have come together with the goal of preserving and expanding LA’s urban forest. They held a kick-off event on Saturday, September 15, where a room full of attendees heard from a range of speakers. The day began with an introduction by sustainable landscape designer Jacky Surber, who talked about the challenges that lie ahead. Attorney Sabrina Venskus explained how the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) can be used to protect LA’s trees. Activists Jill Stewart and Ileana Wachtel compared LA to other cities with robust plans for their urban forest and made it clear that we have a long way to go. And Joanne D’Antonio, of the Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance (NCSA), demonstrated how citizens can use the internet to monitor tree removals in their neighborhood and beyond.

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Joanne D’Antonio, Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance

Would you like to get involved? You can. Just send an e-mail to Angelenos 4 Trees and ask to be put on their mailing list. You’ll receive info on issues related to LA’s urban forest and notices about future events. Here’s the address.

angelenos4trees@gmail.com

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Harbor Gateway Community Fights Toxic Project

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Site at Vermont and Redondo where Prologis wants to build a massive distribution center.

Back in February I was at a City Planning Commission (CPC) hearing.  I’d come to talk about one of the items on the agenda, but while I was waiting for that to come up, I noticed a group of people sitting together holding signs that said “NO on 7”.  These people wanted to voice their opposition to a new distribution center that had been proposed for their community.  Logistics REIT giant Prologis was seeking permission to build a 341,000 sq. ft. warehouse with 36 truck loading positions and parking for up to 71 trailers that would operate 24/7.  Amazingly, the site they had in mind was right across the street from a residential neighborhood in the Harbor Gateway area.

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The community shows their opposition at the City Planning Commission hearing.

A long list of speakers got up to talk.  First there were the applicants and their reps, all of whom boasted about what a great project this was.  There were also a number of union members who came forward to tell the Commissioners that the distribution center would create lots of jobs.  And staff from Councilmember Joe Buscaino’s office showed up to speak in support of the project.

But the people who actually live in the community were dead set against it, talking about impacts from diesel truck exhaust, and noise from a distribution center that was going to operate 24/7.  They explained to the Commissioners that the site was just across the street from apartments and houses.  They pointed out that a healthcare facility, a convalescent home and a public park were all within a few hundred feet of the proposed distribution center.  The CPC listened to all this, and then voted to approve the project.  While Commissioners Vahid Khorsand and Veronica Padilla-Campos voted against, everyone else gave the distribution center a thumps up, and it passed easily.  The final tally was 6-2.

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Residential neighborhood directly across the street from the project site.

Even though I’d never heard of the project before that morning, it was pretty easy to see that the approval process was a joke.  The applicant wants to build a 300,000+ sq.ft. warehouse right across the street from a residential neighborhood.  The warehouse will generate hundreds of diesel truck trips every day, and will operate all night long.  This is a project that will have major impacts on the surrounding community, but instead of doing a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the Department of City Planning (DCP) allowed the applicant to slide it through with a much less rigorous Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND).  In other words, the DCP is saying that even though there could be negative impacts, don’t worry about it, because we can mitigate them to the point where they won’t be a problem.

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Kei-Ai Healthcare Center sits just across the street from the project site.

It’s a familiar game.  The City of LA plays it all the time.  The DCP lets the applicant run the environmental review process without providing any meaningful oversight.  DCP staff will offer some suggestions, the CPC will set some conditions, but the project that gets approved generally gives the developers pretty much everything they were asking for.  These days most of the Commissioners on the CPC seem to believe their job is to approve projects.  No matter what’s being proposed, the routine is pretty much the same.  They listen to testimony, ask DCP staff a few questions, spend a little time haggling over conditions, and then give it a green light.  Occasionally, as with this distribution center, one or two of the Commissioners will dissent, but almost without exception the majority gives the proposed project a thumbs-up and the developers and their reps walk out smiling.

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Gardena Convalescent Center is just over a block away from the project site.

But the people who live in the neighborhood aren’t smiling.  And they’re not taking this lying down.  I contacted one of the residents, Rosalie Preston, to ask if the community was planning to fight the project.  She sent me a copy of the appeal they’d submitted.  Preston points out that the community is already considered disadvantaged by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) because of its proximity to the 110.  The freeway carries hundreds of diesel trucks through the area every day, causing CalEPA to rank it in the highest percentile for pollution burden.

I really hope the appeal will be granted, because the community has already spent way too much time opposing this awful project.  But if the appeal is denied and this goes to court, I’ll be laughing my head off on the day the judge hands the City of LA another embarrassing defeat.  The City has lost a number of high-profile cases related to development and planning.  This will just be one more demonstration of how badly broken the approval process is.

But let’s take look at the appeal, and see why the community has a problem with the CPC’s decision to approve the project….

An EIR, Not an MND

There’s really no question about this.  According to State law, an EIR is required if “substantial evidence in the record supports a fair argument that the project may result in significant adverse impacts.”  The Prologis Distribution Center will bring hundreds of diesel trucks in and out of this residential community, all through the day and all through the night.  Prologis argues that they can mitigate air quality and noise impacts to the point where they’re not significant.  It’s not surprising to hear developers make idiotic claims like this, but it’s depressing that the City is happy to take their word for it.  The fact that the DCP allowed Prologis to get away with an MND shows just how little they care about how new development impacts LA’s communities.

Toxic Emissions

Diesel trucks emit a range of harmful substances, and the claim that hundreds of trucks will travel through this community every day without having significant impacts on the health of the residents is absurd.  Among the components of diesel exhaust are particulate emissions.  The California Air Resources Board (ARB) regulates two classes of particulate emissions.

PM2.5: Up to 2.5 microns in size.

PM10: Up to 10 microns in size.

The ARB web site offers this information….

“The ARB is concerned about Californians’ exposures to PM2.5- and PM10-sized particles because of the potential harmful health effects that can result.  PM 2.5 and PM10 particles easily penetrate into the airways and lungs where they may produce harmful health effects such as the worsening of heart and lung diseases. The risk of these health effects is greatest in the elderly and the very young. Exposure to elevated concentrations of PM is also associated with increased hospital and doctor visits and increased numbers of premature deaths.”

The consultants who wrote the MND claim that the PM levels residents will be exposed to fall within the limits set by ARB, but the appeal calls this into question.  To predict the emissions that will be generated by a proposed project, environmental consultants use a program developed by the State known as CalEEMod.  The appellants looked at the numbers used by the authors of the MND for these estimates, and then compared them to the numbers actually given in the MND.  “When we reviewed the Project’s CalEEMod output files, we found that several of the values inputted into the model were not consistent with information disclosed in the IS/MND.”  The appellants believe that the numbers used by Prologis’ consultants represent only about half of the truck trips the project would generate.  This means the actual levels of PM pollution would be double, and the health impacts to the community much more severe than Prologis has stated.

Site Clean-Up

It’s known that former industrial uses on the site left toxic chemicals in the soil, including tetrachloroethylene (a likely carcinogen), trichloroethene (a known carcinogen), total petroleum hydrocarbons and heavy metals.  A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment was done in 2016.  It concluded that the site was rife with contaminants and recommended additional investigation.  Anybody with common sense should understand that there’s no way to talk about mitigating the impacts until all the information is available.

The appeal covers a lot of other issues, but it all boils down to the fact that Prologis isn’t being honest about the impacts that will be caused by the project.  And as usual, the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission are letting the developer get away with it.  There’s certainly an argument to be made regarding the jobs the project will create, and the increase in economic activity throughout the area.  But even if the CPC believes the economic benefits outweigh the health concerns, they’re still required by law to fully assess the impacts and to make every reasonable effort to protect the health of the community.  They haven’t done that.  By allowing Prologis to use an MND instead of an EIR, they’ve let the developer off the hook and let the community down.

But that’s nothing new.  Anybody who’s been following development in LA over the years knows about the cozy relationship that business interests have with City Hall, and by extension, with the DCP.  Developers and real estate investors know it’s just a matter of working the machine, and if they play the game right, pretty much anything they ask for will be approved.

City Hall is supposed to protect us.  Instead they’re selling us out.  The people opposing this project are just the latest victims of the City’s disrespect for State-mandated environmental review.  By allowing Prologis to slide through this process without properly assessing the project’s impacts, the DCP is putting residents’ health at risk.

That’s not acceptable.  Unfortunately, once again the CPC has ignored the law, and once again residents have been forced to pursue an appeal and possibly a law suit just to protect their community.  Once again the City of LA has put the interests of developers over the rights of citizens.

 

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Rosecrans Recreation Center, directly north of the project site.   Photo by Carmelita Ibarra from Google Images.

The Feminine Sublime

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Last Friday I went to the Pasadena Museum of California Art to take in a show called The Feminine Sublime. It features works by five artists, and it explores different ways of perceiving landscapes and experiencing the environment. Up until the 20th century, men dominated painting, and they often viewed the natural world as something that needed to be tamed or transcended. These women have a different perspective, and are looking for different ways to engage with the environment.

The only artist whose work I was familiar with is Constance Mallinson. Her piece offered a panorama of the refuse that our culture produces. A vast, multi-colored mound made up of the stuff that we use and discard on a daily basis stretches out beneath a threatening, grey sky.

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Still Life in Landscape

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Still Life in Landscape (detail)

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Still Life in Landscape (detail)

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Still Life in Landscape (detail)

The name of this painting by Yvette Gellis is Oil, Earth, Fire, Wind and Water. The title says plenty.  The image is beautiful and violent. Harsh strokes of grey and black cut across the peaceful blues and reds that seem to float in the background.

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Oil, Earth, Fire, Wind and Water

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Oil, Earth, Fire, Wind and Water (detail)

Looking at Marie Thiebeault‘s web site I found out she lived near the Port of LA, which is probably the most heavily contaminated area in the city. She talks about “witnessing […] the continual growth and rebuilding of this industrial expanse” and references “radar dishes, abandoned spy stations, and relics of WWII”. In her view, “… landscape can best mirror our culture’s complex relationship with nature, as well as contain and unfold the expanse of one’s imagination.”

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Exposure

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Exposure (detail)

I like posting about art because it gives me a break from writing about all the awful stuff that’s going on in this city, but when it comes to photographing art, I have to admit I don’t have the equipment or the skill to do it properly. I’m bringing that up here because these images don’t begin to do justice to Virginia Katz‘ work. The surface of this piece is dense and complicated, and it has the effect of pulling you through the surface into something dark and mysterious.

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Land – Into the Abyss

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Land – Into the Abyss (detail)

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Land – Into the Abyss (detail)

The two pieces by Marion Estes are seductive and disturbing. The bright colors and vivid patterns immediately drew me in, but both paintings depict the catastrophic damage we’re doing to the environment. Looking at them was an unnerving experience. I was both fascinated and afraid.

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The Great Defrost

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The Great Defrost (detail)

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Burchfield’s Plea

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Burchfield’s Plea (detail)

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Burchfield’s Plea (detail)

My one complaint about the show? It was too small. I felt like it should have been three or four times larger. These are all gifted painters and they all have a lot to say.

The Feminine Sublime will be on view through June 3. You should go.

Pasadena Museum of California Art

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