Harbor Gateway Community Fights Toxic Project

HG Sm 01 Open

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.

 

HG Rosecrans Rec Ctr from Google by Carmelita Ibarra

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

Too Much Liquor, Not Enough Parking

Hotel at the Corner of Wilcox and Selma being renovated by Mama Shelter

Hotel at the Corner of Wilcox and Selma being renovated by Mama Shelter

Last week I went down to City Hall to attend a hearing. An old hotel at Wilcox and Selma that hasn’t been occupied for years is being renovated with the intention of turning it into a new boutique hotel run by the Mama Shelter chain. I have no problem with them renovating the hotel, and Mama Shelter seems like it might be a good addition to the neighborhood, but one of the variances they were asking for concerned me. Here’s the text from the hearing notice.

Pursuant to LA Municipal Code Section 12.24-W,1, a Conditional Use to permit the sale of a full line of alcoholic beverages for on-site consumption in conjunction with a proposed ground floor restaurant and a rooftop restaurant, with live entertainment.

Before I go any further, let me give you a little background. I like a having a drink as much as the next guy, and maybe even a little more than the next guy. I certainly don’t want to see Hollywood go dry. But for those of you who don’t live in the area, I can tell you that you couldn’t throw a rock down the street without hitting a bar or a club. The place is crawling with them. Some of you may be familiar with the Cahuenga club scene, which has become a major attraction for people who want to party.

This has caused some problems. In fact, the problems are so serious, that the LAPD recently sent a letter to the Chief Zoning Administrator which complained of the “oversaturation of ABC [Alcohol Beverage Control] locations in the area”. Among the problems caused by this high concentration of bars and clubs are “traffic collisons involving pedestrians, driving under the influence, assault with a deadly weapon, robberies, thefts, fights with serious injuries, shootings and rapes”.

You can see the problems are pretty serious. And while Mama Shelter’s reps at the meeting said that their focus is on serving food, not alcohol, the fact that they want a full liquor license, they want to have live entertainment, and they want to stay open til 2:00 am, seems to indicate that they’ll be drawing the party crowd.

There are other issues. A couple of senior citizens attended the meeting. They live in a building near the proposed hotel, and they both said that they’re already having trouble sleeping because of bars and clubs in the area that have live music. Live entertainment on the rooftop is only going to make it even harder for neighborhood residents to get a good night’s sleep. The noise issue was also brought up by a couple other people who attended, one of whom works for a hostel right across the street.

Then there’s the parking. Here’s another item from the hearing notice.

Pursuant to Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 12.27, a zone variance to permit the five (5) required parking spaces to be provided off-site within 750 feet by lease in lieu of covenant as required pursuant to Section 12.26-E.5.

This makes it sound as though the hotel has almost enough on-site parking, and they’re only asking to have five additional spaces located off-site. But during the hearing there was an exchange between the zoning administrator and the project rep, and it sounded like the hotel has no parking at all right now. The rep said they were still looking to sign a deal, but that parking is difficult to come by in Hollywood. Yep. Sure is. And if Mama Shelter opens their hotel without adequate parking for guests and visitors, that’s going to make it way harder for those who live in the neighborhood to park their cars.

It seemed unbelievable that Mama Shelter could be as close to opening as they are and still not have the parking nailed down. So earlier this week I e-mailed the zoning administrator to ask if I’d understood the situation correctly. I still haven’t heard back from him.

One of the project reps said the renovations are almost completed. Apparently they hope to open early next year. You might ask why anybody who had invested so much money in a project would wait until they were almost ready to open before having this hearing. They’re looking for permits to allow them to sell alcohol and have live entertainment, which apparently is a key part of their business model. And whatever the situation is with the parking, right now they don’t have enough to satisfy the City’s requirements.

So why would they go this far down the road without having resolved these key issues? Why would they spend millions of dollars on renovations before they’d even secured the necessary permits? Unless maybe somebody at City Hall told them not to worry about it. That it would all be taken care of.

The comment period has been extended to Wednesday, December 17. If you live in the area and you’re concerned about any of the issues this project raises, you might want to contact May Sirinopwongsagon at the Department of City Planning. Here’s her e-mail.

may.sirinopwongsagon@lacity.org