April 1, 2001 - From the April, 2001 issue

L.A. David v. Goliath Saga Unfolds: Cornfield Renewal Deal Signed

While California is perhaps the most environmentally vocal state in the Union, we have a very strange way of expressing it--channelized rivers, expansive suburban sprawl, smog, etc. However, the recent news that an accord had been reached re: the Cornfields project highlighted a remarkable accomplishment by a small coalition. And perhaps reminded us that there's still hope for a community to be the architect of its own future. Larry Kaplan, Executive Director of TPL's L.A. Office, describes the agreement, its importance for Downtown and why the forces may finally be right for an urban agenda for developing joint-use parks, libraries and schools throughout L.A.


Larry Kaplan

Larry, The Trust for Public Land recently announced that the Cornfields has become a "Field Of Dreams," as many of the advocates in the environmental community and neighborhoods have long asserted. Give us a sense of what inspires such rhetoric and the role that TPL is playing to realize the dream.

The Trust for Public Land has signed an option agreement to purchase the Cornfields property for $30 million from Riverstation LLC-an affiliate of Majestic Realty. And we expect to convey the property to the California Dept. of Parks and Rec. for the creation of what will be the first State Park, open space and recreational complex ever developed in Downtown L.A.

In addition to that earth-shattering announcement, we have also been informed that the State of California has approved the independent appraisal that TPL commissioned on the property, which is an important step to possibly being able to access some of the $70 million that Governor Gray Davis allocated in his January budget proposal.

This 40-acre former Downtown railyard has a long history tied directly to the development and growth of the City of Los Angeles. Re that context, please describe both that history and the players in the current transaction?

Majestic Realty was given the right to develop a 900,000 square foot industrial park on the Cornfields site by Union Pacific Railroad, the underlying property owner. That project had received a financial commitment from HUD to write-down some of the financing costs and pay for the necessary environmental remediation, as well as additional endorsements from the City Council and the Mayor. However, that support was contingent upon the approval of a variety of entitlements.

It was the way in which those entitlements were approved-through the mitigated negative declaration process-that first piqued the interest of a coalition of environmental justice and local neighborhood groups calling themselves the Chinatown Yards Alliance. That lead to the coalition questioning the intended use of the Cornfield site as industrial, particularly in the park poor community of Downtown Los Angeles.

Their argument was simple-underserved and overdeveloped areas need open space and compatible uses like schools and cultural centers to reposition "dead" sites into neighborhood amenities. The only way for the Chinatown Yard Alliance to convey this vision to the masses was to bring suit against Majestic Realty and the City of Los Angeles for what they believed was a failure to require the appropriate environmental clearances.

How did The Trust for Public Land get involved in this land transaction?

We approached both the Chinatown Yard Alliance and Majestic Realty, not with a specific proposal, but as a potential deal-maker and mediator in an attempt to find a way for Majestic to realize its business objectives and the Coalition to realize its vision.

The response we received was interesting and a real testament to TPL's credibility. Both sides said, ‘If there's anyone that can get us out of this, it's you guys.' And we're talking about two sides diametrically opposed to each other.

Basically from the developers perspective, we represented a business savvy, experienced real estate organization that they could deal with, that could secure funding and that had the necessary legal, transactional, and public financing expertise. And the Alliance basically said the same thing. So it was just a perfect role for us.

Transforming this old rail yard into the first major state park in L.A since Kenneth Hahn park was created in the Baldwin Hills in 1977 causes one to note that TPL was involved in both transactions. What is TPL's appropriate role in such urban open space and parkland preservation efforts? What other kinds of projects are you engaged in here in Southern California?

While the Cornfields is and will always be a signature project because of its size, scale and location, TPL has done urban work throughout the nation for many years. However, our inner-city agenda has remained a relatively small piece of the TPL portfolio and we're currently actively pursuing its expansion.

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An interesting aside is that on the day before we signed the option agreement on the Cornfields site we actually closed escrow on two other transactions along the L.A. River. First, we conveyed 5.5 acres northeast of Downtown to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. And second, we conveyed nearly 2 acres to the City of Maywood as part of a 7-acre assemblage to add meaningful open space to California's most densely populated low-income community.

So, while the Cornfields is a key project, the L.A. River Greenway vision is really the flagship of our urban work in Southern California.

And that project links directly to our perception of the larger factors relating to the concept of Smart Growth.

How do you curtail sprawl? We believe that one creates more livable communities in the urban core and preserves the open spaces on the fringe. And that's exactly what we do. So, we're sort of working both ends against the middle.

You've partnered with New Schools • Better Neighborhoods in examining the nexus of new school facilities and the desperate need for more open space in California's metropolitan areas. Address The Trust's agenda in this area?

I'd like to approach L.A.'s open space problems in a more community-based manner that incorporates our enormous need for school facilities, our dearth of open space and the growing necessity for large scale infrastructure investment. And while this vision is not new to TPL nationally, it would be new to L.A.

The Trust has a history of working with schools-particularly in New York and San Francisco-two of our more mature urban programs. We're currently developing community playgrounds and parks for a low-income neighborhood in Oakland. And our 15-year old New York City program has been constructing playgrounds and pocket parks around school sites for many years.

So TPL has a long-standing track record and now we're ready to bring it to Los Angeles.

Let's close with this question. Having just spoken about the value of the nexus of school facilities and open space, what are the public policy opportunities for TPL to encourage partnerships that incentivize such forms of joint-use?

It's one thing to talk about public policy, it's another to actually enact it-and as the saying goes, money talks.

In the next year or two we're going to have the opportunity to vote on another statewide school bond measure. And while we've had this opportunity in the past-not only with school bonds, but library, police and even park bonds-the climate hasn't been the same. Right now there's a confluence of funding but no effective way of organizing it's allocation. Maybe it's time to build a framework into the funding mechanism that incentivizes these conjunctive uses we've spoken of, that says public agencies must collaborate on joint-use projects in order to get at the bond money.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.