By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. July 11, 2016

Last week I took the Expo Line to Downtown Los Angeles for the first time, to speak at a public hearing at Los Angeles City Hall.

It can be a real schlep to attend such hearings in Downtown LA, but it’s a necessary evil, as what happens in the City of Angels can affect our entire region. In this case, riding the train and taking my bike with me made it a lot easier. I used my transit time on board to review my notes and prepare my testimony, then got on my bike after the train’s last stop to ride the last several blocks to be on time at City Hall.

Bulldozing an urban farm

The subject of the public hearing was a proposed series of garment distribution warehouses on 14 empty acres at 41st/Alameda in South Los Angeles, where the South Central Farm once stood.

In the 1980s a solid waste incinerator was proposed there that would have introduced substantial toxins into the air, until it was defeated by the local community on environmental justice grounds, led by the Concerned Citizens of South Central. Then in 1992 the LA Food Bank got permission for people to grow food on the land, as part of the ‘Rebuild LA’ response to the urban uprising earlier that year, that occurred in response to the acquittal of four LAPD officers for the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King.

From 1992 to 2006 the South Central Farm grew into the largest urban farm in the country, feeding 350 families and hosting farmers markets and other community events. But in 2003 the LA City Council sold the land to a developer for a fraction of its value, in a controversial, closed session deal. Facing eviction by the developer, thousands supported a campaign to save the farm, ultimately holding a 24-hour encampment lasting over eight months. But in June 2006 the crops (and the trees on the land) were bulldozed, and many farmers and activists were arrested.

Since 2006 the land has lay vacant. In 2008 the developer tried to get a warehouse project through LA City Hall via a “mitigated negative declaration” — which in plain English means “without an environmental impact report.”  After that effort failed upon its (de)merits, the land was sold to the current owner — the PIMA corporation, and a full EIR was commissioned and conducted. The hearing last Wednesday presented an opportunity to comment on it.

The need for open space in South Los Angeles

Much of my testimony on the EIR focused on its lack of analysis of an open space/food hub alternative for the site – glaring by its omission given that LA’s Open Space and Conservation Element of its General Plan specifically calls out this area of the city: “Encourage increases in parks and other open space lands where deficiencies exist, such as South East and South Central Los Angeles (6-4.2)”; then talks about the community stability that such open spaces can provide (6-4), including through the development of ‘community gardens’ (6-4.7) and ‘farmers markets’ (6-4.8) – exactly what was on the site when the Farm was bulldozed.

But the irony doesn’t stop there. During the days of the Farm, there was a co-operative, non-profit management scheme for the land, run by the farmers themselves. LA’s Open Space Element (6-4.5) states “In addition to publicly-owned and operated open space, management mechanisms may take the form of locally run private/non-profit management groups, and should allow for the private acquisition of land with a commitment for maintenance and public access.

Goods movement or food self-reliance?

More broadly, the LA’s Open Space Element observes that open space acquisition is limited “due to existing patterns of development.”  Warehouse proponents argue this would bring needed economic development and new local jobs. Maybe so — but that area is already full of warehouses; and while some new local hires might occur, an EIR should provide the opportunity to evaluate trade-offs between still more of this good movement-based development, compared to the food security and economic self-reliance that a 14 acre urban farm could bring.   

Warehouses are part of large-scale distribution networks that are dependent upon distant consumer demand and fossil fuels — circumstances far beyond local community control. By contrast, community gardens and farmers markets increase local economic self-reliance and food security, by providing the ability to grow and consume low-cost, locally grown healthy food.  Then there is the lost opportunity to “green” 14 acres of existing, contiguous open space – an opportunity that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere in the community.

Restoring the South Central Farm

By failing to analyze these trade-offs (and by ignoring the air pollution/environmental justice implications of dozens of new daily truck trips into this already highly contaminated area), the EIR is unlikely to withstand legal challenge.

Back in 2006 a movement to purchase the land from the then-developer raised $16 million dollars — the developer’s asking price — until the developer moved the goal posts at the last minute, saying he wouldn’t sell at any price. Today those same community members still seek to purchase the land to restore the farm, and are hoping PIMA will be willing sellers.

With the project likely to be appealed to the Planning Commission, and the EIR to be challenged – meaning a lengthy approvals process that could take years – now is the time for politicians in the City of Los Angeles to get behind returning the land back into an urban farm.  Los Angeles already advocates restoring the LA River as part its bid to host the 2024 Olympics.  Why not include restoring the South Central Farm as well, featuring it to the world as the largest urban farm in the nation, as part of a new model for urban justice and sustainability?

Three part series on Santa Monica and the Expo Light Rail Line

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004) .  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.