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Nothing is Simple Down by the River

By Eric Richardson
Published: Wednesday, November 17, 2010, at 07:52AM
540 S. Santa Fe Eric Richardson

Separated from the Los Angeles River by both Metro and Union Pacific railroad tracks, 540 S. Santa Fe (empty land at left) has been the site for a proposed park, proposed rail storage and proposed jeans headquarters this year.



The sleepy banks of the Los Angeles River are anything but these days.

It may be hard to see, but sites along the concrete channel are a hotbed for plans and proposed development. Efforts to expand Los Angeles’ transportation network, create a new district for clean technology, and revitalize the river all come together as the waterway passes through Downtown and particularly the Arts District. These ideas are not always compatible.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than at 540 S. Santa Fe, an oddly-shaped parcel of empty land that sits between the 4th and 6th Street bridges.

Last week, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office announced a deal to bring the headquarters of Lucky Brand jeans to the site from nearby Vernon, where it has been headquartered for 17 years. Yet just two weeks earlier, the Mayor voted along with the rest of the Metro Board of Directors on a plan for the subway’s westside extension that included a preference to acquire the site for the storage of 100 rail cars. Another plan calls for the space to be turned into a park, a use for which the city tried to acquire the land earlier this year.

Land use patterns in the industrial neighborhoods between Downtown’s core and the river were formed a more than a century ago, when the railroads first established themselves on the river bank. Rail yards dotted the area in the early part of the 1900s—gathering points for the spurs that connected to each industrial property. While many of those sites have been reclaimed for other uses, the rail along the river remains intact. Metro’s predecessor, the Rapid Transit District, developed what is now the Division 20 Maintenance and Storage Facility on 12 acres of former rail yard when construction started on the Red Line subway in 1987.

That facility today has room for 200 vehicles — roughly double Metro’s current heavy rail fleet — but Metro will soon need space for another 100 cars as it adds capacity and builds westward. In draft environmental documents released in September, the agency indicated its preference to add that storage space by acquiring the 540 S. Santa Fe site and expanding the Division 20 yard south.

That prospect appears more complicated with the Lucky Brand signing. Their 10-year, $15-million lease with property owner CEG Construction will result in a new 46,000-square-foot office building being erected for the company, as well as the creation of additional office space that the developer hopes to lease out to other creative firms. “Lucky Brand’s move to Los Angeles reinforces our status as the creative and innovative capital of the world,” said Villaraigosa in a release that also included enthusiastic quotes from First Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner and Councilman Jose Huizar.

Metro this week declined to comment on how the deal would affect its storage needs, saying that it did not know the full details of the plan. A spokesperson for Villaraigosa said that the Mayor’s office is looking into the property and the two plans to see if there is an issue and that it will coordinate information sharing between Metro and City departments.

The site and neighborhood are perfect to “give [Lucky Brand] the old look that they want, even though it will be a new building,” explained Trace Chalmers, CEG’s president.

“This is by far the most impactful project that we’ve done in the neighborhood,” he said, citing the jobs that the company will bring.

Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Association, agrees. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for the Arts District to have the kind of economic vitality that this project will bring,” she said.

According to Chalmers, it was only after his company started the permitting process for the Lucky Brand plans that Metro indicated its interest in the site. It was a surprise to Chalmers, since the transit agency had been the one to sell his firm part of the property just a few years ago. He thinks rail storage would be the wrong use for the site. “It really doesn’t make sense to take property that faces Santa Fe,” he said.

Lopez sees the rail uses as a leftover from another era and not something that should be increasing. “[Past planners] put uses there that we wouldn’t consider putting there today when we’re looking at the river as a green space and a part of a livable community,” she noted.

Two weeks ago, Lopez’s group co-hosted a community presentation of development recommendations put together by a panel from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) earlier this year (the final report is available from the Arts District BID). “When we went step by step through what the ULI recommendations were, the one that got hoots and hollers and applause was the opening of the L.A. River as green space,” she said.

That’s one of the main goals of the L.A. River Revitalization Master Plan, which lists the land between the 4th and 6th as a potential park project. Earlier this year Huizar’s office attempted to partner with the Trust for Public Land on an application for state funds to acquire the site, but the pair were unable to come to terms with CEG.

Huizar believes that a development can still further the goals of river revitalization. “I encourage the developer and tenant to make sure that if Lucky Jeans moves forward, it’s a green building with connectivity to the L.A. River and creates a new icon for the district,” he told blogdowntown.

As for Metro, its backup plan is also a contested site. Union Pacific’s 125-acre “Piggyback Yard,” more formally known as the Los Angeles Transportation Center, is the focus of an effort led by the group Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) to transform the site into a public park offering lawns, sports facilities, walking paths, ecological trails and a basin for floodwater retention that would allow more of the river to be removed from its concrete channel. Through the pro-bono efforts of a team that includes architecture firms Chee Salette Architecture Office, Mia Lehrer + Associates, Michael Maltzan Architecture and Perkins+Will, the design assembled also includes residential and office uses on the edges of the site.

Lewis MacAdams, cofounder and current president of FoLAR, says that it is time for the site to see a fundamental change of use. “One of the things that we tried to do in the Piggyback Yard is look at the post-industrial Downtown,” he explained. “I think the idea of reserving the valuable land along the river to store railroad cars is a backward way of thinking.”

Still, he does think that perhaps a compromise could be reached, hiding rail car storage underneath the development on the site’s fringes. Metro this summer voted to study a similar idea for light rail storage next to the Los Angeles State Historic Park in Chinatown, another former rail yard that has now been converted to green space.

MacAdams, who has been working on creating access to the river since 1986, knows that the railroad tracks that line its banks are unlikely to ever go away. The lines along the river’s east and west banks are fundamental to both freight and Metrolink operations in the area and are still in heavy use. The California High-Speed Rail is also studying the prospect of adding its own tracks to the mix as it travels from Union Station to Anaheim.

For MacAdams, the question is simply how to work around the tracks and create access. “There’s no space in the central city that’s not contested space,” he noted.

“I hope that the conversation doesn’t have to be about rail storage vs. park space vs. private development and jobs,” Huizar said. “I hope we can find a way to make sure all of our goals are realized.”

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