Cornfield Purchase Could Close by September
Gov. Gray Davis last Monday approved $40 million in his revised state budget to buy and clean up an abandoned 32-acre rail yard near Chinatown so that it can be turned into a park.
Surrounded by old railroad ties and tracks at a Tuesday news conference, state and local leaders praised Davis' proposal, which sets aside $35 million for the purchase of the dusty property from its current owner and developer, Majestic Realty, and another $5 million from the general fund for clean-up of the site, which contains toxic chemicals after years of railroad use. The sale is expected to close in September.
"This idea is finally coming to fruition," said Rusty Areias, director of California State Parks. "The transformation of this blighted property into something clean and beautiful and green, and open finally for public enjoyment, [has begun]."
Despite the jubilant announcement, some leaders of the Chinatown Yard Alliance, a coalition of 32 community and environmental groups that had long pushed for a park at the site known as the Cornfield, remained cautiously optimistic that enough money will materialize by the November deadline to allow the sale to go through.
"We're on the land, but we don't own it," said Lewis MacAdams, president of Friends of the Los Angeles River, a member of the alliance. "There is still a state energy crisis and other very real interests."
The funding proposal must make the rounds in the state legislature, which has been vigorously tightening the budgetary belt with the onset of rising energy costs. State Sen. Richard Polanco will present a bill for the funding to the legislature, which will address the issue in July.
"We think that this has all the right merits," Polanco said. "I do not see where we are going to have difficulty making this a reality. It's part of an overall legislative strategy for urban parks. More importantly, I think it has a broad-based appeal."
Polanco said Davis paid special attention to the Cornfield proposal largely because of community interest and lobbying. The property had been the subject of a contentious two-year battle between Majestic Realty—which had planned a $40 million industrial business complex—and the Chinatown Alliance, which filed a lawsuit in September to stop the project, citing failure to conduct an environmental review of the site.
To avoid drawn-out litigation, Majestic settled with the alliance last month, and agreed to sell the land if funding could be secured by November. If not, Majestic would go forward with its project, which had the support of the mayor's office and several Chinatown business leaders, who hoped the manufacturing and warehouse complex would generate hundreds of jobs in the depressed area.
At Tuesday's announcement, Majestic Vice President John Hunter delivered a brief speech, saying he "enjoyed the experience" of working with the community, and that he is looking forward to closing the deal.
"The most important aspect of the settlement agreement is that this blighted, abandoned rail yard that the city has suffered with for many years, including all the residents and property owners, will in due course have an amenity that they can be proud of and use, and that will enhance the neighborhood and community," Hunter said.
The parcel of land, nestled between the Los Angeles River and Chinatown on North Broadway, was put up for sale in 1991 and acquired by Majestic in 1997. It will be sold to the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land, an intermediary in the negotiations. The Trust plans to sell the land back to the state Department of Recreation and Parks, which will design and manage the park.
MacAdams, who has been a key player in making the deal happen, thanked Majestic for "their grace in this skirmish."
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is also in negotiations to purchase the remaining eight acres of the Cornfield property and coordinate development with the state. The acquisition should be completed in a few months, and the parcel landscaped by Labor Day of next year, said Joseph Edmiston, the group's executive director.
"Nature's tendrils are reaching right into Downtown," he said. "That's what is unique about what will be the most unique park in the state park system. People in Humboldt County will say, 'Gee, the redwoods are nice, but it's too bad we don't have a Cornfield.'"
Polanco called the property a "significant piece" of a much bigger vision of preservation and open space along the L.A. River.
"Today, the beginning of the Cornfield, tomorrow the beginning of Taylor Yard," he said, referring to the 100-year-old former rail yard along the L.A. River that has also been embroiled in a debate—park proponents want 2 miles of river frontage, soccer fields, picnic areas and wildlife habitat.
Once funding is received for the Cornfield, state park planners would design the site, along with the Alliance, which has proposed a school, a cultural center and a museum commemorating the historic Zanja Madre—thought to be the city's original water supply. The park could be completed in four to six years, although soccer fields and picnic areas could be available to the public sooner, state officials said.
The Southern Pacific Railroad once operated a switching station at the Cornfield, which was traversed by freight cars for more than a century. The site got its name from the corn that fell and grew from cars carrying it to the nearby Capitol Mills for grinding.
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