$60-Million Shopping Center Proposed for Franciscan Site

Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles developer wants to clean up a toxic dump site at the closed Franciscan Ceramics factory in Atwater and replace it with a $60-million shopping center.

Officials of Schurgin Development said they will apply for a $5-million, low-interest loan from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development to finance cleanup of the 45-acre site at 2910 Los Feliz Boulevard.

The site is contaminated with lead-tainted ceramic sludge and pottery chips from almost 80 years of producing dinnerware. Schurgin hopes to build a 375,000-square-foot shopping center called Franciscan Promenade with about 30 stores, according to Emmett Albergotti, the company's vice president for acquisitions. The company would like to begin the cleanup next spring and open the shopping center in summer of 1988.

Schurgin has an option to buy the property from its owner, Wedgewood Ltd. of Great Britain, for a reported $24 million, city officials said. Wedgewood purchased the property from Franciscan Ceramics Inc. in 1979. The former factory site is one of the largest parcels available for development in northeast Los Angeles.

Schurgin must first obtain approval from a number of government agencies for the construction and a plan to remove or neutralize the glazing sludge that was dumped into gullies at the western end of the property until 1972.

In 1984, the property was identified by the state as a hazardous-waste site and placed on the state Superfund list, making it eligible for cleanup funds. State officials said extensive tests that could take six months or more are still needed to determine the extent and health danger of contamination and how to best mitigate it.

Preliminary tests show that the soil is "quite highly contaminated with metallic sludge" including lead and zinc, according to state Department of Health Services spokesman Jim Smith. The ground water below the site also shows some contamination, Smith said, although it is unclear whether that was caused by metallic sludge from the Franciscan factory or pollutants from another site.

Smith said that, although the on-site soil and ground-water contamination pose no immediate toxic danger, the state is investigating whether the contamination has spread beyond the property. The closest well field used for drinking water is 1.4 miles south of the site, Smith said.

At a community hearing in Atwater last week, Albergotti told a crowd of about 130 that dozens of retail stores have expressed interest in locating at the site, including Marshall's Department Stores of California Inc., Vons Grocery Co., Ralphs Grocery Co., the Price Club, Circuit City Stores, Ross Dress for Less Store, the Sports Chalet and the Federated Group.

Schurgin has built 60 projects in 11 states, including shopping centers near the Puente Hills Mall and the Central City Mall in San Bernardino, Albergotti said. The proposed Atwater development would be the company's largest undertaking.

If approved, it is expected to create 800 jobs and bring the City of Los Angeles about $1.3 million annually in sales tax revenue, according to Ted Berkowitz, manager of industrial development for the city's Community Development Department.

Schurgin also plans to widen Los Feliz Boulevard by at least one lane, provide extensive landscaping and try to preserve some of the old kilns on the property as historic fixtures, Albergotti said. Depending on the extent of Schurgin's improvements, the city might spend up to $500,000 in capital improvements for the area as well, Berkowitz said.

"We're absolutely delighted. It is a very positive step in the growth of the community," said Bill Hart, president of the Atwater Chamber of Commerce.

Councilman John Ferraro also supports the project.

Strict Conditions Sought

But Ed Waite, president of the Atwater Homeowners Assn., said he wants strict conditions placed on the developer to ensure adequate landscaping and on-site parking.

Some local residents who attended last week's meeting expressed concern that a large shopping center would edge out smaller local merchants along Los Feliz and Glendale boulevards.

"You're going to make slums of all the little stores around here," one woman told the developer angrily.

The sprawling Franciscan Ceramics factory--bounded by Los Feliz Boulevard, Perlita Avenue, Verdant Street and the Southern Pacific right of way--employed nearly 500 workers until it closed in 1984 because of declining sales. The plant was the state's oldest and largest maker of ceramic dinnerware and one of the largest tile manufacturers in the country. It included a retail shop on Los Feliz Boulevard.

Smith, spokesman for the state Department of Health Services, said the most feasible method of neutralizing the sludge hazard would be to remove some of the tainted surface soil, then seal the rest of the contaminated area with a "surface cap," which would cover the land with plastic and seal it with concrete.

Schurgin expects to know by the end of January if its HUD loan has been approved, Berkowitz said. Meanwhile, Albergotti said, the company intends to file to change the zoning of about one-quarter of the property that is now designated residential. The rest of the site is zoned for light manufacturing, which would permit commercial use.

In the last two years, several other developers have expressed interest in the area but could not agree on a price.

A sale to Kaiser Development Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of Kaiser Aluminium and Chemical Corp., fell through in 1985, reportedly because Kaiser and Wedgewood could not agree on who should pay for the cleanup.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World