A Crossroad at the Cornfield

Joel R. Reynolds is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles and co-director of NRDC's Urban Program

In 1930, L.A. city planners shelved a visionary plan by the son of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmstead for a wealth of parks and playgrounds in Los Angeles. There would be no Central Park, no Golden Gate Park, no Rock Creek Park in this city. And the residents of Los Angeles have been impoverished ever since by that monumental lack of judgment.

Our city planners proved once again last month that they still don’t get it. Over the objections of a broad multicultural coalition of community, environmental, civil rights, historic preservation and business interests, and without requiring an environmental impact report, the city Planning Department gave the green light to a proposal by Majestic Realty Co. and Union Pacific Railroad that was supported by Mayor Richard Riordan. This project would create 32 acres of warehouse and industrial development on the so-called Cornfield, a former Southern Pacific rail yard located between Chinatown and the Los Angeles River.

In doing so, the city refused even to consider alternative proposals, including one offered by the community coalition to convert the 47-acre Cornfield--the last vast open tract of land in downtown Los Angeles--into an urban parkland of open space, playgrounds, a school, a bikeway, and other mixed uses and, at the same time, restore as parkway a critical section of the Los Angeles River.

The city’s decision is more than a lost opportunity to reclaim some small part of Frederick Law Olmstead Jr.'s vision and the city’s past beauty. It is illegal. Since 1970, California law has required that environmental impacts and all reasonable alternatives be identified and considered before any government action that may have a significant environmental impact. The sound principle underlying this requirement is that decision makers, if informed in advance of environmental consequences and alternatives, will make better, more environmentally enlightened decisions. Our city planners may have considered this legal duty an affront to their industrial vision or at least an inconvenience. Its importance, however, is evident.

Instead of warehouses and industry, the community coalition has proposed an alternative that would create a badly needed park in a city that has fewer parkland acres per thousand residents than any major city in the country. It would provide land for a middle school or high school in a community that has none. It would provide recreational facilities for the neighboring William Mead Housing Project and Chinatown, and protect historic resources like the 1781 Zanja Madre (“Mother Ditch”) and the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, recently recognized as a National Millennium Trail. And it would be a major building block in a long-term plan to reclaim and restore the Los Angeles River.


Remarkably, this extraordinary proposal is financially feasible. Thanks to the voters’ overwhelming approval last March of Propositions 12 and 13--the park and water bonds--there is funding available to purchase the land. The governor’s proposed budget already includes money for restoration of the Los Angeles River. Through a combination of state and federal cleanup funds, there is money to address concerns about contamination from old railway operations on the site. Further, the Los Angeles Unified School District, desperately in need of suitable new school sites, has funds that could potentially be made available under 1997’s Proposition BB.

The biggest hurdle may be, once again, a disappointing lack of vision on the part of our city planners. Although their illegal decision has been appealed by the community coalition, there is still time for Mayor Riordan to demand respect for the law, to demonstrate a commitment to one of the city’s most underserved communities and to create a legacy of his own that is more lasting than the industrial warehouses that he has supported thus far.

This city has a right to demand more from companies like Majestic Realty. “This is the great work of our age,” said historian Thomas Berry, “to move the human situation from a destructive relationship with the Earth to a creative one.” Though it’s too late for the Olmstead plan, it is not too late to implement a creative vision at the Cornfield that will serve the human needs of the communities most directly affected and promises a greener future for the city as a whole.