From deep inside Irwindale, things are looking up.
That would be 200 feet down, inside the largest of the 17 gravel pits that are both the bane of the city’s existence and the reason for its existence.
The moonscape-like craters are what are first noticed by those traveling through the 9 1/2-square-mile San Gabriel Valley city on the Foothill and San Gabriel River freeways.
For nearly 100 years, the construction industry has been digging up rocks washed out of the nearby mountains and deposited by the San Gabriel River in a 1,000-foot-deep pile beneath Irwindale, 20 miles east of Los Angeles.
The rocks’ gravel and sand have provided wealth and recognition to Irwindale over the years. Every street and subdivision in Los Angeles County has a little bit of their town in it, Irwindale residents brag. And some years the tax revenue from mining operations has poured into City Hall faster than officials could spend it.
But “the pits” have also made the city of 1,496 the butt of jokes. Gags abound about how Irwindale has so many rock crushers and gravel haulers spewing dust and diesel smoke that the huge holes actually create their own smog.
Things hit rock bottom in the late 1980s, when professional football tossed a pass at Irwindale.
The Los Angeles Raiders entered into an agreement with the city to build a 65,000-seat stadium in a pit north of the Foothill Freeway near its junction with the San Gabriel River Freeway. Irwindale promised to loan the team $115 million -- $10 million of it in forfeitable cash -- to construct the football field, practice facilities, a team headquarters and a “Raiders Hall of Fame.”
But the Raiders pulled out and moved to Oakland before work started on what gag writers were calling “Raider Crater.” The team took Irwindale’s $10 million, too.
The episode helped cement the fact for locals that there can be gold in the city’s huge holes, however.
For the last decade, Irwindale’s leaders have looked for ways to use the pits after gravel and sand production ends. These days, only four of the 17 pits are being mined. And there is no shortage of ideas about what to do with the empty ones.
One early proposal called for building 175 houses in an abandoned 80-foot-deep pit. But the idea never got off the ground.
Several of the quarries have already been filled in and developed.
The Irwindale Speedway, a half-mile oval that is used for NASCAR races as well as drag racing, opened its track, stadium and race-car pits four years ago atop a now-covered gravel pit.
The Irwindale Business Center, a 2-million-square-foot industrial area, is nearing completion atop a 107-acre former quarry. The only hint that the site was once used for gravel-mining is the way the new buildings are situated in a shallow basin about eight feet below the city’s existing terrain.
Last year, the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese purchased a 200-foot-deep, 192-acre empty pit for $3 million. Church officials indicated to the city that they planned to put a cemetery, a church, a school and a retreat center on the site, known locally as the “Olive Pit” because of its proximity to nearby Olive Street.
A short time later, the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District said it was studying the possible purchase of one or two other empty gravel pits for water storage and recreational use -- perhaps a fishing lake.
City officials say they have not heard from the water district about results of the study. But they are taking steps they hope will block the church’s quarry development.
It’s important to Irwindale that the gravel pits, which pay about $9 per truckload in a city mining tax, be replaced with tax-producing businesses, city officials said. For the huge “Olive Pit,” which could take up to 50 years to fill, some in the city have proposed building a golf course. “We’re in negotiations to buy back the pit from the archdiocese,” City Manager Steve Blancarte said this week. “We’d like to be able to control its use.”
Blancarte added: “We’re looking at a mix of retail, commercial, light industrial and open space for the quarries. The only thing officials have ruled out is using any of the pits for trash dumps.
“We would vehemently fight any landfill proposal,” he said. “We’re surrounded by eight other cities with very dense residential populations.”
That’s one thing Irwindale lacks. At latest count, there were only 350 households in the city that incorporated in 1957 at the suggestion of Los Angeles lawyer Randy Stoke, who represented a rock quarry owner.
The city takes its name not from rocks but from the man who in 1899 owned the area’s first gasoline-powered water pump. Mr. Irwin’s daughter, named Dale, provided the second part of the name, according to Irwindale City Librarian Patricia Sullivan.
Santiago Cano, a truck driver who has lived a few houses away from an abandoned Irwindale pit for seven years, wants to see his neighborhood grow.
“They’re going to fill it up and, hopefully, they’ll put houses in there,” said Cano, who explained that “you have to know somebody to find a place in town to rent.”
Two pits across town from Cano are already being filled with leftover dirt, concrete and asphalt chunks from Los Angeles-area construction projects. One is expected to be topped out in about six years. The other will take about 18 years to fill.
For now, Irwindale leaders are negotiating with gravel pit owners who want to dig deeper than the 200 feet now permitted. Several pit operators have proposed deepening their quarries by another 150 feet -- something that would give the holes another 30 years or so of gravel-producing life.
The city is also reacting to recent findings by the state Mining and Geology Board that some of the gravel pits’ walls are too steep and unstable by asking quarry operators to buttress the slopes at the bottom.
Having them cave in before they can be properly filled in would be the pits for Irwindale.