Two years after it was bulldozed, the 14-acre Los Angeles community garden known as the South Central Farm is being developed for a clothing chain with strong ties to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Forever 21, one of the city's fastest-growing women's apparel businesses, wants to operate a warehouse and distribution center on the site owned by real estate developer Ralph Horowitz.
Supporters of the garden -- still angry that Horowitz tore it up despite support from such Hollywood luminaries as Daryl Hannah and Danny Glover -- have been trying for weeks to kill the proposed project by demanding more rigorous environmental review.
Villaraigosa, who championed the farm's preservation two years ago, is staying out of the latest fight.
He has received nearly $1.3 million in contributions and commitments from Forever 21 and its executives over the past two years for initiatives ranging from tree plantings to his own reelection campaign.
That relationship troubles the activist known as Tezozomoc, who has used noisy protests and persistent lobbying to try to protect the land from development. Tezozomoc called Villaraigosa's relationship with Forever 21 "distressing for the community" and voiced doubts about the sincerity of the mayor's effort to save the farm two years ago.
Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo said that the mayor did "absolutely everything he could" to save the farm in 2006, but that Horowitz was unwilling to make a deal. Szabo said the mayor has no opinion on the level of environmental review needed for the proposed Forever 21 project.
"It's being treated like every other proposed project in the city," he said.
The proposal for Forever 21 is the latest event in a 22-year political saga over a site once filled with cactus, fruit trees and vegetable gardens. The effort to preserve it drew worldwide attention two years ago, attracting celebrities such as folk singer Joan Baez and serving as the subject of a documentary film.
The development proposal for the farm site could force Villaraigosa to choose between environmental activists willing to stage protests outside his home and office, and a business that has a huge effect on the region's economy.
Forever 21 Senior Vice President Christopher Lee has said the site at 41st and Alameda streets is critical to the expansion of his business, which has been doubling each year.
If Forever 21 doesn't find a large expanse of land soon, it could leave Los Angeles -- taking important manufacturing jobs with it.
"That's going to be really detrimental to Los Angeles because we pump in hundreds of millions of dollars here," said Lee, who was recently appointed by the mayor to the city's Industrial Development Authority.
Lee and Forever 21 founder Don Chang were two of several business leaders who accompanied Villaraigosa on his trade mission to Asia in 2006. Six months later, Forever 21 gave $100,000 to Villaraigosa's successful campaign to elect three new school board members. In recent months, the company agreed to give $1 million to Villaraigosa's Million Trees L.A. initiative, which encourages residents to plant more trees.
The company also gave $150,000 to Villaraigosa's staging of the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Century City last year, a donation so significant that Lee was given a speaking role at the event's closing reception at the Griffith Park Observatory.
Tezozomoc said that such contributions make it difficult for Villaraigosa to deal fairly with the former farm site.
Szabo, on the other hand, said the mayor has "an absolute obligation" to ask businesses such as Forever 21 to contribute to such causes as a recent community cleanup on the Westside.
"I mean, we're talking about planting trees and donating T-shirts for kids," Szabo said.
Supporters of the proposed development say a distribution center would create much-needed jobs in South Los Angeles. Foes say the neighborhood, which sits near the freight route known as the Alameda Corridor, does not need more warehouses.
A city zoning officer is expected to decide this month whether to require an environmental impact report on the proposed distribution center, which probably would add a year to the approval process.
Opponents have forwarded hundreds of e-mails to the city's planning department, saying the 2,400 daily truck trips expected to be generated by the project merit a lengthier review.
"At this point, there is no way any diesel-truck, industrial warehouse is going to do any good in that community," said Leslie Radford, spokeswoman for the South Central Farm support committee.
Radford contends the project would add to the neighborhood's air pollution and create "dead-end jobs."
But Faye Washington, executive director of the YWCA of Greater Los Angeles, said she was impressed with the wages the company would pay. Her YWCA's Job Corps program is negotiating with Forever 21 to try to make sure it would hire local residents.
And City Councilwoman Jan Perry, a longtime supporter of Horowitz's project, argued that Villaraigosa's clean truck program would significantly limit the emissions created by the distribution center, making it less harmful to air quality than it would have been earlier.
Perry said most of the trucks driving to the Forever 21 facility would come from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where trucks will be required to have cleaner-burning engines -- the kind built in 2007 or later -- over the next 3 1/2 years.
The fight over the 14-acre site dates back to 1986, when city officials used the power of eminent domain to force Horowitz to sell his land so a city incinerator could be built there. That plan was abandoned amid community protests, and in the wake of the 1992 riots, the land was converted into a community garden overseen by the Los Angeles Food Bank across the street.
Nearby low-income residents, many of them Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico and Central America, carved the site into tiny plots filled with vegetables, herbs and flowers. But with the incinerator plan scrapped, Horowitz sued the city, buying back the land in a settlement.
By then, the farm had become one of the largest community gardens in the region -- and a symbol of the city's need for more urban farming, said Occidental College professor Robert Gottlieb, who heads the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, a research and advocacy group dealing with food and social justice.
"What made [the farm] so interesting was it was becoming a community space," he added. "It wasn't just a series of plots of individual gardeners. It hosted events; it had festivals. It was a place where families came."
Despite last-minute efforts by Villaraigosa to have a nonprofit group acquire the land, Horowitz had the garden demolished and its gardeners removed in 2006. It was a media spectacle: Protesters and police squared off as helicopters hovered overhead.
After two years of relative calm, Horowitz and the farmers are battling again. Horowitz took his development plan for the site to a public hearing last month. Activists, some carrying baskets filled with fresh fruit, testified against it.