On old maps, they are called "the cornfield" and "the bullring," two adjacent strips of land at the northern tip of downtown Los Angeles.
The meaning of the names has long been lost. "Who knows?" asked Jim Loveland, spokesman for Southern Pacific Transportation Co., which owns the 54-acre strip between North Broadway and North Spring Street and has been using it for storing railroad cars.
Some believe that in more bucolic times "the bullring," which lies along the Los Angeles River, was used to hold cattle and that corn grew on "the cornfield," which slopes sharply off North Broadway.
But now this crescent-shaped strip just east of Chinatown seems destined for redevelopment, as Southern Pacific prepares to sell the land used by railroads since the turn of the century.
Various groups and agencies, including Chinese community groups, the Los Angeles City Fire Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District, are interested in acquiring it--for housing, for training firefighters, or for a new high school.
Whatever happens, the land is one of the largest pieces of property under single ownership to become available in the downtown area in recent history, and its future has already led to more than casual interest from City Hall.
"This is a historic change in the use of this property," said Gerry Hertzberg, legislative aide to Councilwoman Gloria Molina. Though the city has made no move to acquire the land, Molina wanted planning officials to take a role in guiding the parcel's future, and proposed two years ago that the City Council fund a study on the potential uses for the property.
"You don't find this type of land available in cities any more," said Lydia Kennard, president of KDG Development Consulting, which is in the final stages of the resulting $50,000 study.
The company will present its findings at a public workshop at City Hall tonight, Kennard said, when information from community groups will be gathered before a final report is issued.
Though the land is zoned for industrial use, which could mean manufacturing or assembly plants, Kennard said she focused on residential and commercial uses.
"The councilwoman is interested in a plan which is compatible for housing," Hertzberg said of Molina.
David Steel, Southern Pacific's vice president for real estate, said the property has been for sale for a year and a half, and that to date the company's most serious discussions have been with the school district, which has been trying to build schools on sites such as that once occupied by the Ambassador Hotel.
The agency has been seeking land for a high school in the central and northeast areas, and under state law needs 40 acres to build, said Carol Cogan, the school district's principal realty agent.
The rail yard is among three sites the district has been looking at, Cogan said, adding that an environmental impact report on the sites will be presented to the district board in mid-February. The rail yard's soil is being studied for any toxicity as a result of industrial waste.
The district will negotiate for the property in earnest, Cogan said, only if the board decides it is the best site.
The Chinatown community is concerned about what will happen to the land because "Chinatown is already moving and expanding down there," said Don Toy, chairman of the Chinatown Community Advisory Committee. With several Chinese-run import-export, restaurant supply and other businesses on the east side of North Spring Street, the railroad property is virtually in the middle of two Chinese commercial zones, he said.
Toy said the committee he heads, which advises the city Community Redevelopment Agency on Chinatown, has taken initial steps to get the property incorporated into the agency's Chinatown Redevelopment Project, which encourages housing, beautification and commercial projects to revitalize that area.
"Chinatown, because of its proximity, is going to be affected and we want to be integrated into the planing process," Toy said. If the land became part of the 11-year-old Chinatown project, a new owner's plans would come under review and the advisory committee could have input.
Chinatown would like to see "balanced growth," which includes housing, recreational space and social services, Toy said. The community is not against a school, he said, "because most of our kids are bused out now."
Vivien Bonzo, leader of the Olvera Street Merchants Assn., said the impact of large-scale development already on the drawing boards for the Union Station area are of more immediate concern to the 78 businesses on Olvera Street, a few blocks away from "the bullring" and "the cornfield."
But Bonzo said she fears that if the land is used for another retail and office complex it would aggravate already severe traffic problems. And she added: "If they introduce another large-scale commercial development, it may over-saturate to the point where nobody is making money."
UP FOR SALE
The "cornfield" and the "bullring" are two adjacent strips of land just east of Chinatown owned by the Southern Pacific Transportation Co. The railroad has put a 54-acre strip, now used for train storage, up for sale. It is at the northern tip of downtown Los Angeles, between North Broadway and North Spring streets.