PICO RIVERA — The City Council has voted to extend a controversial moratorium on industrial development and has taken what officials hope is a step toward transforming a desolate landscape into a bustling center for commerce and industry.
The moratorium, first imposed last month as a 45-day emergency measure, was extended until Dec. 17. It freezes development on all industrial zones north of Whittier Boulevard.
City planners said last week that the moratorium will give them enough time to study and change zoning regulations, some of which date back to 1975.
Planners want to change the regulations to lure labor-intensive industries into the area. In what could be a sharp departure from current regulations, they also want to attract stores, hotels and theaters to land zoned for industrial use. The changes could result in more jobs and tax dollars for the city, as well as in a more lively street life for its residents.
"We're throwing out all the rules to give a lot more flexibility to both the city and the developer, so that we can set the stage for attracting new kinds of businesses," Planning Director Ann Negendank said.
Much of the affected area stretches along the San Gabriel River, and includes vacant lots, warehouses and manufacturing distribution centers. What little traffic there is along the littered and pitted roads consists mostly of trucks. On some days, there seem to be more skinny dogs wandering the paved lots than people.
"What we have now is a potpourri of uses," Mayor Alberto Natividad said. "There is no question but that it is extremely unsightly."
Natividad and other city officials want to turn that tired image around by luring manufacturing plants, large retail stores like Toys R Us, theaters and even hotels into the run-down area. Officials have few other details of their ambitions except a name: They want to call the new areas Industrial Planned Developments.
To attract new businesses, Negendank said, planners will need to create regulations that will allow newcomers easy access to freeways and to major streets in the city.
Planners also need to give developers more flexibility to change building requirements.
Some cities such as Santa Fe Springs and Commerce already have rewritten their zoning laws to meet the requirements of these industries. "I'm very impressed with what those cities have done," Natividad said. "If we can look more attractive, we can attract other businesses."
Some of the estimated 50 property owners affected by the moratorium complained last week that it is costing them money. Tracy Chalmers, owner of a Downey real estate development company, said the moratorium will cost a property owner he represents $10,000 a month in taxes and interest payments. The owner had intended to build a $3-million factory there, Chalmers said.
Chalmers also complained that the city failed to notify property owners of the moratorium. "Most of them still don't know that it exists," he said.
City officials said that notices of the public meeting about the extension of the moratorium were posted at City Hall and placed in the local newspaper. Officials said that no notice was required when the council first imposed the moratorium in December, because it was an emergency.
But that argument does not placate David E. Harper, a Downey architect who has been in the business for 40 years. Harper said that over the past few years he and other developers have been increasingly frustrated by a patchwork of moratoriums as older cities struggle to dust off regulations.
"You can't blame the cities for trying to get their act together," Harper said. "But my point is, fellas, let's get it done systematically and not drag it out. Otherwise, investors are going to leave."