Lying half a mile south of Los Angeles International Airport--and 600 feet from a Century Freeway onramp--the 46.5-acre swath of empty land seemed an ideal location for a new Federal Express operations center.
The former site of a Rockwell International Corp. military aircraft parts plant, the plot lies in the once-industrial northeast corner of El Segundo, at least a quarter-mile from the nearest residential neighborhood.
But in the two years since FedEx bought the property, the proposal has generated increasing controversy in this city of 16,400. Plans to build a parcel transfer center, truck maintenance facility and administrative offices go before the city's Planning Commission on Thursday.
The controversy mirrors debates in other communities across California, where the booming economy and rising real estate values give local officials the clout to be choosy about development proposals. It also creates dilemmas about how to balance property owners' rights with community desires.
A group called the Committee to Protect El Segundo has led a campaign against the proposed FedEx facility, charging that it would bring noise, traffic and air pollution. Further, they say, it would be out of keeping with the new course set by the city a few years ago to encourage retail development as it struggled to emerge from a statewide recession.
The committee has taken out full-page ads in the weekly El Segundo Herald and has retained a Century City law firm experienced in land-use issues. It has begun efforts to block the project at the ballot box should it win city approval.
Opponents contend that the city should hold out for something better than a "truck stop," as they refer to the project.
"This is the largest undeveloped piece of land left in El Segundo, and to turn it over to that type of activity would just be a total waste," said Willard Krick, co-chairman of the committee leading the opposition.
"It would not be compatible with the rest of the buildings that are going into that area," added Krick, who in the early 1990s was head of a citizens advisory committee on new land use and zoning policy.
FedEx has countered with a campaign of its own, also buying newspaper ads and mailing residents packets of information about--and soliciting support for--the project. It also has set up a toll-free telephone number to answer questions and sent company officials to speak to community groups.
The company emphasizes the 220 new jobs and added city revenues the facility would generate. Supporters contend that it would reduce surface street traffic because it would be much closer to freeway ramps than the two El Segundo operations sites it would replace.
Interest in the project has grown so intense that officials moved Thursday's 6 p.m. hearing from City Hall to the El Segundo High School auditorium to accommodate the expected crowd.
Whatever the commission's decision, it is likely to be appealed to the City Council, an act that will keep the debate boiling for at least several weeks more.
FedEx officials were caught off guard when city planning officials recommended last week that the commission turn down the project, calling it incompatible with the city's general plan and zoning.
"We're surprised and disappointed, from the standpoint of how closely we have worked with the city for the past two years," Mike Coffman, FedEx vice president and general manager for air, ground and freight service. "We have done everything they asked."
Plans call for a 339,000-square-foot center that would include landscaping, employee picnic areas and an outdoor exercise course open to the public.
FedEx has agreed to 129 conditions that it says will protect residents and businesses from noise, traffic and other potential irritants.
The facility would handle primarily two- and three-day delivery tasks. Overnight services would remain at the firm's LAX facility, in part to ease community concerns about volume at the new site, Coffman said.
The project could net about $90,000 a year in added city revenues, less than what a mixed-use project could bring. The city attorney has warned, however, that although officials can review financial projections, they cannot base their decision on them.
Not long ago, projects such as the FedEx proposal might have looked pretty good to the city.
Like other communities hard hit by the recession, El Segundo suffered losses in jobs and revenue in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Rockwell, for example, shuttered its factory; it found no takers for the site until FedEx bought the land in 1997.
By then, however, the city had embarked on a different course.
Seeking to wean itself from the weakened aerospace industry, the city in the early 1990s changed its zoning and general plan to encourage the construction of offices, research, hotel and entertainment complexes. But area zoning also allows for facilities such as FedEx's, providing they meet environmental and other conditions.
"We have a great deal of money and time invested with the city," Coffman said. "We think we have a good project and we will continue to work on it."