On a deserted railroad yard north of Chinatown, one of Los Angeles' most powerful and tenacious real estate developers, Ed Roski Jr. of Majestic Realty Co., met his match.
His opponents, a group of environmental and community activists, trumped Majestic Realty's plans to build an $80-million industrial complex on one of the largest open parcels in central Los Angeles.
Not only did the Chinatown Yards Alliance outmaneuver Majestic, the group finally persuaded the giant developer to support its proposal to transform the nearly 50-acre property into parkland, schools and other public uses.
The dramatic turn of events illustrates the challenges and risks developers face in urban Los Angeles, where available land is scarce and projects can come under scrutiny and opposition from a variety of directions.
Coalitions like the Chinatown Yards Alliance--which enlisted support from a cardinal of the Catholic church and a top official of the Clinton administration--can suddenly blossom and mount a sophisticated political, legal and media blitz that can overwhelm even the most experienced developers.
Such groups have effectively challenged or delayed plans to expand Los Angeles International Airport, the Playa Vista commercial and residential project near Marina del Rey and industrial waste incinerators in South-Central Los Angeles.
"These coalitions arise out of necessity and are fueled by frustration and emotion," said real estate consultant Larry Kosmont. "You have to understand every element of your project, but you also have to understand where the community is likely to be on these issues."
Majestic, builder of Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles and countless industrial parks in the Southland, has been known to battle opponents for years and enlist the help of the state's top political and business leaders.
When Majestic unveiled its plans for the the former Union Pacific railroad yard known as the Cornfield, from its use in the 19th century, it did so with the backing of the mayor, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez and a $12-million pledge of financial support from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The Cornfield, bounded by Spring Street on the east and North Broadway on the west, has been vacant since the 1980s after serving as a busy rail yard for decades. In recent years, its most notable use has been as a giant Christmas tree lot during late November and December.
Despite Majestic's substantial resources, its opponents were helped by better economic times--which undercut the project's job-creating arguments--and new public funding to create urban state parks. Also playing in their favor were upcoming national and local elections in which candidates did not want to be seen as favoring a rich developer over park-deprived central city residents.
The outcome shocked and angered many in the business community, who fear it may dampen interest in other central city developments.
"Majestic Realty should not have to apologize for wanting to create 1,000 industrial jobs on industrially zoned lands which haven't been put to good use for decades," said Carol Schatz of the Central City Assn.
But Majestic compounded its problems by repeating some classic development mistakes, according to some observers.
It failed early on to lobby neighborhood groups and recognize long-standing efforts to put parks and schools on the former railroad yard. So, when Majestic announced it had agreed t o buy the property from Union Pacific in early 1999, surprised and angry activists quickly coalesced into a potent force.
"The unifying issue was the idea to save the land and stop the industrial development," said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a key member of the coalition's legal team.
Majestic executives declined to be interviewed for this report, as did officials in Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's office.
Under Majestic's plan, the nearly mile-long property would be transformed into a million-square-foot industrial and warehouse project called River Station Business Park. Majestic and the mayor's office touted the economic benefits of creating 1,000 jobs in a central city location next to a low-income housing project.
Last July, a city planning commission approved River Station Business Park without requiring a full-fledged environmental review.
"They tried to present it as a done deal from the beginning," said Lewis MacAdams, who founded the Friends of the Los Angeles River. "We said, 'No, it's not a done deal.' We were good at presenting options."
MacAdams spearheaded efforts to build a coalition to oppose the project. In a few months, the alliance included more than 30 groups, ranging from the National Resources Defense Council to the Chinese Benevolent Assn. In addition to setting up an e-mail network, the group met frequently over dim sum at the Gourmet Carousel restaurant in Chinatown to plot strategy.