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Stadium Site Has Been a Tough Sell

The potential home for an NFL team in Carson has a history of legal and environmental troubles.

May 31, 2003|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

The site for a stadium that could bring professional football back to the Los Angeles area is 157 acres of moldering garbage and toxic waste, a fenced-off field of weeds that leaks methane, spooks investors and attracts legal trouble.

The parcel is the old Cal Compact Inc. landfill in Carson. Its story is a tangled, four-decade tale of polluted air and poisoned groundwater and failed plans for shopping malls and mobile home parks. And bankruptcies, lawsuits and criminal cases that include the current fraud prosecution of a former labor union pension administrator.

Among the chief promoters of the landfill's gridiron potential are a fallen Hollywood deal-maker, Michael Ovitz, and Carson Mayor Daryl Sweeney, who is awaiting trial on unrelated bribery charges.

But the property is no dump to the National Football League. For the second time in five years, the league is sizing up the wedge of real estate as the would-be address of an NFL franchise, a competitor in the stadium sweepstakes with the Rose Bowl and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

"A number of extraordinary and unusual things have occurred with this property over the years," said Mitchel Whitehead, an attorney for the glaziers union pension fund, which owns the landfill and has been trying to unload it for years. "I cannot overstate the complexity.... It takes 10 to 50 pages of briefings just to describe the background."

Even so, it is one of the roomiest vacant lots in the Los Angeles Basin, and its location near the junction of the San Diego and Harbor freeways is prized.

Last week, the NFL authorized Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to take a $10-million option on the land. Its value is thought to be about $25 million, according to participants in the stadium talks. Over the years, appraisals have fallen as low as zero at the height of the property's pollution troubles.

The NFL has yet to hand off the option dollars, and the league still could turn up its nose at the waste yard -- just as it did in 1999, when Houston eventually won the bidding for a stadium. "We're quite a ways from having any deal in place," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.

Much Has Changed

And much has changed since the NFL's previous pass at Carson.

A web of legal disputes over the property -- involving soured investments, ownership stakes and cleanup liabilities -- has been cleared away. A civil case that gave the union pension fund sole title to the landfill, however, might be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On the contamination front, industrial solvents, heavy metals, arsenic and pesticides are being contained or removed under state supervision, although slowly.

Methane leaks are regularly plugged with earth, and extraction wells soon will be installed to vacuum out the gas, said Thomas Cota, who heads the local branch of the state Toxic Substances Control Department.

But the major work remains to be done -- at a cost of $26 million to $35 million, according to state officials and others.

Some cleanup money has come from BKK Corp. -- a successor to Cal Compact -- from the pension fund and from the oil companies that trucked drilling mud and fluids to the landfill, which closed in the 1960s. Any buyer would assume the remaining tab, officials said.

Until then, L.A. MetroMall, the pension-owned firm that holds title, is responsible for the detox job, according to a 1997 federal consent decree. That agreement resulted from a state lawsuit against the firm to require the cleanup.

The pension fund, for its part, sued the oil companies. In a settlement, the firms agreed to payments totaling $10 million. And they, in turn, have sued more than two dozen cities that dumped trash in the landfill, including Los Angeles and Long Beach, in hopes of recouping the money.

Deputy state Atty. Gen. Dennis Ragen said a settlement in that case is expected soon.

Once the cleanup is done, millions more would have to be spent to shore up the spongy terrain for construction. A clay or synthetic "cap" would be placed over the soil to trap pollutants, and pylons would be driven 50 or 60 feet into the ground to support a stadium.

Retail Center Proposed

Last year, GMS Realty of Carlsbad made an offer on the landfill, with designs for a 1.3-million-square-foot retail center. GMS executives are now huddled with the pension fund's trustees to acquire the property for resale to the NFL.

The GMS venture follows a series of aborted efforts to anchor stores, restaurants and movie theaters atop the landfill, whenever a football stadium wasn't on the table. Carson officials touted the site as a base for the Los Angeles Rams in 1978 and the Los Angeles Raiders in 1987.

Other dead-on-arrival proposals called for mobile homes, condominiums and a hotel tower. Many were thwarted by the environmental and legal problems.

The lumpy, wildflower-dusted plot runs along East Del Amo Boulevard, across from the Dominguez Golf Course and hard by the San Diego Freeway. Mobile home parks crowd its boundaries off Main Street and Avalon Boulevard.

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