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Angling for a piece of L.A.'s future clean-tech center

April 28, 2009|Maeve Reston

The showpiece of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's vision for a clean technology manufacturing corridor east of downtown isn't much to look at. The scraggly 20-acre plot, dotted with weeds and pipes venting deep soil gases, was once envisioned as the site of a state prison.

But the mayor and his team are marketing this industrial parcel, dubbed the CleanTech Manufacturing Center, as a business incubator in the mold of Silicon Valley.

Amid 12% unemployment and a city budget crisis, the corridor concept was one of the few bright spots in Villaraigosa's recent State of the City address.

Though it would rely heavily on private investment and money from state and federal sources, it is a critical component of the mayor's "green jobs" agenda as he eyes a probable run for governor in 2010. And it could be a test of his pledge to transform Los Angeles into "the greenest and cleanest big city in the nation," drawing more than a third of its electrical power from renewable sources by 2020.

Outlining his agenda earlier this month, the mayor set the bar high, saying the plan could make Los Angeles "the global capital of clean technology."

Cecilia V. Estolano, chief executive of the Community Redevelopment Agency, has led development of the CleanTech Corridor concept. She contends that Los Angeles is "driving the technology, and we're driving demand, and that is a huge calling card."

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The corridor envisioned by city planners spans 2,236 acres east of Alameda Street, with its borders still in flux. It begins at a swath of land straddling the L.A. River, near Los Angeles State Historic Park (the former Cornfield), that Councilman Ed Reyes hopes to transform into a neighborhood where bicycles and pedestrians would rule and carbon emissions would be cut by 35%. Then it runs south through the site of a future Department of Water and Power research center into the Artists-in-Residence district, which stretches from Alameda to the river and from 1st Street to south of 7th Street.

The vacant CleanTech Manufacturing site at Santa Fe Avenue and 15th Street, just south of the 10 Freeway, forms the corridor's southern anchor.

The jockeying for a piece of a project at the top of the mayor's agenda has already begun.

Last fall, CRA officials and the mayor's business team began courting clean technology companies -- talking up the purchasing power of the city's public utilities, as well as the array of tax incentives available to business.

More than 100 companies, from solar and electric car manufacturers to a garment recycling business, expressed interest in the site, which the city purchased from the state last April for $14 million.

The most intensive push, coordinated by the mayor's office, has been for an Italian rail manufacturer, AnsaldoBreda, which is angling for a $300-million rail car construction contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The contract is controversial because some MTA officials have been unhappy with the company's performance in meeting rail car contract specifications in the past.

If it secures the contract, AnsaldoBreda has promised to build a $70-million manufacturing plant. A number of political insiders are working to get the deal done, including the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, lobbyist Chris Lehane and the green building company Shangri-LA Construction, founded by Democratic contributor and Villaraigosa donor Steven Bing.

In an interview, Estolano said the CRA is still marketing the CleanTech site to other companies as the agency negotiates with AnsaldoBreda, which must win over MTA commissioners.

"This is a growth sector for us in Los Angeles, and we have one shot at a 20-acre site," Estolano said. "If it doesn't work out for them [AnsaldoBreda] at the MTA, it's too bad. We're moving on."

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Farther north in the corridor, the mayor's team will soon unveil plans for a DWP research center focusing on renewable energy, climate change and water intended to attract companies that want to work with area universities.

The cluster of laboratories would be housed in a transformer warehouse overlooking the river on the DWP's Main Street site, and the DWP recently secured a private donation that will allow the department to perform a $4.5-million "green retrofit" of the building.

Among the projects planned: development of aerospace technology with Caltech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory that would help the DWP better measure snowpack in the Eastern Sierra and dust in the Owens Valley.

In the basement of the DWP building, UCLA would build a wind tunnel testing facility. And USC is exploring the site for a research institute that would study how to make data centers more energy efficient.

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