A good move for South L.A. neighborhood

As part of a plan to bring affordable housing to a gritty part of town, city officials want to relocate a metal finishing firm charged with illegal dumping.

December 22, 2009|By Scott Gold

Los Angeles officials are close to completing a deal that would relocate a metal finishing company that has long been the bane of a poor neighborhood -- the final piece of an ambitious quarter-billion-dollar plan to bring affordable housing to a pocket of South L.A.

The company, Palace Plating, has become symbolic of the enduring troubles that followed South L.A.'s slapdash development.

Opened in 1941, it's the type of factory that drew thousands of working-class families to the city during the boom years of World War II. Yet it was wedged onto a narrow street next to homes and across from 28th Street School, which soon became one of the largest elementary campuses in the nation.

According to government officials, Palace Plating generated hazardous waste, including cyanide and chromium, and faced charges of illegal dumping. The waste gave the nearby students nosebleeds, headaches and worse, according to residents and lawsuits.

The company has long denied any malfeasance and has resisted calls to shut down -- despite lawsuits brought by teachers and parents, criminal charges and government inspectors. "It's been tough," said Jose Tirado, a longtime manager. "But we're still here."

Recently, however, the company has softened its position.

Some officials attribute it to a change in corporate structure; the company's longtime chief executive, Clifford R. Pierce Jr., died and his son, Roger Pierce, took over as chief executive, according to a manager.

Others cite the city's campaign to undo the damage of harried urban planning that left South L.A. shouldering a huge share of industrial pollution. New science linking industry with illness has upped the ante, officials said.

"Science has evolved," said City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who's also a member of the governing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Perry has been leading the effort to negotiate a resolution with the company. "They would be fighting an uphill battle by wanting to stay," she said. Details of the deal are still being negotiated. The wild card remains the waste itself; officials don't know how much cleanup will be required.

But several officials said the city is close to finalizing a deal that would shutter the plant and move it to a more appropriate industrial area.

The relocation would cost taxpayers about $4 million, they said. The plant would be demolished. The site would be scrubbed and then used for housing or a park in the planned The Crossings at 29th Street, an 11 1/2 -acre complex of about 500 affordable-housing units.

Urban Housing Communities, the Santa Ana-based developer, said construction would run as high as $280 million for theproject, which could take more than a decade to finish. The first phase is scheduled to break ground in 2010.

Some other small businesses -- a beauty salon, a bubble gum distributor, a botanica -- would also have to move. The mostly likely destination for Palace Plating, Perry said, is a slice of the 204-acre Goodyear Tire Tract between Slauson and Gage avenues. The site was once one of the nation's largest manufacturing centers for tires and other products.

Officials and attorneys involved in the negotiations said they could not discuss the details publicly. Doug Bigley, president of Urban Housing Communities, spoke about the deal with great care.

"It is highly desirable to make [Palace Plating] part of the redevelopment . . . We are very interested in solving that problem," he said.

Neither Roger Pierce nor one of his attorneys responded to requests for comment.

The street separating the plant from the school is gritty even by the standards of South L.A., littered with cardboard, discarded tires and rotting bananas. It's easy to miss the little sign tacked to the corner of Palace Plating: Sustancias peligrosas. Hazardous waste.

South L.A.'s ills have long been compounded by apathy and a lack of political might -- making it all the more unusual that the spark for this possible transformation came 14 years ago with the arrival of a young, poor, immigrant mother.

When she was 25, Martha Sanchez emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, and soon moved near the school, where she would enroll her three children.

Her two daughters developed asthma, she said. There were nosebleeds, and they all developed respiratory problems. Concerned, she began knocking on neighbors' doors; some told her they'd noticed the same thing.

She suspected that the source of their troubles was the little plant across from the school. She began poring over government documents. She knew little English at the time, but some words jumped out, such as "emissions." And yet, at every turn, officials kept telling her the area was safe. "I just thought: 'But how do you know that?' " she said.

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