South Central Farm continue 12-year effort for urban garden with lawsuit

By Alma Villegas

A court hearing scheduled tomorrow will continue a pending lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles by a local and historically renowned group, South Central Farm (SCF). For years, the group has petitioned input into the future of an undeveloped property in historic South Central.

“The red alert is this court hearing,” said Alberto Tlatoa, an SCF member who helped cultivate the city’s largest urban garden on the contested property more than a decade ago. “We are challenging the concept of how a project gets approved. We’ve been advocating green spaces for more than 15 years.”

The lawsuit, filed by The South Central Farmers Restoration Committee and six District 9 residents, objects the environmental review of the proposed industrial project on 41st Street and Alameda Avenue. The proposal’s construction and the future of a property that has for decades been the site of local political struggle is on hold awaiting settlement.

“Additionally, and in apparent violation of state law— residents have been denied the right to appeal this important decision to the Los Angeles City Council— a process failure the city is also challenging,” stated the plaintiffs’ lawyer Mitchell Tsai.

The project titled 4051 South Alameda Street Project is a plan to construct four buildings totaling an area of 480,520 square feet and 404 new parking spaces. The current property owner, PIMA Alameda Partners, intends to use the site for garment industry-related manufacture and distribution, which city planning officials say fulfills citywide and community planning goals.

“The underlying goal of the proposed project is to enhance the industrial sector of the Southeast Los Angeles Community Plan Area by providing nearly 1,000 jobs to the local economy,” stated the project’s draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) which was finalized and approved by city officials in June 2016.

According to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) city governments are required to submit an EIR for projects that may have direct physical change in the environment.

Seven areas of environmental concern were reviewed in the report including air quality and traffic which the report ruled as “less than significant.”

The SCF which is a group that formed from the efforts of resident farmers who grew and sold organic produce to the surrounding neighborhood between the years 1994 to 2006, said they believe the proposed project will alter traffic conditions and negatively impact the air quality of the area. They claim these effects were vastly understated in the EIR, according to an analysis submitted by environmental consultant professionals Thomas Williams and James Stewart to the city council’s Plan and Land Use Management committee.

“When the South Central Farm site was an urban farm, it provided 14 acres of local open green space and fed 350 families. It also provided local economic reliance and food security for the community--helping meet planning objectives specifically spelled out for the area in the City’s Open Space Element of its General Plan. Now these community objectives are being ignored as part of the development approval process,” stated Rosa Romero of the SCF restoration committee.

The committee represents allies of the SCF and their goal is to purchase the property and restore it as an urban community garden.

Residents, property owners and city officials have come into conflict regarding the use of the nearly 14-acre property since 1986.

At this time, according to The New Standard, a non-profit news agency detailing the property’s historical impact, the city had purchased the property using eminent domain which grants government the option to seize private property with the intent of public use and compensation to the owner. The city’s then proposal to convert the property into a waste-to-energy stalled due to the continued efforts of resident opposition.

In the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, city officials sold the property in 1994 for $13.3 million to the Los Angeles Harbor Department which granted a revocable permit to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank for use of a community garden, as stated in the EIR.

Tlatoa was in high school when his parents owned a plot in the farm. “People came to the farm specifically for organic produce that wasn’t available anywhere else,” he said.

The 32-year old activist described the food grown in the farm as “mesoamerican greens” with his family specifically growing papalo, pipicha, chipilĂ­n and chayote crops.

The garden was bulldozed in 2006 following a private settlement with city officials and Ralph Horowitz who had sued the city claiming the right to purchase back the property because it wasn’t being used for public projects, as stated in the EIR.

Following this, the SCF filed their first lawsuit against the city claiming the private settlement made with Horowitz violated their rights to a public session. An appeal courts ruled against the farmers and the SCF later appealed to the Supreme Court which rejected the case, according to The New Standard.

Horowitz denied requests to sell the land to the SCF and in 2012 PIMA Alameda Partners bought the property for $17.79 million, according to the property’s title. The SCF restoration committee has since continued attempts to purchase the property, according to Tlatoa.

The report reviewed three alternatives to the project which are no project, the use of clean fuel trucks and reduced truck operations. Although acknowledged as a request, a community garden option was not reviewed.

“[T]his alternative was rejected for further analysis, because it is inconsistent with the adopted Community Plan and existing land use designation and zoning. Development of the property as a community garden does not meet the basic objectives of the project including no creation of jobs in garment industry,” stated the EIR.

Southeast Los Angeles Community Plan names six land use goals including commercial, industrial, cultural and urban design, neighborhood character and economic development.

Ivonne Rodriguez, one of the plaintiffs, became involved with SCF about a year ago when conversations with neighbors Laura Palomares and Tlatoa, both SCF restoration committee members, inspired her to join the lawsuit.

“I’ve been a lifelong resident of South Central and people are always trying to tell us what we need.” said Rodriguez explaining her decision to join the lawsuit. “When this opportunity came up, it was for me very logical to be a part of it.”

As a District 9 resident, she said she believes a community garden is necessary.

“What do you want to happen here?” said Palomares, asking the crowd attending an SCF event on Friday which informed local allies and residents about the current lawsuit. The question Palomares asked referred to the future of the property.

For her part, Palomares said the 14-acre plot of land has the potential to be a food hub. “This could be a place where students can go use the internet, a place for quinceaneras, a clean space where street vendors can sell their food.”

The SCF is asking supporters to rally with them at 12:30 p.m outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse before the hearing at 1:30 p.m.


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