Tired of lacking green space, coalition wants park—not storage facility—on former toxic dump site

A former toxic dumping ground filled with lead and arsenic in upper West Long Beach has become the latest flashpoint in a decades-long struggle to create green space in the city.

Developers of an upcoming project at 3701 North Pacific Place are looking to build a three-story, 152,745-square-foot commercial building for personal storage as well as RV parking space on a plot of land wedged in among the Los Angeles River, 405 Freeway and the Los Cerritos neighborhood. But a group of locals living in close proximity to the site, the Riverpark Coalition, is pushing back against the project and arguing that the space should be used to develop a park along the river.

So far though, the storage project appears to be on track. On Dec. 17, the Planning Commission reviewed the proposal and gave it the thumbs up, adding recommendations such as zoning changes from light industrial to commercial storage, which the Long Beach City Council will have to vote on at a later date. The recommendation from the Long Beach Development Services Planning Bureau determined the empty lot has been a nuisance area with blight and trash that allowed for homeless encampments to be established.

“Because of the level of contamination on the site, viable options for appropriate uses are minimal,” according to the recommendation. “The applicant’s proposal to establish a self-storage facility with accessory office space, R.V. parking and a car wash is an appropriate use, considering the site’s environmental issues, as well as its limited access and isolated location in relation to surrounding land uses.”

The commission approved the project with a mitigated negative declaration as allowed by the California Environmental Quality Act, which means that developers are aware of problems the project may have because of toxic chemicals found underground but has determined these problems can be controlled. The city’s Planning Bureau stated that it had worked with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control for 18 months and submitted a remediated action plan.

“Those measures are expected to keep any potential environmental impacts to a minimum,” according to the bureau.

However, residents argue this isn’t enough, given the number of years toxic waste built up at the site, which was used for years as a sludge dumping ground for Signal Hill and Long Beach oil companies. They are asking officials to do a broader study, known as an environmental impact report, on the project site.

Carlos Ovalle, an architectural engineer and a supporter of the Riverpark Coalition, pointed out that the environmental impact report covers more ground while the mitigated negative declarations allow developers to conduct their own environmental tests for potential hazards instead of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

“It’s a case of the fox guarding the hen house,” Ovalle said.

The Riverpark Coalition is currently collecting signatures to bring to Councilman Al Austin, who oversees the 8th District, calling on him to vote against the plan as it stands and instead make a recommendation to require an environmental impact report. As of Dec. 30, the petition has collected over 600 signatures, according to the Coalition.

Paul Brown, a partner with developers Insite Property Group, said the company had been eying the property for 18 months. He said the company is planning to move its headquarters to the location and added that dozens of employees are excited to move into the community to live and work there.

Brown did not comment on the green space concerns some residents had expressed. When asked about the possibility of an environmental impact report, Brown said they stood behind the findings of the mitigated negative declaration.

“We know everything was done properly with great consultants,” he said. “We are confident it will move forward through City Council.”

But the battle residents are fighting isn’t just against one specific project. They’re concerned about years of promises to create green space they argue haven’t been kept.

Riverpark Coalition member and associate Cal State Long Beach professor Kimberly Walters said one of the main reasons residents are upset is because the 3701 North Pacific Place land is on course to be lost to more concrete structures—meaning the chance to develop future green space will be lost.

The city’s Planning Bureau said the private property was never under consideration to be converted into a public park or green space.

“The discussions with InSite and prior owners of the property have never involved its use as a park or otherwise as a green space,” a statement from the bureau read.

Residents living in West Long Beach have long been affected by health issues such as air pollutants from the highway and port and lack of green spaces to live active lives.

“We deserve green space on this side of Long Beach,” Walters said. “It’s a question of equity for us and highlights the differences between East and West Long Beach.”

West Long Beach residents hoping to see a green space similar to El Dorado Park are finding it difficult to locate open space in their denser communities. Long Beach’s main struggle remains in access to green space in the park-poor areas of West, North, and Central Long Beach, with West Long Beach lacking the most green space out of any part of the city.

Residents argue the area where the storage project is set to be built was part of a larger conversation to add more green space to areas along the river known as the Lower Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan, which was a master plan from the early 2000s that looked for ways to implement revitalization projects along the 51-mile-long LA River. A news report from the Press-Telegram in 2001 showed the state then had earmarked $5.85 million for green space development along the river. One of the spaces officials were eying to purchase at the time is located near the planned storage facility.

The space where the project is set to be built is also one of the few remaining parcels of open space in the western part of the city.

“We’ve been promised for decades it would be a park,” Walters said. “West Long Beach doesn’t have much green space.”

In 2015, the Long Beach City Council expressed their support for more green spaces along the river, and voted on an update to a proposal called the Riverlink Project, which would’ve connected park systems dotted on the riverbanks. Amy Valenzuela-Mier, a member of the Riverpark Coalition and longtime resident in the area, said her family heritage could potentially be at stake as the 3701 North Pacific Place project is constructed.

She and her family are descendants of the native Gabrielino people, who she said lived along the river. Remains from the indigenous people have been found near the area of the project site, Valenzuela-Mier said. Her family has a history of living and working along the river. She recalled her father riding from their family ranch in Compton up and down the river. Back then, the toxic pools were slimy and green, she said.

Valenzuela-Mier believes greener spaces along the river would greatly benefit the farmers and equestrian communities that work along the riverbed—and help protect a piece of her heritage.

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Sebastian Echeverry is the North Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of his grant-funded position with the Long Beach Post. If you want to support Sebastian's work, you can donate to his Report for America position at lbpost.com/support.
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