In November 1999, Chi Mui, Luis MacAdams, and Arthur Golding had a dream about saving the Cornfields in Chinatown and the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Chi was then a Chinatown activist and political staffer, Luis MacAdams a poet and founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, and Arthur Golding an architect who drew conceptual plans for an urban park (now the Los Angeles State Historic Park). A community organizing effort boosted by support from preservationists and environmentalists, an administrative complaint before HUD, and a lawsuit helped to stop proposals to convert the old Union Pacific railyards to new industrial complexes and warehouses. Instead, community inspired plans for an urban park and re-greened and revitalized neighborhoods were offered as alternatives. “Nothing like this has ever happened in Chinatown before,” Chi said. And the long neglected neighborhoods in and around Chinatown were able to coalise under the Chinatown Yard Alliance and convince then-Governor Gray Davis to authorize the purchase of the original Cornfields and preserve it with another $10 million to help begin cleanup of the once heavily polluted land.
Residents and community leaders expressed concern about bringing in too many new people without providing an affordable way to maintain housing for current residents and expanded affordable housing for their families. Representatives from the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, Los Angeles Taxi Workers Alliance, Homeboy Industries and the Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA) all voiced concern at the lack of affordable housing guarantees in any plan. Most of those who spoke raised concerns about the impact of new development on existing community residents. “We fought hard to build the vibrant community that we have here,” said Sissy Trinh with SEACA.
The Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan (CASP), a campaign that the Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA) and Public Council have been working on, may help to offer affordable housing and equitable development at the Cornfields. CASP went to the Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Sub committee of the LA City Council this week, which voted unanimously to pass the Plan. The next step is for CASP to go to the City Attorney's office for legal review before going to the full City Council for vote, which may be sometime in late Spring. The CASP promises to transform the communities of Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park and Chinatown from mixed-use, mostly industrial, to a more residential area with industrial areas designed to attract green and other LEED certified (environmentally clean) businesses.
Councilman Ed Reyes and his staff, the city's Planning Department, and neighborhood activists and visionaries who have worked for more than a decade, are now ready to realize the Cornfield communities into a collection of new urban zones. They passed an important milestone when the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan was approved in the City Council's planning committee. There are two more stops, the city attorney needs to put everything in proper order, and then the full council needs to act. There is a greenway zone, oriented toward enhancing the river as the neighborhood's frontyard. There is an urban village zone, focused on housing and other residential use, with some ground-floor retail. There is a denser urban center zone, close to rail stations, geared for job-creating uses but with residential space included. And there is an urban innovation zone, with flexible space geared toward anything from artists' studios to light manufacturing.
After two decades of community organizing, coalition building, and working with city and state government - a new vision that incorporates smart growth, affordable housing, transportation, and the re-greening of urban communities from their industrial past - is being offered. Stay tuned...