Proposed Retail Center Splits Commerce

By Jacqueline Garcia & Gloria Alvarez, EGP Staff Writers

A proposal to build a retail complex that could include a big box type retail store on Washington Boulevard near the 710 Long Beach Freeway in the City of Commerce is drawing heat from a local environmental group, at the same time others in the city say the development will bring needed jobs and added revenue to the city.

Plans for the for the proposed Commerce Retail Center Project on Washington, running from the 710 Freeway to Atlantic Boulevard, and from Washington Boulevard to Sheila Street, include a 122,450-square-foot “Major Anchor” retail store, with adjoining restaurants and other retail spaces.

Lea este artículo en Español: Centro Comercial Propuesto Divide a Residentes de Commerce

It would be built on land the city is selling as required under the state’s dissolution of redevelopment agencies across the state. The city is in escrow with Gatwick Group, LLC, however, the sale is contingent on approval of the retail project.

The city’s planning commission reviewed plans for the proposed development, but last week split 2-2 on whether or not to recommend approval to the city council. One of the five commissioners recused himself due to a potential conflict of interest.

Speculation among the project’s opponents is that the project applicant, Venture Retail Group, plans to lease the site to Walmart, although no specific retailer is named in the project, only a description that describes a retail format found at many of Walmart’s larger stores.

Planning Commissioner Mike Alvarado told EGP he strongly supports the project, saying it would again make Commerce a “Model City,” a reference to the city’s motto.

“The city, as it is now, looks horrible, it is decaying,” Alvarado told EGP, explaining that revenue generated from the development would help pay for repairs to streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure put off for years.

Opponents, however, say the land is too contaminated with toxic chemicals spread by the now closed Exide battery-recycling plant in Vernon and past industrial uses. It is “irresponsible” to move forward without first creating a cleanup plan, says Mark Lopez, director of Commerce-based East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

The property was once home to a heavy machinery business, according to Lopez. Toxic materials, percholorethylene (PCE) and tetrachloroethylene (TCE), that could affect movement and control of the body, can be found on the site, Lopez said.

A final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Commerce Retail Center Project was released on March 3 of this year and is waiting approval. Lopez believes the review of potential environmental issues, including health hazards has been inadequate.

He says the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) hasn’t yet characterized the elevated levels of soil contamination, adding the organization does not “trust” DTSC to do an adequate oversight job given the agency’s failures in the Exide contamination issue.

DTSC however, citing its “great deal of experience and expertise overseeing the investigation and cleanup of these types of properties across the state,” told EGP in an email statement that the agency is using its “expertise to ensure the work at the Gatwick site in the City of Commerce is done properly so property is safe for its planned use.”

View of site for proposed retail development at Washington and Atlantic boulevards. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

View of site for proposed retail development at Washington and Atlantic boulevards. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

The agency said it has reviewed and evaluated the developer’s risk assessment and cleanup plans and “sent our comments back to the developer for revision,” DTSC spokesperson Sandy Nax told EGP.

“In addition, the developer has recently acquired a new land parcel within the same block from the City of Commerce. DTSC has required investigation of the subsurface soil in the new parcel and the Proponent will be conducting soil sampling soon.”

East Yards and others also say they are concerned the project could negatively impact the I-710 Corridor Project to improve an 18-mile stretch of the I-710 from Long Beach to the Pomona 60 Freeway in East Los Angeles. The goal of the 710 project is to “improve air quality/public health, improve traffic safety, modernize the freeway design” to accommodate projected growth in the area.

The project has been under review for years, and at one time contained a proposal to take upwards of 100 homes in the Ayers neighborhood to make room for the expansion. If built, the retail center would be located near the 710 Freeway where Lopez said they fought to locate the new northbound off-ramp to avoid the taking of the Ayers neighborhood.

“So part of our struggle was to redesign the project so it wouldn’t take those homes and what we did, instead of having the off-ramp [east of the freeway], it would come to the other side where they want to put the Walmart,” Lopez said, adding they know for a fact that a Walmart is slated to open on the site.

“So if they build a Walmart, who’s going to have better protections from the lawyers, Walmart or the homes?” asked Lopez.

Lauren Wonder, a spokesperson for Caltrans District 7, told EGP there is currently no project alignment for the I-710 project. Nothing has been decided, she said. “The time frame for the final environmental impact report is now early 2017.”

Until the final I-710 EIR is published, comments received and the document is finalized, any discussion of future impacts “will only be a speculation,” Commerce’s Publics Works Director Maryam Babaki told EGP.

Both Babaki and Alvarado say it could take 10 or more years to move the I-710 project, and the city can’t just wait until it does.

Alvarado said he has no problem if Walmart ultimately winds up being the anchor tenant, adding he wants a tenant that will attract more people and benefit other businesses in the area.

Commerce’s General Plan calls for service commercial, general commercial and light industrial uses in the area. A big box store, like Walmart or Target, could generate $600,000 to $800,000 in added revenue per year for the city, according to Maryam Babaki, Commerce’s director of Public Works.

Mayor Ivan Altamirano told EGP he hasn’t decided whether to support the project, saying, “this is not a decision to be taken lightly.”

“I want to know all the players and pieces of this project and quite frankly I don’t believe all of that information has been disclosed,” he said.

“Our community is actually divided on this project. It seems like everyone in the city is already calling this project Walmart except for the developers.”

Altamirano said several factors must be taken in consideration, such as the impact on traffic and the number of good paying jobs it will bring for residents. We also have to look at crime in the area, and whether there are enough sheriff deputies to patrol the area, he told EGP.

Alvarado told EGP the city is already working on traffic improvements in the area, including the widening of Washington Boulevard. The opponents are “a group of people that want to hold back progress of the community,” he said. He and others believe the real issue is opposition to Walmart.

East Yards calls Walmart’s employment track record “problematic,” claiming company workers earn low-wages and work too few hours to qualify for benefits, and has closed up stores with little notice to employees.

Alvarado doesn’t buy the argument, and points out that that other businesses in the area, including at the Citadel, only pay their employees the minimum wage and “nobody complains.”

A date has yet to be set for the project to go before the full city council for review, but it is likely to be within the next few weeks, said Alvarado.

Altamirano said that he will not be rushed into making a decision that will have such a significant impact on the community.

“Once all the information is provided then we can move forward on what is best for the residents of Commerce,” the mayor said.

“Those that don’t want a Walmart are rightfully concerned about the negative effects Walmart has historically had on communities. Those that are in favor of the project I believe really just want a shopping option, Walmart or not.”

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Twitter @jackiereporter

jgarcia@egpnews.com

galvarez@egpnews.com

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April 7, 2016  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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