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Santa Fe Springs Project   December 2009


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The Santa Fe Springs Project is a proposal for bold action in a place where some of the most treacherous environmental damages and harms to human health exist in the United States. Acceptance of a way of life that is constantly mitigating pollutants and toxins has set in, prompting the necessity of a re-imagination of reality. What if things were done differently? What can this prototypical proposal suggest for similarly toxic sites around the world?

HIDDEN INTERIORS

The City of Santa Fe Springs is, by all appearances, a comfortable suburban town on the fringes of the geographical range of the City of Los Angeles. It is nestled between the cities of Whittier and Downey, as one of the "Gateway Cities" on the southeast edge of Los Angeles. The major roads are wide and tree-lined, with office complexes, a nicely-designed civic center, and stores familiar to most Americans. This innocuous appearance, what would appear to most as a run-of-the-mill American city, hides a history that is far more interesting.

In 1910, Santa Fe Springs was a sleepy town with only a few residents. Then, after the second-largest oil strike in US history, it was transformed into a bustling hub of industrial activity almost overnight. Even today, if you drive off the major commercial streets, most of Santa Fe Springs is an industry town, with various manufacturing and processing plants. Unfortunately, despite the prosperity that industry brought, severe environmental harms were also introduced.

Waste Disposal Incorporated (WDI) was a company that took over what was known as "The Dial" decades ago. The Dial was a huge tank, designed to hold over 150 million liters of oil. It was built around the time of the oil strike of 1910 but was decommissioned in the 1930's. WDI's primary operation was to take all of the toxic sludge that the various industries produced and to dispose of it, much of it going in the Dial and some of it simply being put in open-air pits on their property around the Dial. This continued into the 1960's at which point WDI began to sell off parcels of the property for new industrial uses.

BURIED TERROR

In the 1980's the United States Environmental Agency declared that the site, being full of extremely hazardous contaminants and being close to schools, homes, and water supply, was to be cleaned through their Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) which is also known as "Superfund." To date, extensive study of the site has been carried out, and about .5 million was spent on ensuring that the site would not contaminate neighboring human settlements and water supplies. The site, however, was determined to be permanently unusable through this mitigation plan and the toxins remain buried at the site.

While the site hangs in limbo, life in the surrounding community goes on. There is a large residential population across the street, a high school by the name of St. Paul is immediately adjacent to the empty lot, and there are several medium to large industrial operations on the opposite side of the lot. Despite the environmental issues at the core of the site, parcels on the periphery appear to be useable and, indeed, one lot is currently for sale. Dealing with environmental hazards has simply become a way of life.

One local librarian, Shannon, explained that you grow up in the environment, your kids grow up in the environment, and, eventually, you begin to become complacent. The city is aware of the problem: despite its small size, it has its own fire department that is specially trained for responding to hazardous material events. Most city services for a town of this size are typically contracted out to larger cities, such as is done with Santa Fe Spring's police services which are contracted out to the neighboring city of Whittier. Just recently, Shannon explained that they smelled what might have been natural gas at a children's event the library was holding and it was a calm affair: the children lined up and they were all ushered into a nearby safe zone while the fire department came to inspect. It turned out to be a small issue of little danger but the even goes to show just how common-place the hazardous material lifestyle has become for Santa Fe Springs.

DECAY AND HOPE

In addition to the environmental concerns, Santa Fe Springs has a host of other pressing concerns. It is grappling with its transformation from a small, mostly white industry town of the early part of the 21st century, to the primarily Latino community that it is today. You can find cheap and delicious Mexican food throughout the town and Spanish is spoken by a majority of residents as their native tongue -- even more than English. Also, despite strong efforts to boost the city's economy, the income of residents remains low. It hovers around a number that is less than the African nation of Botswana and is far below the typical income needed to support oneself in the expensive United States. Indeed, the city boasts that over 90% of its land is dedicated to industrial and commercial uses, and it strongly supports entrepreneurial locals, winning an award in 2009 for "City Friendliest to Business." Nevertheless, little of this reflects back on its residents who often struggle to make ends meet. Much of the local housing stock is dilapidated and in need of repair.

Despite these environmental and social conditions, the site shows to be one of extraordinary promise. It offers one of the few remaining open lots in the whole of the Los Angeles area. Los Angeles, contrary to popular belief in terms of sprawl and car culture, is actually one of the densest urban agglomerations in the United States and there is very little open space left. Furthermore, there are a host of underutilized amenities nearby, including St. Paul High School as well as the Los Angeles Metro line 270. Line 270 is immediately adjacent to the WDI site and is one of the few Metro lines that reaches this far outside of Los Angeles. It has easy links to the Metrolink commuter train system for Greater Southern California, to the Norwalk Green Line Station which goes to LAX, and to several other transfer stations.

Santa Fe Springs offers superb facilities for the city as a whole including several other good schools, several parks, as well as a nicely designed Civic Center which includes municipal headquarters, a library, a public pool, a post office, the fire station, and several other amenities. Most of this facilities, however, are on the opposite side of the industrial block which serves as a buffer between the WDI site and much of the city's commercial and residential development.

Overall, the city has a density that is only one half of Greater Los Angeles and could use more build-up and densification. In order to provide this, to remediate the environmental concerns of the site, to boost the number of jobs and the income of residents, to provide affordable and well designed housing stock, to create a sustainable community, and to provide a humane habitat, a bold architectural vision must be pursued. It must be achievable within the .5 million budget that was spent on remediation, plus consideration of new economic development while still being significant enough in order to draw attention to Santa Fe Springs and the WDI site for both its residents and for the public at large.

Team: Jonathan Crisman.