FLORENCE-FIRESTONE — Stand at the intersection of Santa Fe Avenue and Nadeau Street on a weekday afternoon and you’ll see dozens of parents picking up their students, double parking with their hazards on, stalling traffic. Older students walk home on sidewalks with minimal shade, the smell of car exhaust in the air. Too often, students are rushing across the busy street to beat impatient drivers, inches away from cars and semi-trucks. 

There are already three schools near this intersection, all letting out about the same time, and soon there may be a fourth. A charter school nonprofit, Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), is building a new middle school.

On Thursday Sept. 7, about 50 teachers, parents, and neighbors protested at the construction site of the new school. Protesters say that the middle school is being built at an intersection that is already congested with heavy traffic, that environmental conditions in the area compromised, and believe it is unfair that KIPP was not required to go through an environmental review process that so many other projects must, because of what they view as a zoning loophole. But the bottom line, they argue the new school will actually worsen conditions for students. 

Community members hold up signs during Sept. 7 protest at KIPP construction site (Ashley Orona / LAPP)
Community members hold up signs during Sept. 7 protest at KIPP construction site (Ashley Orona / LAPP)

The new school site, along with the three existing schools, is located in an area with businesses such as tire shops and trucking companies. Just half a mile away, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigated the Central Metal site, where scrap metal was previously recycled, and metal tanks manufactured. Now a derelict lot, that recycling center left piles of soil, which have been tested and found to have hazardous levels of lead and arsenic. Levels of lead and arsenic measured in the yards of nearby homes were found to be in excess of EPA safe standards.

“I think they’re taking advantage of people who might not be politically aware of what’s going on,” said Clare Rodriguez, who has been a teacher at Walnut Park Elementary, located in Walnut Park, for 25 years. Standing in front of the future site of the KIPP charter school, Rodriguez added, “The school might be pretty but no one tested the soil to find out if kids will be safe coming here.”

The project was approved by the LA County Department of Regional Planning, by simple ministerial review (the almost automatic approval process for most permitting), but people in the area don’t think that was enough. While across the county debate rages over onerous permitting processes and red tape, which advocates say is one of the main reasons for the dearth of affordable housing in LA, here in Florence-Firestone and Walnut Park people are asking for more environmental review. They point out that in wealthier neighborhoods something as simple as a convenience store might require a lengthy environmental review process, governed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), but here projects tend to be approved without input from community members.

Teachers and parents protest at KIPP charter school construction site (Ashley Orona / LAPP)
Teachers and parents protest at KIPP charter school construction site (Ashley Orona / LAPP)

Even large building projects are automatically approved by right when they abide by zoning and design requirements, as the school does. The school meets the criteria to skip the onerous environmental review and be approved by ministerial review in the general commercial zone, which the site occupies. KIPP is building a permanent campus for two existing schools, which are currently located at separate sites in Huntington Park. 

Many residents noted that the Sept. 7 protest was when they learned a school was being built on this site, including Betty Retama, who lives a block away from the site. Retama, like many others, was frustrated that KIPP was not required to notify the surrounding community of a large project like this.

“It’s not okay what Regional Planning is doing in granting permits without knowing whether the project will negatively impact the community,” said Salvador Diaz in Spanish, a resident of Walnut Park.

The EPA released a site inspection report last month on the Central Metals site with the agency’s findings on the chemical testing they did on 83 residential properties in Florence-Firestone and Walnut Park. The investigation found that 11 properties have levels of the toxic metals lead and arsenic that exceed the “Hazard Ranking System” (HRS), which provides the technical guidelines for determining whether a site is eligible to become a superfund site. 

Retama lives in one of the 11 residences where high levels of lead were found. She has a garden in her home where she plants fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes that she now questions whether they are safe to eat due to the contamination. Heavy metals affect multiple body systems and are particularly harmful to children under seven years old. Even low levels of lead in the blood have been shown to affect a child’s learning capacity, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.

Although the EPA report concluded that the contamination in residences could not be directly tied to the Central Metals site, and therefore will not register it as a superfund site, the report noted that the contamination is “likely a function of both historical and current stationary and non-stationary lead sources” found in the surrounding areas. 

“It’s all contaminated around here,” said Retama, emphasizing the importance of environmental reviews for projects in the area. 

Another concern protesters raised was traffic. The new KIPP building will be on a busy intersection. Just next door to the new school is a trucking company, Heitz Trucking, Inc., where many freight trucks come in and out regularly, including during school dismissal times.    

KIPP has conducted a traffic and “environmental study,” according to Joanna Belcher, KIPP chief external impact officer. In a letter sent by the Los Angeles County Public Works Department, they “generally agree[d] with the findings” of the traffic study; however, they included conditions to accommodate peak traffic hours in the intersection. One of the recommendations includes having enough space for at least 23 cars in queue.   

“That’s laughable,” said Rodriguez, a teacher at Walnut Park Elementary. “It’s still going to back up traffic on Santa Fe.” 

Belcher spoke to LA Public Press in August, responded to additional questions, but has not responded to LA Public Press’s request for the “environmental study” results. Cesely M. Westmoreland, KIPP registered in-house counsel, has yet to respond to our public records request.

Ashley Orona is a journalist and community organizer from South Central Los Angeles. She loves spending time with her family, supporting local businesses, and finding new scenic views around LA.