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Caltrans identifies 15 potentially dangerous properties beneath 10 Freeway

A preliminary review of a program that rents space around and beneath California’s freeways has identified 38 sites that could threaten public infrastructure, including 15 below the 10 Freeway in Los Angeles where a destructive pallet fire at one such property  shut down one of the busiest thoroughfares in the country in early November.

Caltrans identified the risky sites based on the “results of recent inspections and characteristics of the site, including nature of known uses and proximity to critical infrastructure,” according to a memo from CalSTA Secretary Toks Omishakin to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Newsom ordered Caltrans to complete a comprehensive review and assessment of the 601 “airspaces” leased by the state in response to last month’s fire. Records revealed inspectors had flagged safety hazards repeatedly and recommended terminating the lease with the company controlling the property near downtown Los Angeles more than a year before the blaze began, but Caltrans didn’t take action until it filed a lawsuit to evict the company, Apex Development, in September of this year.

Apex hadn’t paid rent since 2020 and owed millions to the state at the time. The company denied having any responsibility for the fire through an attorney.

Since Nov. 11, the agency has conducted new inspections at 30 of the locations flagged in the initial state review.

Los Angeles County is home to nearly half of those potentially problematic sites.

 

Caltrans rushed to inspect 14 of the 17 local properties immediately following the 10 Freeway fire, records showed. The other three lots are used by self-storage companies that operate mini-warehouses beneath the 10 and the 101 freeways, respectively. Those lots have been leased to the same entities for more than three decades, require more time to inspect and aren’t expected to pose an immediate risk, according to Caltrans.

Inspection reports pending

Caltrans has been unable to provide the inspection reports completed in November and has delayed a formal response requesting past reports through the California Public Records Act until later this month.

The agency plans to share the inspections at a later date as part of its review process, according to Eric Menjivar, a spokesperson for Caltrans District 7.

“The State Fire Marshal is finalizing their findings on Airspace lease sites around Los Angeles and will report them to Caltrans,” Menjivar said. “If any fire risk issues are identified, Caltrans will immediately provide notices to the lessees to correct them.”

The potentially risky sites identified by Caltrans beneath the 10 Freeway vary significantly in terms of the level of development. Some include full concrete warehouses extending under the freeway. Others operate as open-air storage lots, with wrecked vehicles, wood pallets, piles of tires and other flammable materials visible behind graffiti-covered fences. Sites often are sublet to multiple tenants. Listings online advertise low rents to share spaces ranging from 17,000 to 300,000 square feet.

Businesses operating on the various sites included a hydroponics shop, a document archivist, a packing company, a carpet layer and a tow yard. One subtenant at a property on Enterprise Street sold car batteries online and posted images of at least three pallets full of batteries covered in corrosive dust. Under certain conditions, such batteries can explode.

Inspectors believe a stockpile of hand sanitizer left over from the pandemic contributed to November’s freeway fire.

One property was previously leased to a cannabis dispensary, according to online listings. Another once hosted an escape room, in which teams of players would solve puzzles to try to “escape” within a time limit.

Apparent lease violations

Many of the sites appeared to violate leases prohibiting the storage of flammable materials and inoperable vehicles.

One of the sites leased to Apex Development, the company blamed for the 10 Freeway fire, is used by a tow yard that offers to buy junk cars for cash. Satellite images and captures by Google Streetview show rows of totaled cars, stacks of tires and a mountain of components and scrap.

Reached by phone, the owner of Joe’s Towing, who would only identify himself as Jose, said he has been given a month to relocate by Caltrans. His neighbors have been told to move, too, he said.

“I don’t know what is going to happen,” he said.

Apex Development, the company leasing the Caltrans property where the 10 Freeway fire began, holds three other "airspace" leases for land beneath the same freeway. This was the destruction viewed at Lawrence Street and the 10 Freeway on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Apex Development, the company leasing the Caltrans property where the 10 Freeway fire began, holds three other “airspace” leases for land beneath the same freeway. This was the destruction viewed at Lawrence Street and the 10 Freeway on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The properties rented to Apex were perhaps the most obviously egregious, but other sites showed similarly poor conditions and even signs of past fires. Scorch marks were visible on the underside of the 10 Freeway at one 16th Street lot. Two others had burnt trash and charred sidewalks near their fence lines.

Though subtenants said they suspect a nearby homeless encampment led to the 10 Freeway fire, investigators believe an arsonist is to blame. Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass urged residents not to jump to conclusions in the aftermath of the fire.

As part of its review, Caltrans is working with tenants to address “safety violations and other lease violations,” according to the memo to the governor. The state agency plans to issue notices requiring tenants to correct any deficiencies within three days, the memo states.

The agency has identified another 112 sites that have not been inspected in at least two years. The majority of those sites are used for parking or cellphone towers and aren’t believed to present the same risks as sites with stockpiles of materials, according to Caltrans.

Caltrans expects to continue conducting inspections statewide to ensure compliance with the airspace leases and will review the program as a whole to “identify any necessary programmatic, inspection, enforcement and/or statutory changes and will make those findings publicly available,” according to Omishakin’s memo.

“With these steps underway, Caltrans will continue its transparent review of the Airspace lease program with the goal of ensuring that policies and practices minimize risks to the public or critical state infrastructure and all lease sites comply with lease terms, as well as state and federal law,” Omishakin stated.


Source: Orange County Register

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