The 10 Freeway closure due to damage from a massive weekend pallet fire started by an unknown arsonist underneath the raised freeway has not only affected 300,000 motorists each day but also has impacted local businesses near the downtown Los Angeles segment of the freeway.
Heavy commuter traffic that has diverted off the 10 and onto local streets, and fear of future fire hazards has meant trouble for the produce district, just north of the closed freeway along Olympic Boulevard and its side streets.
Produce distributors said they are already facing economic impacts from the 10 Freeway disaster, and longtime businesses located beneath the raised freeway — such as Recycled Movie Sets, which for years has used storage space beneath the 10 — are being asked to move out because property managers fear future hazards.
Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass on Monday, Nov. 13, asked businesses downtown to ask their employees to work remotely if practical — but fresh produce distribution businesses in L.A.’s sizable downtown produce district don’t have that option.
Three produce distributors located on the 2000 East Olympic Boulevard block worked as much as they could on Tuesday morning, Nov. 14. On one side of the property they could watch as Caltrans crews repaired the freeway. And on the other side, as employees moved boxes of fruits and vegetables, they saw bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic forced to find routes like Olympic Boulevard in Downtown L.A.
“This has affected all of us,” Arturo Romero, manager at Ventura Distribution, said in Spanish. “We can’t stop working because it would be unjust to our employees. No matter what time of day, the traffic is bad to come in and out. It’s a complaint that we’re beginning to get from clients.”
Lawrence Street, which these businesses use to bring in semi-trailer trucks to load and unload produce, has been closed off because of the freeway repairs. And clients are reluctant to do business with distributors surrounded by suddenly congested streets, Romero said.
“It’s affected us a lot economically, because they don’t want to come,” he said.
Del Campo Distributor, a neighboring business, faces the same issue. Although they found a way to unload produce from the trucks on Olympic Boulevard using forklifts, employers are concerned that employees could get hurt because of reckless drivers jamming the streets — but they say they don’t have many options.
“We have no other choice because we can’t unload where we usually do, and now people don’t even want to send merchandise because of the traffic — so that affects us all around,” said Janet Bracamontes, who manages her father’s business.
Bracamontes said that Lawrence Street is significant not only because it’s the main entrance for semi-trucks to get to the produce distribution businesses, but it has also been the site of homeless encampments for several years.
She called the city several times about the encampments to no avail, but, she said, “When (the 10 Freeway fire) happened, the city came, cleaned it up and housed folks in one day. It’s frustrating for us because it takes something big like this for them to do something about the homeless crisis.”
Bracamontes said she was afraid businesses would have to shut down if the freeway is demolished to be repaired because it would affect the livelihood of many workers including those at Del Campo Distributor.
“My dad has had this business for 44 years, I can’t even imagine if we were to have to leave,” she said. “Everyone says, ‘Oh it’s just a pallet yard — but you know what? It’s a business, we use pallets, we need to make our orders, we ship them out to stores and restaurants. There is a need for everything. It’s a hard situation for everyone.”
Demolition of lanes on the 10 Freeway, the fear voiced by Bracamontes, won’t be needed. But motorists can expect a continued closure for three to five weeks for repairs, according to state and local officials who spoke at an early morning press conference on Tuesday, Nov. 14.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said tests of the concrete and rebar from the fire-scorched freeway showed stronger than expected structural integrity, meaning the freeway will not have to be demolished and rebuilt, but can be repaired and shored up instead.
Even so, some businesses which have used storage space beneath the raised freeway are being asked to move because property managers fear future hazards.
It’s happening to Recycled Movie Sets just a block away from Del Campo Distributor, at Olympic Boulevard and Elwood Street. Recycled Movie Sets rents recycled movie sets that would have otherwise been thrown into a landfill. They are instead saved and used for other, usually low-budget, productions.
Recycled Movie Sets has had an “airspace lease” for seven years, but since the 10 Freeway fire their location has become a concern, said owner Chase White.
Under an airspace lease, the state rents the space beneath bridges and freeways to businesses that have a need for the land. Under the Right of Way Division at Caltrans, its website explains that leasing airspace sites in a freeway right-of-way generates revenue that is used for public mass transportation projects.
“We have a sprinkler system and fire extinguishers throughout the property, we’re up to code, and we’ve been signed off by the fire department several times,” White said. “Every time there has been a fire they come to check us, but now they’re making us go.”
Recycled Movie Sets was asked by the property managers to move by mid-January, he said. But finding another place would be very costly and would have to be paid out of pocket, White said.
Property managers have set a date for the business to leave, but ultimately Caltrans is the owner of the property. Based on the complexity of the situation, it will take some time for Caltrans to address it, according to Caltrans District 7 spokesperson Michael Comeaux.
“It’s impossible to move it all in that timeline,” White said. The property is 35,000 square feet and the company has about 6,000 pieces of scenery. He said it is likely that they would only be able to salvage about 400 of their scenery pieces.
Like other businesses in the produce district, Recycled Movie Sets will have to make do with what they can, and keep their businesses going while they wait for the 10 Freeway to be repaired.
“So now we’re just trying to assess where to start,” White said. “We’ll figure it out.”