Business & Economy

Jordan Downs construction begins despite soil contamination concerns

File: An old steel mill and truck repair facility, where lead and other toxins were found, sits adjacent to Jordan Downs Housing Projects.
File: An old steel mill and truck repair facility, where lead and other toxins were found, sits adjacent to Jordan Downs Housing Projects.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

The $1 billion redevelopment project aimed at turning Jordan Downs in Watts into a national model for public housing broke ground on Monday. 

The current Jordan Downs complex, which houses thousands of low-income residents, is set to be replaced by a new, mixed-use development. The project's primary phase will build 115 affordable apartment units, and is expected to take about a year to complete.

The construction site also includes a swath of land being cleaned up after the city found lead, arsenic, cadmium and polychlorinated biphenyls in the ground in 2014. Since then, activists have called for additional soil testing and cleanup to take place as the redevelopment project moves forward. 

At a groundbreaking ceremony Monday afternoon,  L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti joined City Councilman Joe Buscaino to kick off the construction, calling it "a new chapter in the history of Watts."

"This redevelopment will create good affordable housing for people who need it, attract new investment, and deliver clean, safe places for our children to grow," Garcetti said in a statement prior to the event. 

The long-term project will rebuild 700 units of distressed public housing, according to the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. It will also add an additional 710 homes, a new community and recreation center, retail space, green space and neighborhood programming. 

File: A rendering of the billion-dollar Jordan Downs redevelopment project.
File: A rendering of the billion-dollar Jordan Downs redevelopment project.
Courtesy of Mithun/Solomon and SVA Architects

"The redevelopment will not only provide additional units amid a housing crisis and prevent families from falling into homelessness, but also integrate commercial and public spaces to create a healthy and thriving community," Buscaino said in a statement.

Despite soil tests revealing high levels of lead in the ground beneath Jordan Downs, state regulators gave the project the go-ahead last year. For years, Watts residents and activists have raised concerns about contaminants harming the residents as construction begins.

File: Jordan Downs Housing Project in Watts.
File: Jordan Downs Housing Project in Watts.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

Alexander Harnden, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of L.A., told KPCC he and other advocates want to be sure residents stay clear of any possible contamination.

"The question is how much has it spread and are residents being protected as that soil is dug up, disturbed, removed and replaced?" he said. 

Going forward, each phase of the project will be subject to strict "environmental oversight," according to Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles spokeswoman Annie Kim. 

She did not comment on whether the city would conduct more soil testing as construction begins.