November 2, 2007

Old Town National City residents see hope for a cleaner, safer future

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

Adriana Calderon’s five-year-old daughter Zoe has asthma and all the paint fumes and other pollutants near her home in the Old Town National City neighborhood have only made her condition worst.

Old Town National City residents held a rally outside City Hall to support the Westside Specific Plan.

“I have spent too many nights in the emergency room with my daughter, who is severely asthmatic,” Calderon said.

She was one of about 60 Old Town National City residents who attended a rally last Tuesday, October 30, led by the Environmental Health Coalition in front of the National City City Hall to support most of the Westside Specific plan and to demand toxic business phase-out from the area, among other issues.

“The city council needs to take quick action to phase out polluters,” said Calderon.

Old Town National City, the area between Interstate 5 and National City Blvd., for decades has seen an increase in the number of polluting businesses, such as autobody and paint shops, welding shops, and truck driving schools.

Often there are frequent fires and accidents involving chemicals and other hazardous materials.

The area is home to Kimball Elementary School, a campus that’s surrounded by pollutants and dangerous toxics.

About 78 percent of residents in Old Town are low-income. More than 90 percent of residents are Latinos.

“Old Town National City is the poorest neighborhood in the poorest city in the county,” said Tony LoPresti, a policy advocate with EHC.

EHC and the community are advocating for toxic polluting businesses to be replaced by affordable housing and community-serving businesses.

The Westside Specific Plan, which on Tuesday’s meeting the city council weighed on for the first time, would completely re-zone the neighborhood and call for the amortization of autobody and paint shops, which are responsible for about 70 percent of the carcinogenic and toxic chemicals released into the air each year in the community, according to EHC.

The city council, for the most part, supports the plan. In recent years the council has taken several steps towards cleaning up the Old Town neighborhood.

In August, 2006, it passed an ordinance that allows the city to phase out the worst polluters in the neighborhood.

This year, the city council responded to residents’ demands that a truck driving school cease driving practice between Kimball Elementary and an apartment building.

“Old Town has been ignored by city government for too long. We really think that this time the community and city council are working together to improve the area,” LoPresti said.

During the city council meeting, EHC’s core demands (affordable-housing for current residents, phase-out of toxic polluters, establishing buffer zones between freeways and homes, and three-story height limits) were largely supported by the council.

“This is a vital plan and a very much needed step to move forward towards improving Old Town National City,” said Councilmember Frank Parra. “We need to start attacking these polluters. We’ve asked too much of this community already.”

Some developers and landowners in Old Town National City were calling for additional unrestricted height allowances throughout the neighborhood to maximize profit. At the last minute, they calling for the plan to be delayed and re-designed, but the city council rejected their request.

During the meeting, some 30 community members spoke in favor of the plan. LoPresti said that EHC has more than 250 petitions of support from community members.

“This is the battle for the soul of Old Town National City,” LoPresti said.

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