While warehouses have become ubiquitous in the Inland Empire, recent proposals call for rezoning residential land for industrial use, leaving the largely minority and low-income residents who live there with few choices.
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When Victoria Padilla steps outside her childhood home in Bloomington, she inhales some of the unhealthiest air in the nation. It’s why, despite an aversion for public speaking, she needed little convincing from her neighbor to appear at a planning commission meeting two years ago. But after testifying alongside dozens of upset residents, the commission eventually approved the West Valley Logistics Center — six to seven warehouses totaling 3.4 million square feet, roughly 59 football fields.
Today, a blue tarp fence sections off more than 200 acres of land down the street from her home, signaling the project’s arrival. The warehouse complex will be nestled at the base of a hill just 200 feet from homes in Bloomington, an unincorporated community in San Bernardino County. It will rise on what was for many years an unofficial recreational area for the neighborhood where Padilla and her friends rode their bikes.
It wasn’t the first warehouse, and it won’t be the last.
Driven by skyrocketing ecommerce, the Inland Empire’s warehouse boom has created an insatiable appetite for land, encroaching on established low-income neighborhoods such as Padilla’s, clogging roads and spewing air pollution. But while the warehouses once went up on undeveloped tracts of land, recent proposals have called for rezoning residential land for industrial use, instilling fear among residents that their communities are being razed right before their eyes in the name of economic development. In one case, the county is planning to “upzone” entire blocks of Bloomington, leaving nothing but a business park between a middle school and an elementary school.
Environmental activists, who have at best slowed the pace of construction, vow to keep fighting despite fierce political and economic headwinds.
“We cannot normalize or naturalize what’s happening,” said Andrea Vidaurre, senior policy analyst for the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice and former member of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, two groups that have opposed local logistics projects. “This stuff isn’t happening anywhere else in the country.”
Building up logistics
The first major warehouses lined the Inland Empire along Interstate 15 in Ontario in the 1980s. Carved up by major highways and railways, flush with cheap land and situated less than 60 miles from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, the region offered an ideal home for vast distribution and warehousing networks. Since then, commercial complexes have chewed their way east, many overtaking Latino immigrant communities formed there by the lure of affordable homes.
Today, Amazon, which has 14 facilities in the region, has become the area’s largest employer with 20,000 employees. And real estate company CBRE estimates more than 18 million square feet of new warehouse space is under construction in the Inland Empire.
Warehouse work has also proven resilient during the pandemic. Logistics is one of few sectors that have added jobs in San Bernardino and Riverside counties in the pandemic. As a result, local governments continue to clamor for more warehousing, convinced by the lure of what is believed to be appropriate job creation for a region with lower levels of education attainment.
“It seems like our decision makers here bend over backwards to build up logistics,” said UC Riverside professor Juliann Allison, who studies warehousing in Southern California. “And they’re not doing it for other existing or potential industries.”
Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren, who goes by the nickname “Warehouse Warren,” lauds her city’s transformation into a supply chain hub. Logistics accounts for nearly 12,000 jobs in the city of 200,000 residents, with big employers including Amazon and Target. Fontana, which borders Bloomington, boasts 54 million square feet of warehouse space, second most in the Inland Empire behind Ontario, according to real estate group Cushman and Wakefield.
Communities boxed in
But many residents in neighboring Bloomington aren’t keen on reshaping and polluting their communities for jobs that are typically lower-wage, lack benefits and are often temporary.
A 2018 UC Riverside report found that less than 40% of IE jobs offered a living wage, which is calculated to be $18 an hour or $36,000 a year for a family of four with two working parents.
According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for the region’s warehouse workers is roughly $33,390.
Bloomington is more than 80% Hispanic and every census tract is low-income, according to a report from San Bernardino County. The pollution burden for Padilla’s neighborhood is higher than 97% of census tracts in California.
Less than a mile north of Padilla’s home, houses were demolished to make way for a 677,000-square-foot warehouse in 2018. Another mile north on Slover Ave., a newly built 344,000-square-foot distribution center stands over a row of homes, awaiting its first occupants. A mile east of Padilla, in the bordering city of Rialto, a new 2.2 million-square-foot facility that will house Amazon and XPO Logistics next to another Bloomington neighborhood is nearly complete. All but one project involved the rezoning of residential land for industrial use.
And just last month, the county began reviewing a proposal to rezone 213 acres of Bloomington land to make way for a business park with up to 3 million square feet of potential warehouse space between a middle school and an elementary school.
Residents worry about pollution
While air pollution in Southern California has improved dramatically over the last few decades thanks to tougher regulation, San Bernardino County reported that its air quality saw a decline from 2008 to 2018. The region, boxed in by mountains to the north and east, experiences heavy levels of pollutants blown in from Los Angeles in addition to what’s spewed locally by diesel trucks. This includes particulate pollution, which disproportionately affects low-income Californians of color, according to a study from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Padilla, 35, has found herself reaching for her inhaler daily for the first time in her life. Her parents and older siblings, who had called Bloomington home for more than four decades and also dealt with respiratory illnesses, left their home because they had found it too difficult to breathe. Between 2012 and 2019, the population of Bloomington dropped 17%, from 25,735 to 21,847.
She connects her difficulty breathing to the warehouses surrounding her community.
“When it finally clicked, I was like ‘I can’t breathe anymore,’” Padilla said. “Should I be moving? Should I go somewhere where I can actually breathe again?”
Community activists mobilize
Environmental activists have largely failed to stop the warehouses, winning just a few concessions from developers.
After failing to halt the approval of the West Valley Logistics Center, the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice sued Fontana and developers for alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act. The group secured a confidential settlement it claims guarantees additional pollution mitigation.
The group is currently locked in a battle with the City of Moreno Valley over its approval of the World Logistics Center, a 40 million-square-foot warehouse facility activists say would be the largest in the world.
Now, CCAEJ and other groups are engaged in early action against the new proposal in Bloomington, staging a demonstration outside a county board of supervisors meeting and collecting public comments opposing the project.
“Let’s have some responsible land use decisions,” said Thomas Rocha, co-founder of Concerned Neighbors of Bloomington. “Put warehouses in commercial areas and leave residential areas alone.”
Rocha and his wife formed an anti-warehouse community group in 2015 in an effort to halt a warehouse project behind their home, a battle they ultimately lost. Today, Rocha offers a voice against rezoning as a newly appointed member of Bloomington’s municipal advisory council.
Miss out or join in?
But other Bloomington leaders are tired of missing out on the warehouse boom. They think the community should join the race, even if it means sacrificing residential land.
Gary Grossich, chair of Bloomington’s municipal advisory council, sees the revenue generated by warehouse development as a potential solution for a community beset by blight and poor public services. Four warehouses have gone up in Bloomington in the last three years, with two requiring the rezoning of residential land.
“We need the revenue and we need the money,” Grossich said. “And I’m tired of watching it go right across on the other side of the street from our homes and our businesses and our schools and other cities reaping the benefits while we get…nothing for it.”
This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.