How leased 'airspaces' led to 10 Freeway fire

As he spoke to reporters Monday to explain that the fire that shut down the 10 freeway in downtown Los Angeles was likely the result of arson, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state is involved in litigation with a Calabasas company that leased the property under the bridge.

Newsom said that Apex Development Inc. is the lessee of the pallet yard that caught fire early Saturday morning, and that the state has filed an unlawful detainer against the company for a number of alleged violations. According to Newsom, "the lease had expired. We believe they subleased the space to as many as five maybe six tenants without authorization from Caltrans." The state has a court date scheduled for early 2024.

Saturday's fire chewed away at cars, wooden pallets and other things stored on the lot, which is part of the state's Airspace and Telecommunications Licensing Program. These airspaces are like closet areas under freeways. They generate money for the state's highway fund and mass transportation programs.

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In the 1980s, according to the Los Angeles Times, there were.

  • 380 active airspace leases on the California freeway system
  • And 450 additional sites that could be used
  • Leases were generally for 55 years with no property taxes
  • At the time, the state was drawing $6 million dollars in annual revenue
  • $2 million in the LA Area

Newsom said there are thousands of such spaces across the state.

Assemblymember Miguel Santiago said that the fire has sparked a desire to reevaluate the system, particularly with regard to safety.

"We're going to be pressing along with the governor to take an entire evaluation about the business practices of Caltrans to determine whether or not this is the most effective use, whether it makes financial sense, and more importantly whether it is safe for the public that there is storage underneath freeway infrastructure," he said. 

But Newsom said that the practice is common not only across the country but in other places as well. 

Some have also looked at these airspaces as possible solutions for the unhoused. Newsom said "there's been a lot of desire for cities and counties to actually get air rights from Caltrans to build structures to build homeless communities, and do more to address our issues of poverty in this state on these very sites."

Apex Development holds four additional leases in the area, Newsom said, and the state is looking into whether those spaces comply with state regulations.