How the Inland Empire became home to massive warehouses

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A constant flow of big rigs streams down Etiwanda Ave. in Jurupa Valley on the way from logistics facilities to any number of major freeways in the area.

A small buffer zone is all that separates industrial warehouse facilities from residential homes in the enclave of Mira Loma Village.
A small buffer zone is all that separates industrial warehouse facilities from residential homes in the enclave of Mira Loma Village.

Almost half of the country’s imports move through the Ports of LA and Long Beach. That massive volume of stuff has to go somewhere, and somewhere isn’t that far away – only about 40 miles east to the Inland Empire. The inland region is dotted with warehouses ranging from semi-automated fulfilment centers for Amazon to vast distribution centers for Restoration Hardware and Costco.

Sitting where the 10, 60, and 15 freeways converge is the community of Mira Loma, which has become a hub for the logistics industry. It has easy access to the ports, space is cheap, and it’s right by Ontario Airport which has a big cargo operation.

The first warehouse to set up shop in Mira Loma was for Costco; it was built in the mid ’80s and is still operating. That one facility triggered an avalanche of development, and Mira Loma transformed from dairies and pastureland to the present industrial landscape. A miles-long swath of distribution centers, logistics hubs, warehouses, or whatever you want to call them stretches from Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga to the north, and all along the 15 freeway through Ontario and Jurupa Valley to the south. A 3.7 percent vacancy rate ensures the building spree will continue.

It’s a place where it’s hard to get your bearings. “We could get lost out here and not be found again,” former Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge tells me while giving me a tour of Mira Loma in his Prius. Sitting next to me in the backseat is longtime environmental activist Penny Newman. As the stream of warehouses is disturbed by a very out of place residential street, she echoes Loveridge’s sentiment. “On this side, it’s the houses,” Newman says. “That’s in Fontana, so we’re probably into San Bernardino County right now – and you’d never know. It’s just one building connected to another.”

This strange mixture of massive warehouses and residential development is apparent in Mira Loma Village, an out-of-sync enclave of single family homes surrounded by freeways and big rigs. The constant stream of traffic has resulted in some of the most polluted air in the country. Lawsuits have forced the logistics industry to pay for special air filtration systems hooked up to residents’ homes.

A constant flow of big rigs streams down Etiwanda Ave. in Jurupa Valley on the way from logistics facilities to any number of major freeways in the area.

The warehouses are cavernous with some over a million square feet, but who works in them? According to Newman, it’s mainly blue-collar workers. Not a lot of skills are required; these are jobs requiring a high school diploma or less. But they’re jobs, full stop. Given the Inland Empire’s severe education gap, work in this vein is what the area needs, according to Paul Granillo, CEO of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership. “Goods movement and logistics, manufacturing, some healthcare jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree – those are the type of jobs that we need to have,” he says.

Granillo’s group, IEEP, promotes the region to businesses as a good place to set up operations. They’re doing something right; over the last 10 years, employment in the logistics field has gone from 9,000 to over 30,000 jobs in the Inland Empire. Employment gains of over 200 percent are impressive, but a recent UC Riverside study casts a shadow on those numbers. It found workers making around $10 an hour and entry-level jobs being filled through temp agencies. The practice allows employers to circumvent healthcare and benefits.

“So, what would you have these people do?” Granillo asks rhetorically. “What is a good job? And when we have, out of 4.3 million people, 829,000 now living in poverty, what is the answer? If you have two people that are working in the sector and they can afford to buy a house, that’s a good thing. So what bothers me sometimes, is that there is no answer to my question, ‘what would you have them do?’ Because of the educational attainment level, what is the answer?”

Granillo’s question presents the paradox of the region. Even with numerous universities around the Inland Empire – UC Riverside, Cal State San Bernardino, and La Sierra, to name a few – educational levels are dismal. Between that and the income level, the perspective that warehouses – and the jobs they bring – are looked to as something of a savior makes sense for the area.

As warehouses go up left and right in the Inland Empire, the industry has its eye on property even further east. Beaumont, a still rural bedroom community in the San Gorgonio Pass, is plum territory with its easy access to the 10 and 60 freeways and ample open space.

he site for the Gateway Warehouse project is currently zoned rural residential. To construct the multi-million square foot facility, the unspoiled area would have to be rezoned as light industrial.
The site for the Gateway Warehouse project is currently zoned rural residential. To construct the multi-million square foot facility, the unspoiled area would have to be rezoned as light industrial.

I meet Nancy Carroll, the newly elected treasurer for the City of Beaumont, in the middle of a field. She describes the view we’re looking at as, “open land – grass land – bordered by sort of low, rolling mountains with the San Bernardino Mountains and Oak Glen hidden behind it.”

Carroll also happens to be the leader of a community group called NoWay Gateway; their mission is to combat the planned warehouse for this massive, untamed parcel of land near the foothills.  “It is a 2.5 million square foot high cube warehouse,” Carroll says. “It’s the size of approximately 43 football fields, and it is on approximately 230 acres.”

Perhaps in light of Carroll’s group, the Gateway Warehouse project has now been renamed the San Gorgonio Crossing. The Crossing would introduce a logistics facility to an area as yet minimally touched by the industry. Carroll says that environmental ramifications – namely air quality – linger in the back of her mind, but, “it’s going to have terrible impact on the property values.” The master-planned senior community where Carroll lives is only a mile away from the proposed site. “It’s going to decrease the property values for the residential properties that are all bordering this,” Carroll says. “It’s going to change what everybody wanted to have as their lifestyle.”

Unlike Mira Loma, where the endless rows of warehouses are already built, Beaumont still has a chance to chart the course between progress and rural heritage. The transformation gripping the Inland Empire – that of turning into the nation’s storage locker – comes as a result of our demanding instant gratification. Think of it: when you buy something online, it arrives in a couple days – if not the same day depending on where you live. With a conglomeration of warehouses in the Inland Empire, 23 million people are within an hour or two drive of the facilities.

“We as consumers are changing the way that cities are funded because we’re not shopping at retail stores,” says businessman Paul Granillo. “I think that forces cities to have to look at fulfillment centers and of having the presence of a fulfillment center that’s going to be a tax base. Who’s the cause of that? Ultimately, it is us,” he says. “We have changed the way we are buying; in all of these debates, we have to own that.”

Buying patterns have shifted and the jobs provided by the logistics sector are a boon for the cash-strapped Inland Empire, but as the region increasingly becomes known simply for cheap land and warehouses, it faces an identity crisis. Driving around the Mira Loma warehouses, longtime Riverside mayor Ron Loveridge summed up the problem: “The critical question we have before inland southern California is: What do we want to be when we grow up?”

While the Inland Empire comes into its own, two paths are before it. Down one is changing the perception of the area and focusing on placemaking. That’s the vision advocated by Loveridge; with so many young people priced out at the coast, the region is one of few places left in southern California where affordable home ownership is still within reach. The second path favors making the most of what the Inland Empire already has. The industry and infrastructure of logistics are already in place, and as Granillo points out, we the consumers are the ones who brought about the change.