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Near LAX, a once thriving community now stuck in economic limbo

PropertyLos Angeles International AirportAir Transportation DisastersBusinessTransportation DisastersRental ServiceRichard Riordan

Just north of the big hotels along bustling Century Boulevard east of LAX lie the remains of Manchester Square.

Once a thriving community with its own elementary school, the working-class neighborhood that sprang up in the postwar building boom is now an urban void of unkempt buildings, desolate streets and residential lots scraped bare where thousands used to live. Their long-gone addresses are marked by idle driveways, clusters of trees and chain-link fences that crisscross 20 square blocks.

There's no mystery here: The gradual leveling of the neighborhood is a conscious byproduct of the region's growth — the need to accommodate the expansion of Los Angeles International Airport and resolve complaints from the neighborhood about the din of aircraft noise.

But the sprawling scar of unrealized renewal has persisted for years because of the changing priorities of politicians, legal battles and evolving visions of what should come next at the nation's third-busiest airport.

After 14 years of buyouts, school grounds, a handful of homes and several rows of apartments still must be purchased. There is no agreed-upon plan indicating how or when Los Angeles World Airports, the operator of LAX, will use the land and a few parcels in nearby Belford Square, which have been assembled at a cost of $363 million and counting.

Among the scattered survivors who haven't sold out is Ethan Markosian, 37, a lifelong resident of Manchester Square, who has witnessed the bleak transition from a modest stucco home on West 96th Street he inherited from his grandparents.

The yellow and white, one-story tract house is surrounded by empty lots and brown lawns. Driveways lead nowhere and squatters in battered RVs frequently gather along the deserted side streets where almost 500 homes and apartment buildings once stood.

"I miss the families," said Markosian, sitting in his living room, where a muffled, background roar of jets landing at LAX sounded every few minutes. "It can get a little dull around Halloween and the holidays."

With Markosian was Justin Harrington, a friend since childhood whose parents sold their home to the airport years ago.

"It's been a grand waste of money," Harrington said of the amount spent buying out residents. "It's upsetting. This was a neighborhood."

The way airport officials went about taking control of Manchester Square has been a point of friction. Instead of declaring eminent domain to expeditiously condemn and buy land needed for a public purpose, the airport has dealt individually with residents who chose to sell out voluntarily rather than have their homes soundproofed free of charge.

Many departed owners say they received fair sale prices, and some have profited handsomely during strong economies. But purchases fell off after the 9/11 attacks, when air travel slumped, and again during the Great Recession as home values plummeted.

Markosian and others who have held on to their property say they find themselves stuck in economic limbo, inhabitants of a gutted neighborhood where there's only one potential buyer: the airport.

The city's interest in buying has ebbed at times, they say, and because officials are not using eminent domain, they can't sue to challenge unfair offers or recover losses in property values and rents caused by the blighted conditions.

Nancy Castles, an airport spokeswoman, said the city developed a voluntary purchase program in 1999 to replace soundproofing after a majority of Manchester Square property owners filed a petition with LAX officials. The approach, she said, has provided flexibility during the planning process and made land available for future airport projects.

Airport officials acknowledge that no plan to reuse the land has ever been finalized. During the administration of Mayor Richard Riordan, a cargo facility was discussed. Mayor James Hahn later proposed a giant transportation/check-in center, part of an ambitious LAX master plan challenged in court.

Planners are now eyeing other possibilities, such as a consolidated car rental facility, additional parking and a public transportation hub to accommodate light rail trains and a people mover to serve passenger terminals. Construction could be at least a decade away, assuming those plans proceed at all.

Markosian, who intends to stay as long as he can, recalls a time in Manchester Square when children's bicycles left on the front porch at night would still be there in the morning.

"It used to be an excellent neighborhood," he said. "There were plenty of kids and crime was low."

With no mortgage payment, Markosian says he can tolerate the blighted conditions, which have driven off neighbors who had wanted to stay in their homes.

Cari Lynn Parrish said she liked her place on Hindry Avenue, but the march of deterioration became too much for her as a single parent.

"I felt my daughter and I were vulnerable," said Parrish, now 50 and a marketing consultant in Indiana. "There were 8-foot chain-link fences, trash and empty lots all around my home. You can't live like that."

Unlike many of her neighbors who sold out, Parrish said she fought airport officials for two years to get a fair price for her home: $390,000 in 2004 — $60,000 more than the initial appraised value set by the airport.

"Some homes were taken for less than market value. There were some abuses," said Parrish, recalling one house very similar to hers that was appraised $70,000 below her home's value by the airport. "It was sell or nothing. It's so sad."

In 2003, state regulators disciplined a private appraiser hired by LAX who Parrish accused of valuing her property in a way that favored LAWA. A year later, an airport audit concluded that the buyout program was hampered by inadequate oversight, a lack of qualified accounting personnel and a high turnover rate of staff and managers.

As the purchases continued, vacant buildings that weren't torn down right away became havens for transients and scavengers who ripped out the pipes and electrical wiring to sell for scrap, property owners said. One homeless man died in an abandoned house and went undiscovered for weeks, Markosian recalled.

The empty homes also were used for movie sets as well as police and fire training, complete with explosions. Filmmakers simulated a helicopter crash in the neighborhood and shot scenes in the rubble of homes being demolished, residents said.

"At least the airport got some use out of the property," Markosian said.

A group of apartment owners, unhappy with the deteriorating conditions, won a Superior Court judgment and damages against the city in 2009 after arguing that the airport's actions created the blight.

The victory was overturned two years later by an appellate court, which ruled that the airport had not coerced property owners into selling, condemnation proceedings were not being used and no LAX project had been approved for the neighborhood.

The appellate ruling stood but drew criticism from some legal experts, including Gideon Kanner, an eminent domain specialist and professor emeritus at Loyola Law School who wrote commentaries about the decision. He contends the buyout program smacks of the unfair tactics some governments have used to lower the value of private property they wanted to buy.

"This is just outrageous," Kanner said. LAWA "is not buying land there because it is civically minded. It is not buying land there because it wants to reduce noise."

Though the rental market has improved recently, apartment owners in the area say their turnover and vacancy rates remain high and rents have had to be lowered to attract tenants. That and an uncertain future, they say, make them reluctant to invest in improvements on their properties.

"It's the worst thing," said Paul Ling, who owns three apartment buildings in the area. "We don't know what will happen, and Los Angeles World Airports doesn't know what to do."

dan.weikel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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