People in Old Downtown Torrance Find a Cause

Times Staff Writer

It has been more than a month since the City Council unanimously voted for the larger of two proposed housing structures for the elderly in Old Downtown Torrance.

The council's decision was applauded by the chamber-full of senior citizens who had been bused in by the project's developer, and who also wanted the larger structure approved.

But the handful of Old Downtown homeowners present that night, poorly organized and their numbers depleted because of the holidays, went home disappointed and frustrated.

Now, more than a year away from the next municipal election when three council seats and the mayor's office will be on the ballot, residents in Old Downtown are hoping that the locally unpopular council decision will provide the impetus for a effort to acquire some political muscle.

The first sign of that effort is the formation of the Save Torrance Committee, a loosely organized group of Old Downtown residents and business people that sponsored a quarter-page ad last week in a local weekly newspaper. The ad challenged the council's choice of a four-story, 78-unit structure rather than a three-story, 56-unit building.

With bold letters that said "Torrance property owners beware," and bordered with the names of six of the seven council members, the committee's ad asked pointedly if the council was trying to invite legal action against the city.

Political Arena

In the meantime, the issue will probably be debated in the political arena rather that the courts, particularly in the race for mayor that is expected to pit Councilwoman Katy Geissert against Councilman Bill Applegate. Seats held by Geissert and Applegate, along with Councilman Mark Wirth's seat, will be on the March, 1986, ballot. Mayor Jim Armstrong is prohibited by law from seeking a third consecutive term.

"I think you can say it is politically motivated for 1986," said John Geyer, a spokesman for the Save Torrance Committee.

He said the committee was born of frustration in not having the political influence to sway the council toward the smaller of the two housing options. Geyer said he does not expect the ad to change the council's position, but he hopes it gets people more politically involved.

Also Hoping for Clout

"I think a lot of it was the senior citizens going up there and telling a lot of horror stories about their living conditions," Geyer said of the council's decision.

"I'm not against senior citizens; we could have compromised to the three-story building. It really gets me that the building that we didn't want is going to be built, and we're all going to have to be paying to subsidize it."

Other Old Downtown residents not involved in the Save Torrance Committee said they hope the issue becomes part of next year's City Council campaign.

"I hope it is," said Derf Fredericks, who lives on Post Avenue and was a member of the Airport Commission until last week when the City Council did not reappoint him. "I hope this makes people to be more aware and take a closer look at council action."

Fredericks, a member of a civic pride group called Olde Torrance Neighbors, said he hopes the issue helps Old Downtown-area residents develop political clout. Now, he said, the residents can't even get the city to trim neighborhood trees.

Janet Payne, another area resident and a member of the Historical Society, said the issue shows where the political influence lies.

"The senior population here is extremely large and they will go out and vote," Payne said. "And if they aren't happy they are not going to vote for (the incumbents).

'Inconsistent Voting'

"We have a lot of old families who have been here since their homes were built. They care, but they feel they just don't have any clout. There are a lot of younger professional families moving into the neighborhood, but they don't get involved because they're all too busy trying to make a living so they can pay for their homes here."

During the council discussion last month on whether to approve the four-story or the three-story structure, Applegate said he preferred the three-story building and was the lone dissenting vote against the larger building. However, he asked for and received a second ballot to make the decision for the four-story building unanimous.

Not coincidentally, only Applegate's name was absent from the ad that said the council's "inconsistent voting on development in Torrance strikes an odd sense of balance." The ad said the council refuses to allow second-story additions in the hillside area, but allows the four-story structure in a neighborhood consisting of "the oldest one-story, single-family homes in Torrance." It warned: "Property value has already declined. Beware, your neighborhood may be next."

Applegate said he does not know anyone on the committee or its motive in placing the ad. He downplayed the ad's political significance.

"The people who believe in something strongly one way or the other are the ones that make political issues," he said. "I speak my piece. Sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong. But I just do what I think is right.

"I have not changed my mind about the three stories. I have been from the very beginning a supporter of this type of building (for the elderly), but I'm opposed to its design."

Geissert, a strong supporter of the Hillside ordinance that protects homeowners' views, said she thought the ad was "obviously" politically motivated and defended the council's decision to opt for the larger structure.

"Considering the cost of the land, the cost of construction and the cost of underwriting the project, it was certainly logical to expect to maximize the use of the property," she said.

The city has set aside about $1.5 million in redevelopment tax revenues to help bring down the rents at the complex. The city has not yet decided whether those funds will be used as a direct rent subsidy or to help defray the costs of the project.

Geissert said that protecting views in the hillside area is different because many of the homes there are on slopes, and the area is zoned entirely residential. She said Old Downtown is level and the area where the structure is going up is zoned commercial, which allows for taller buildings.

Wirth, too, denies that the council's vote for the larger structure shows any inconsistency. He said that if the homeowners want to to make a political issue out of it, "I don't have a problem with that. That's part of the democratic process."

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