Amid fervent protest from several community leaders, Los Angeles officials have approved a permit requested by four law enforcement officers to open a teen-age nightclub in east Wilmington.
The Board of Zoning Appeals this week unanimously overturned a decision issued Dec. 4 by Associate Zoning Administrator Charles V. Cadwallader that denied a conditional-use permit needed to open the Wilmington operation. The dance club, to be called the Star Zone, would feature live entertainment for young people 16 to 20. It would not sell alcohol.
In reversing Cadwallader's decision, members of the zoning board said that while the Wilmington facility--situated in a largely undeveloped heavy-manufacturing area--might not be the best site, citywide opposition to teen clubs has made the process of finding suitable locations for them increasingly difficult.
Nowhere to Go
"If not here, (then) where?" asked Board member John W. Mack. "People decry anti-social behavior among youth but provide nowhere for them to go. This is another case of people wanting to be liberal by remote control: Do it, but not in my area."
Said member James D. Leewong, "Teens have rights too. Like adults, they need outlets. Teens ought to stake out a place on the moon because then no one will complain."
Board members said that the backgrounds of the four law enforcement officers who will own the facility--all of whom have more than 10 years experience for the Los Angeles Unified School District Police--played an important role in their decision to grant a permit for the operation.
"They have impressed me tremendously with their civic-mindedness and altruism," said Commissioner Joseph D. Mandel.
The four officers--Arthur Darden, Tom Gorzynski, Mark Marckwardt and Lee Stewart--told zoning board members that the night club is their first business venture and they have embarked on it mostly in an effort to provide a safe environment for teen-agers to socialize.
Every Step Possible
"We know of drug and gang problems because of the work we do with schools," said Darden, who arranged the officers' business partnership and has been seeking an appropriate site in the South Bay for the last year. "We wanted to provide a place for teens that was alcohol-free and drug-free. We have taken every step possible to eliminate the kind of gang activity and drug activity that we were told might come to the club."
The owners say they will hire 10 experienced security officers to monitor activities at the club and in its parking lot. They say they plan to prohibit gang attire and loitering in vicinity of the club, while conducting searches for alcohol, drugs and weapons before admitting patrons. No one is to re-enter after leaving the night club, they say, unless they pay another estimated $5 to $6 cover charge.
Despite the officers' assurances of a safe operation, community opposition to the club has been mounting since plans were first made public in September. And, ironically perhaps, some of the local opposition has come from Wilmington-area law enforcement officials.
"We're opposing it because of the possibility of a drain on our manpower," said Sgt. Bill Antkiewicz of the Los Angeles Police Department's Harbor Division. "If you look at all the problems cropping up at the Odyssey (a Westside teen night club close to a residential area), you realize we might have similar problems here--from things like disturbing the peace to major crime."
While the Police Department has been steadfast in its opposition to the facility, the most vocal opposition has been voiced by Wilmington community leaders.
"We in Wilmington--we that work with youth--feel that this is going to be making a new problem for Wilmington that never existed before," said Ernie Paculba, a community youth advocate for 28 years and member of the Wilmington Citizens Advisory Committee for Council District 15. "With the potential establishment of that operation, there is going to be an increase in youth incidents and a drain on our resources in police patrol."
Said Connie Calderon, who runs the Wilmington Teen Center, "We already have problems in Wilmington trying to keep kids out of trouble. A dance club will only breed more of those kind of problems. These security people say they can control the environment and they are used to dealing with young adults, yet there are still drugs and problems in all the schools they work in."
Community leaders also said that the night club may foster more confrontations between Wilmington and Long Beach youths because of its location at the border of the two communities.
Natural Gathering Point
"Because of its location, it's going to be a natural point for increasing the possibility of inter-city conflicts," said Paculba, who added that Wilmington and Long Beach youths have been engaged in a longstanding rivalry, some of which is gang related.
Paculba said he and other Wilmington residents will appeal the zoning board's decision to the City Council. Although the club owners must also file for a dance hall permit with the Police Commission, a public hearing on that matter would not be scheduled unless there was some question about the character of the applicants, according to Lt. John Ferguson. Further appeals and the process of obtaining a dance hall permit could delay the nightclub's opening from several weeks to several months.
"At every stage in the process that we can try to defeat the establishment, we will," said Paculba, who helped circulate a petition, was signed by 57 Wilmington residents, in protest of the nightclub.
Some of the city's planning officials, too, have expressed opposition to the teen club. Indeed, Associate Zoning Administrator James Crisp told the zoning board that none of his department's previous complaints--which included, among other things, incompatible land use and local protests about the club--had been resolved during the hearing.
First in Area
However, the opposition expressed by Crisp and Wilmington residents may have been offset in part by support of the dance hall from other South Bay residents. The club's operators, who gathered a petition with 500 signatures of South Bay residents in support of their proposed operation, say their facility will be the first teen nightclub in the region.
"I feel that the applicants would run a first-class operation," said John Northmore, head of a teen facility in Harbor City. "The youth I work with need a safe place to go--I think this place would be a safe place to go. I'm so supportive of this that I'm willing to go down there to volunteer my time to help chaperon."
Said teen-ager Shannon Craft, a senior at Narbonne High School, "Now we have to travel to Westwood or Hollywood (to socialize). Art's (one of the owners) place would be close and there wouldn't be any drugs."
Zoning board members said that the city will allow the operation to be open for one year, after which its permit will be reviewed.
Board members also required the club operators to install additional lighting on the property and a fire hydrant, while providing uniformed security guards to patrol the facilities and parking lot. They said the facility will be allowed to operate on weekends year-round and on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays during school vacations and holidays. According to board secretary James Yoshinaga, the board has reserved the right to impose further restrictions.