Downey Sets Stage to Fight County Over Ranchos Plan

Times Staff Writer

In a decision that may touch off a battle with county officials, the City Council has voted to include the county-owned Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in a proposed massive expansion of the city's redevelopment district.

At a Tuesday night meeting, the council authorized city officials to begin a study of whether to expand the city's current 511-acre redevelopment district by 629 acres. The land proposed for expansion is predominantly zoned for commercial and manufacturing use, and includes a park, a shopping center and a high school.

The decision to include the hospital follows a disagreement between city and county officials over the county's plans to lease 130 acres of the hospital's grounds off Imperial Highway to private developers.

Although the county wants to lease the hospital land for business offices and manufacturing, city officials have objected, saying such a development would challenge similar projects that the city's Redevelopment Agency is planning for Firestone Boulevard.

The disagreement prompted county officials to consider other uses for the land that included a jail for 2,000 inmates, a 300-bed jail hospital with a number of psychiatric beds, and a warehouse that would store toxic chemicals.

By including the hospital in a redevelopment district, the redevelopment agency would have control over development of the land, city officials said. A redevelopment agency has the power to finance and approve all development as well as condemn property. Without one, the city's control would be limited to having the county conform to city zoning laws.

The proposed expansion would include 143 acres on the east side of Firestone that contains the Stonewood Shopping Center, Rio San Gabriel Park, and commercial land that city officails have proposed using for an auto mall. A second parcel of 255 acres of commercial land along Woodruff and Garfield avenues includes Columbus High School, while a third parcel contains the 230-acre county-owned hospital located in the southwest end of the city.

"We have an aging community and if we don't keep looking at where we're going, we're going to mess up Downey," council member Diane Boggs said in an interview. It was Boggs who requested that city officials submit plans for expanding the redevelopment district.

The city attempted to include the hospital in a redevelopment district in 1984 but dropped the hospital from the proposal after the county threatened to sue the city. County officials said then they did not want to lose control over development of the land to a redevelopment agency. The latest move caught both county and hospital officials by surprise.

"Downey tends to baffle me," said Tom Hageman, assistant chief deputy to county Supervisor Pete Schabarum. "Are they simply trying to twist our tail?"

Asked if the county would again consider filing a lawsuit against the city, Hageman said: "It's impossible to say without knowing what they (Downey officials) are up to." He said he believes a city redevelopment agency does not have the power to condemn county property, a position disputed by city officials.

Terrell Ford, the hospital's director of planning and program development, said he had no idea that the city planned to include the hospital in a proposed redevelopment district.

"That's very interesting," Ford said.

The plan to include the hospital in the proposed redevelopment district was proposed by Community Development Director James Cutts in response to a request from council member Boggs. Cutts said he he wanted to protect the city from unwanted developments on the hospital grounds such as a prison, a prison hospital, or a toxic-waste dump.

Those uses were proposed by county officials in an intradepartmental memo, that was sent without the knowledge of top county officials to former City Manager Robert (Bud) Ovrom in May.

County officials, however, have said that the memo was misconstrued, and that the county does not plan to implement any of the proposed developments the memo suggests.

The April 26 memo was written by chief analyst Robert Thompson to James Hankla, the county's chief administrative officer. In an interview, Thompson said the memo was a "what-if exercise."

"We had some . . . plans for our property and the City of Downey wasn't happy with those plans so we were exploring other ideas," Thompson said.

The city's redevelopment plans have been dogged by controversy and court battles. The city has an existing 125-acre redevelopment district located in the central city and at the eastern end of Firestone. When the city approved an expansion of that district last year to include 380 acres along Firestone, a residents' group, Downey CARES, sued last July to block the move. Members of the group said they acted to protect their residences from the city's powers of condemnation.

(This time, however, the proposed redevelopment area includes only about a dozen scattered homes and apartment buildings.)

The suit is scheduled for a Aug. 30 hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Paul Sarvis, president of Downey CARES, said his suit was unaffected by the city's latest moves.

The council also ran into heavy opposition this month when it proposed building an auto mall on Wilderness Park located near the 5 and 605 freeways. The proposal was dropped after an outcry from 2,000 residents who signed protest petitions.

Cutts said that current plans to include Rio San Gabriel Park in a redevelopment district called for improving the park but no commercial development. He added that Stonewood shopping center may benefit from an "increase in economic viability" if it were redeveloped to include new businesses.

At Tuesday's council meeting, council member Bob Davila expressed concern about redevelopment, saying it was "a way to steal money from the taxpayers." But Boggs countered, "I don't think you should be afraid to study anything," and added that council members should not be "intimidated" by objections from residents.

In separate votes on adding land to the proposed district, Davila voted against including the land off Garfield and Woodruff, which was approved by a 3-1 vote. He did, however, vote in favor of including the hospital land, which was approved 5 to 0. Davila also voted in favor of including land along east Firestone, which was approved by a 4-0 vote.

Council member James Santangelo, a city real estate broker, abstained from votes on the east Firestone and Garfield and Woodruff parcels, saying he owned land adjacent to those areas. Santangelo, however, voted in favor of including the hospital in the district.

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