The debate over apartment construction in Wilmington and Harbor City escalated this week at a public meeting where many harbor-area residents supported a complete moratorium, while a vocal contingent of developers and property owners opposed any restrictions.
Many Wilmington residents at the meeting, which was held to discuss three options for growth management offered by Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, said her proposals did not go far enough. Some residents called for a moratorium on all apartment construction in Wilmington, saying that the community is being besieged with such developments while the area is being studied for possible widespread down-zoning.
The most stringent option offered by Flores is a limited moratorium that would allow apartment construction but would limit density in all areas of the two communities to one unit per 1,500 square feet of lot area. In effect, that would reduce possible density by half.
A less restrictive option would impose the same conditions but only in neighborhoods designated as problem areas.
A third option is to take no action, pending a decision on the possible rezonings, expected in two years.
Flores devised the proposals last November after Wilmington residents protested the increasing number of high-density apartment buildings in the community of 40,000. Flores will decide whether to pursue any of the proposals in about two weeks. If Flores pursues a moratorium, and it is endorsed by the Los Angeles City Council, it could become effective as soon as early March.
But developers at the four-hour public meeting, attended by more than 200 people, said they believed a moratorium would lead to further economic depression in the Los Angeles Harbor area, especially in Wilmington. They said moratorium proposals are unnecessary and could force them to abandon, rather than scale back, construction plans.
Matthew Vanderhorst, director of marketing and development for Dominguez Properties, said his company owns vacant land in Wilmington that it wants to develop as a large apartment complex. "Plans will be canceled if the moratorium goes through," Vanderhorst said. "As a vacant property this site is not going to be of benefit to the city, the community or the developers."
Catherine May, a representative for six Wilmington-area developers agreed. "An area becomes run-down when there is lack of development." A moratorium "is going to cause the developer to turn his back on Wilmington," she said.
"I just want you to realize that when the builders go, it's not going to solve the traffic problems and it's not going to solve the school problems," she told the audience at Banning Park Recreation Center, where the meeting was held before a hearing examiner from the Los Angeles Planning Department.
Many residents, however, charged that the recent proliferation of high-density apartment developments will aggravate such community problems as school overcrowding, traffic congestion and the lack of sufficient police protection, street sweeping and parking space. A Wilmington homeowners group has estimated that about 50 apartment developments, most of them high-density, have been built or planned during the last year.
"The crime is just going to go up if we allow this (construction) to happen," said Javier Nunez, a Wilmington resident for 35 years and a Los Angeles police officer. "The police unit is not budgeted to have more than two patrol cars in Wilmington."
"What's been going on in Wilmington is a nightmare," said Ernesto Nevarez, owner of a Wilmington insurance agency. "As it is, the schools are overcrowded. . . . I feel the children of Wilmington are an aggrieved party."
Each of Wilmington's seven public schools is overcrowded, school district officials say. School board member John Greenwood, who represents the harbor area, has urged Flores to support a moratorium.
But developers and some property owners said new construction will help the community address its problems by generating additional tax revenue and stimulating the local economy.
"We do pay for some of these services," said developer Rodger Hunt, who cited a list of permit fees and other charges developers pay the city when they initiate construction.
Many property owners also said that a moratorium would adversely affect what they described as their primary financial investments. Downzoning, they contended, would decrease property values.
"When you work all your life for something, you hate to have the rug pulled out from under you," said Linda Blanchard, who bought a lot in Harbor City seven years ago with the hope that it would provide financial security for her retirement.
Echoing her sentiments, Carmen Durazo, who owns land in Wilmington, said: "The reason I purchased this property is because I expected one day I or my family would profit. This is affecting my financial future, and I don't like this."
And at least one Wilmington resident said it seemed unfair to restrict development on her property when more permissive zoning has already allowed numerous apartment buildings to go up. Grace Jones, who lives near a planned 190-unit apartment development, protested that "if they can do that, why can't I build something in my backyard?"
In contrast, Peter Fernandez, a Wilmington resident for 17 years, said he believes his property will be reduced in value because of surrounding high-density developments.
Although Flores has not yet taken a position, she came under fire from many residents at the meeting who said she has been inattentive to many of Wilmington's problems. Three of Flores' aides were present at the meeting but Flores was not.
"I think it's just disgusting the way Joan Milke Flores sold us down the river," said 53-year resident Lydia Rice. "This meeting shouldn't have needed to take place. She could have done this on her own."
"I think Joan Milke Flores should have come to Wilmington and looked at what the town is like," said Gertrude Schwab, a Wilmington resident for 59 years. "I think Joan Milke Flores is a disgrace."
Flores could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But Bernie Evans, Flores' chief deputy, defended Flores in an interview. "There's no question that the councilwoman is one elected official who has paid a great deal of attention to Wilmington. The councilwoman initiated the community plan to address this (density) issue and several other issues. . . . The plan focuses attention on how we can make the community a better community," Evans said.
For nearly two years, a city-appointed citizens advisory committee has been studying possible revisions in the Wilmington-Harbor City "community plan," a document of planning objectives. The committee late last year finished its first draft of proposed zoning revisions, which also were opposed by developers at the public meeting.
"The result of (the committee's) efforts is a a plan which in my opinion is not in the best interest of the community, or the city of Los Angeles," said Hubert G. Toll, of H. G. Toll Co.
"If they are successful with this downzoning, where are the people with a need for housing going to go?" said Art Corona, has constructed more than 300 apartment units in Harbor City and claimed to be the largest developer in that community.
Many developers complained that they had already been adversely affected by downzoning in April, 1985, when a citywide ordinance tightened zoning. That ordinance, passed after a Los Angeles Superior Court ordered the city to make its zoning consistent with its general plan, forced developers initiating new construction to follow the zoning reflected in the general plan, which is generally more restrictive than actual property zoning.
Making a Profit
But some residents claimed that the developers are interested only in making a profit and care little about the community's problems.
"The developers have no real interest in Wilmington; their motive is profit," said Peter Mendoza, president of a Wilmington homeowners group.
"We're just getting closed in," said Yolanda Gonzales, who has lived in Wilmington for 25 years. "Pretty soon I won't have any sky to look at. . . . We're supposed to be the heart of the harbor, but I think we're having a cardiac arrest."
The planning department will submit a summary of the meeting to Flores within a week, said senior planner Emily Gabel. Flores is expected to make a decision on a moratorium within a week of receiving the meeting summary, said Flores aide Ann D'Amato.