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Center for 450 Children to Have Basement Play Area : Plans for Downtown L. B. Child Care Criticized

Times Community Correspondent

Vivian Sanders, 25, leaves her West Long Beach home 45 minutes early to allow time to drop her three children off at two day-care centers. In the evening, her sister helps pick them up because there is not enough time for Sanders to drive from her office downtown to both centers before they close.

Sanders dreams of finding day care close to work that will accept all three children, but she isn’t optimistic. It took a month, and many phone calls, just to find these.

Developer Lloyd Ikerd has proposed a child-care center a few blocks from the General Telephone office where Sanders works. It would accommodate infants and toddlers, so all three of her children could attend.

But Sanders has qualms about the center: “I’ve heard it will be quite large and have some kind of underground play area,” she said. “I’d rather have the kids outside in the summertime. . . . I’m really not sure how I feel about it.”

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Sanders is not the only one who is uneasy about the Hobbit House preschool, proposed to accommodate 450 children in three shifts--150 children at a time--in the historic and newly refurbished Masonic Temple at 230 Pine Ave.

Convenience Vs. Amenities

City officials, local child-care experts and state officials responsible for licensing the center are also weighing convenience against amenities.

At a Planning Commission hearing recently, Ikerd argued that the project would stimulate foot traffic in a languishing retail area and provide urgently needed child care for the downtown area.

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Overruling a staff recommendation, commissioners unanimously approved Ikerd’s request for a five-year conditional use permit to transform the vacant brick building into a 24-hour child care center. Commissioners also made procedural and design concessions to assist Ikerd’s project.

Ikerd, who owns the 1903 building, and Thomas L. Lange and Karen L. Barker, who would operate the center, have repeatedly promised “a first-class” facility, complete with special-interest classes for children and a child psychologist on the premises.

Fees would be slightly below average for the area. The pre-school would accommodate 150 children during each of its 8-hour shifts. Lang said that 48 of the 450 spaces would be reserved for urgently needed infant care. The Hobbit House would be the only round-the-clock child care center in Long Beach that is open to the public, he said.

The proposed center is opposed by Planning Director Robert Paternoster and Community Development Director Roger Anderman.

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Location Called Poor Choice

Both concede child care is an important, unmet need in the downtown area. But they insist that it is a poor choice for Pine Avenue and the Masonic Temple. Both say Ikerd’s building is better suited to retail use and suggest using neighborhoods on the outskirts of the central city for a child-care center.

City officials are particularly critical of the play area, which would be mostly indoors in a basement and does not meet state size requirements. They also criticize the drop-off arrangement, which sets aside only two parking spaces for arriving parents and requires children to cross an alley.

Ikerd responds that the alley is lightly trafficked, and that he has proposed working with the city to install a crosswalk and stop sign. He points out that a basement play area would be secure from strangers and usable at night. He said he is proposing child care after an unsuccessful 2 1/2-year search for a retail user.

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Downtown Councilman Marc A. Wilder has appealed the Planning Commission approval to the City Council. A public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. June 24 in the City Council Chambers.

Wilder refused to discuss his objections in detail. But in general, he said that he too objects to the building’s location and suitability. Wilder also said he is “very, very disturbed” by the Planning Commission’s decision to bypass Paternoster and allow Ikerd to approach the commission directly with plan revisions.

Alternative Location Possible

Wilder said he is “getting facts together” which could include an alternative location for a child care center.

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Local child-care experts generally agree that there is a shortage, but are leery of the new facility.

“I don’t think we should sacrifice quality, or be panicked” by the shortage of available child care, said Phyllis Lauritzen, a program supervisor for California Child Care Initiative. “They (Hobbit House) are talking about very limited outdoor play space.”

The Child Care Initiative is sponsored by Children’s Home Society of California, which operates a child-care resource and referral office in Long Beach. Lauritzen, former director of a Covina preschool, is working to develop more openings for licensed, in-home child care in the Long Beach area.

Lauritzen and Valerie Doran, who is in charge of maintaining the agency’s child-care referral files, agreed that there is a shortage downtown, though. “There is a very small number of child-care centers in that area,” Doran said. “And most of them have waiting lists. Most of the time when people call for child care in the downtown, we have trouble.”

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The City Employee Assn., which represents 3,400 of the city’s 4,700 employees, has been promised half the daytime child-care space in Hobbit House for its members, and 20% discounts. Walter Miller, general manager, said the association has avoided lobbying for Ikerd’s project because Wilder has promised that if this one falls through, he will help city employees set up a child-care center elsewhere.

Miller said Employee Assn. negotiators have raised the issue of child care during contract talks that began in February. The contract expires June 30. Miller called child care “a major issue.”

Low-Interest Loan

Ikerd has been promised a low-interest commercial rehabilitation loan of up to $383,000 from the city, which would be paid after the project is complete. Ikerd said he will use the money to help repay a $1.5-million loan from Bank of America paid for acquisition of the building, and a portion of the restoration. Ikerd is restoring the four-level, 1903 building and bringing it into conformity with earthquake standards. He expects to turn the second floor of the building into a restaurant, and the first-floor street frontage will be leased to a commercial user, he said.

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Besides city approval, Hobbit House operators need a state license and a waiver that will excuse it from California’s outdoor space requirement for preschools.

Betsy McRae, the State Department of Social Services official who will decide the application, refused to comment on the Hobbit House. But she did say that open space waivers have been given to preschools in downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The outdoor play space at Hobbit House, a renovated, fenced, 10-foot-wide, 150-foot-long alley, would be about one-ninth of state-required play space for a school with 150 children.

Operators say they plan to supplement the outdoor play area with regular trips to a local park, in addition to the air-conditioned basement, which will be furnished with outdoor play equipment. With the basement, operators will have about two-thirds of the state’s minimum required play space.

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Lange said he is “optimistic” about receiving a waiver.

‘A Need Down Here’

City officials, business people, and some day-care center operators agree that Long Beach needs more downtown area child care.

Betty Young, director of the First Lutheran Christian Preschool, near 10th Street and Lindin Avenue, said she was able to fill 24 new preschool spaces added last fall in a matter of months, and now has a waiting list of “10 or 12 names. There is a need down here,” she said.

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Nonetheless, Young said, she found Lange’s proposal “distressing” because of the small outdoor play area.

The proposed center is also popular with downtown business people, several of whom have already telephoned Lange to inquire about space for their employees’ children.

An spokesman for IDM, the largest developer in Long Beach, said that Hobbit House could make it easier for downtown developers to find tenants.

“Child care is quite a problem for us,” said Jim Miller, the spokesman. “Sometimes (companies) may be reluctant to lease space in our buildings because there isn’t any child care down there.”

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When negotiations get serious, at least half the prospective occupants ask about child care for their employees, said Miller, a leasing agent who is seeking tenants for three downtown IDM office buildings, including the World Trade Center.

‘Child-Care Vacuum’

Lange, who operates a child-care licensing consulting agency in Los Alamitos, calls downtown Long Beach “a child-care vacuum.”

“I’ll bet I could easily fill 600 daytime (child-care) spaces, said Lange, who envisions “dotting the city” with child-care centers.

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But at least one local child-care center operator disagreed with Lange and Young.

“I really truly don’t know where they are going to find the children to fill that (Hobbit House) school,” said Phyllis L. McKinney, owner of one of Long Beach’s oldest preschools. McKinney estimated that preschools in and around downtown Long Beach could accommodate another 100 to 150 children. Her preschool, at the corner of Pacific Avenue and Willow Street, is about 2 miles north of Ikerd’s building, and has openings for 20 preschoolers, said McKinney, vice president of the 450-member Preschool Assn. of California.

Recent studies show that when it comes to child care, Long Beach may be slightly worse off than Los Angeles County as a whole, and that the most pressing need here is for children under 2 and subsidized child care.

One study estimates a shortage of 3,810 preschool child-care spaces in Long Beach, including 2,398 infant spaces and 1,412 for children between the ages of 2 and 5. The study, by Crystal Stairs, a private, nonprofit child development agency based in Inglewood, takes into account the number of working mothers who live in Long Beach, and available child care, but does not reflect demand generated by people who work here. The study was funded with a combination of public and private money, for the benefit of legislators, planners, and the news media.

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‘Extremely Conservative’

Liz Casey, special projects coordinator for Crystal Stairs, cautioned that the figures are “extremely conservative” and may tend to overestimate available care and underestimate demand. Details of the four-year study will be published next month.

A second study, conducted by the Urban Institute in 1984, estimated that 7,950 low-and moderate-income Long Beach families have a major problem finding affordable child care. Based on the study, the City Council recently awarded grants totaling $173,000 to provide child care for parents with low incomes or on welfare who want job training or employment.

Of 9,048 available child-care openings in Long Beach, 1,893 are government subsidized, according to the Crystal Stairs study.

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State-subsidized care for 24 children under the age of 2 1/2 is available to low-income parents through the city Recreation Department The waiting list has 136 names. Bert Srach, superintendent of special services, estimated the wait at “about a year.”

Care for a child over 2 in a Long Beach day-care center costs an average of $63 per week, Lauritzen said. Lange expects to charge about $57 a week at Hobbit House.

A third report, by the Quality of Life Task Force of the city’s Strategic Plan called for “a quality multi-tiered child care system by the year 2000 for children 2 months to 12 years of age,” to help families cope with “the increasing employment of all adults.”

The report is being reviewed by the City Council’s Quality of Committee. Wilder is

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