Neighbors Resist Plan to Expand High School

Times Staff Writer

Maria Barnett is like a woman possessed.

She has ranted and raved about the potential loss of her cozy rented home on Bennett Avenue that may be razed as part of a proposed expansion of nearby Wilson High School. She has presented the school board with the signatures of 345 residents opposed to the plan. She has formed the Long Beach Neighborhood Coalition to represent the interests of the occupants and owners of more than 30 other houses facing the same fate.

Nothing has made a dent, she says. So now she is expanding her effort.

Last week, Barnett sought the support of two community groups outside the immediate area: Long Beach Area Citizens Involved and the newly formed Belmont Heights Community Assn. A new mailing by her group will be sent to about 700 people within a 1-mile radius of Wilson High. Recently, she appeared on cable television to recruit backers citywide.

The point, she says, is to convince anyone willing to listen that the destruction of one neighborhood is a profoundly disturbing event of much more than immediate local interest.

"It's a community issue," said Barnett, 26, a USC student and part-time psychiatric technician who has lived on Bennett Avenue for about a year. "It has to do with people's sensitivity to the quality of life in cities growing as quickly as Long Beach. This city is its neighborhoods; they are forgetting what Long Beach is all about."

"They" are members of the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Trustees, who recently declared that they plan to acquire the Bennett Avenue properties for the Wilson expansion. School officials say the expansion is necessary to accommodate increasing enrollments and to make way for a new science building.

"What we're trying to do," said Harriet Williams, the school board president whose district includes Wilson, "is accommodate all our kids and make one little purchase that could keep us from having to build a high school someday. If we have to do that, we will be acquiring a lot more homes from a lot more people."

At the center of the controversy is the 4-acre block of houses bordered by Bennett and Ximeno avenues between 7th and 8th streets in the city's Belmont Heights area. Next to the Wilson campus, the block abuts a school athletic field containing tennis and basketball courts as well as a large space for football. By expanding the field to cover the now-residential block, district officials say, they can replace another athletic area expected to be lost by the planned addition of a new science building to the campus.

Part of a state-funded project, the proposed science building--to be completed by 1991--will be one of five added to Long Beach high school campuses. The science building would replace existing structures that Ed Eveland, assistant superintendent for secondary education, describes as "the most primitive that exist anywhere." Among other things, Eveland said, the buildings' sinks don't work and the plumbing is in disrepair.

Although unused land on the other four campuses has already been identified for the project, he said, Wilson has no land for expansion. The Wilson campus, at 25 acres, is the smallest in the district and is about half the size of the average high school in California, Eveland said.

The problem is likely to be exacerbated, he said, because the school board later this month is expected to vote to convert to four-year high schools as a hedge against overcrowding. The decision would bring an influx of about 900 ninth-graders next fall to Wilson, which has 3,000 students, he said. The district's enrollment, now nearly 67,000 students, is growing at a rate of more than 1,000 students a year.

But area residents say the school district has not done enough to pursue other possible alternatives for expansion. For instance, they say, the 220-acre city-owned Recreation Park on the east side of the school contains a myriad of recreational facilities that students might be able to use. Expanding the field on Bennett, they say, will only increase the tendency of teen-agers from other areas to hang out there on evenings and weekends, drinking and partying.

'They're Taking Over'

"They've urinated on my tree at least half a dozen times," said Bobbi Tartaro, 43, who has lived across the street from the field for 12 years.

Said Annie Tuvman, 36, who with her husband, Ken, owns a duplex overlooking the field: "It's kind of scary. They're just taking over."

District officials say they are unaware of any major problems related to teen-age loitering at the Bennett athletic field. If such problems exist, Williams said, they would be easy to correct by posting signs limiting the hours in which the field can be used, as well as by increasing police patrols.

And Mary Ann Mays, deputy director of facilities funding, says the district is pursuing talks with the city regarding student use of Recreation Park as an alternative to razing the Bennett homes.

She pointed out, however, that the city is unwilling to sell any park land to the district and that the district cannot use state funds to improve land it does not own. Nonetheless, she said, "everyone is very serious about trying to come up with a solution that is a positive for everybody involved."

Assessors Plan Visits

Should a solution fail to materialize, however, the district will be ready. Two property assessors hired at a fee of $23,000 apiece are already planning visits to the homes in question to determine their fair market values. After that, Mays said, district representatives will meet with homeowners to arrive at mutually agreeable terms of sale. Only then, she said, would the district consider initiating eminent domain proceedings against owners who have not agreed to sell.

The earliest any properties could be vacated, she said, would be in about six months.

Meanwhile, Barnett is stepping up her effort to organize the opposition. "I probably spend 30 hours a week on this," she said. "People are getting involved. My life is on hold."

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