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Battle of Barton Hill : San Pedro Residents Fearing Development Back Alternative Plan for Neighborhood

Times Staff Writer

Helen and Nick Birondo are frightened by the letters that routinely arrive in their mailbox, proclaiming: “We have a buyer for your home!”

The Birondos don’t want to sell, especially not to a speculator. All around they see development. They have lived in their single-family neighborhood on Sepulveda Street in northeast San Pedro’s Barton Hill for 37 years and raised seven children there.

Two decades ago, they watched as neighborhood friends living near Beacon Street had their homes razed by the city in the name of redevelopment.

Today, they worry that the same thing could happen to them.

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The Barton Hill neighborhood is the poorest--and, some say, the roughest--in San Pedro. Yet revitalization is encroaching. The adjacent downtown business district is experiencing a resurgence, including the construction of a new hotel and office tower. Trade is booming through Los Angeles Harbor, which bounds Barton Hill on the east. There is a proposal for apartments and condominiums to the south.

Barton Hill land is becoming so valuable that one real estate agent told the Birondos that their property--which cost $28,000 in 1941--could fetch $250,000.

“It scares me,” Helen Birondo said. “It seems the developers have the go-ahead and we don’t. We’re just ordinary people.”

The Birondos’ fears, and the fears of other “ordinary people” who worry that Barton Hill’s residential character is in danger, are addressed by a new report that offers a wide range of recommendations for improving the quality of life in Barton Hill without letting apartments and commercial development run rampant.

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The Barton Hill Neighborhood Plan--written by 10 UCLA graduate students as part of an urban planning project--touches on nearly every aspect of life in Barton Hill, from drug dealing and gang problems at the Rancho San Pedro housing project to traffic problems and the lack of parks and supermarkets.

Among other things, it recommends that a neighborhood planning board govern development in the area; that the area retain low density and that the layout of Rancho San Pedro be slightly changed to discourage drug and gang activity and to create more recreational space.

The report also suggests that steps be taken to discourage bars and liquor stores from opening in the area and instead to attract a major food market; that educational programs be expanded, especially those for vocational training, and that new parks be established because “Barton Hill suffers from a total lack of open space.”

The 114-page study was made public this week by the Barton Hill Neighborhood Organization and presented Tuesday to aides to Mayor Tom Bradley and Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents San Pedro. (Barton Hill is the area between Gaffey Street and Harbor Boulevard from 4th Street north to the Harbor Freeway.)

Flores deputy Mario Juravich and Bradley aide Christine Ung said they would give the plan to their bosses and to the city Planning Department.

Juravich noted that the San Pedro Community Plan, which governs development throughout San Pedro, already calls for side streets in the Barton Hill area to remain low density; current zoning there permits no more than two units per residential lot.

He said that some people are unnecessarily “hysterical” about losing their houses.

“If there is a fear that the zone is going to be changed, that fear is unfounded,” he said.

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Many of those fears were heightened 20 months ago as a result of a proposal by the San Pedro Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. That plan, which touched off a furor in the Barton Hill neighborhood, called for razing the city-owned Rancho San Pedro project to make way for harbor-front commercial development. It also suggested building new low-income housing elsewhere in Barton Hill and increasing the density of the neighborhood.

Dubbed “San Pedro 2000,” the plan was viewed by neighborhood residents as an effort by the chamber to rid San Pedro of some of its poorest residents and replace them with yuppies.

The chamber’s plan, which was eventually rejected by the Planning Department, is now on indefinite hold, according to chamber Executive Director Leron Gubler.

“We think the conclusions drawn from our initial report are still valid,” Gubler said. He said he had hoped the plan would act as the basis for a dialogue within the community, but public discussion became impossible because “a lot of the inflammatory rhetoric created an atmosphere that was poisoned. . . . It’s impossible to look at something objectively when people are afraid they’re going to be thrown out into the streets.”

Indeed, the plan provoked such ire in the neighborhood that community activists responded with their own plan and then hooked up with the UCLA students, who spent countless hours interviewing residents and merchants to learn what the community wants.

The UCLA plan derides the San Pedro 2000 proposal.

“The Chamber of Commerce,” the students wrote, “seems to view the residents merely as the pawns of commercial development, and they fail to see that the purpose of commercial development is to support the community.”

The UCLA proposal has been adopted by a coalition of neighborhood leaders. It makes specific recommendations in the areas of housing, commercial development, social services and public safety, among others. These include:

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Housing: Neighborhood organizations should create a nonprofit corporation to obtain government funds to rehabilitate properties. A tenants association should be established to counsel renters on such matters as rent control, eviction and building codes.

In Rancho San Pedro, the tenants council should become more active, perhaps establishing a child-care center or encouraging ethnic festivals. Pedestrian traffic through the project should be encouraged. Community garden spaces should be created.

Commercial development: A community shopping center should be built on Harbor Boulevard, but intense commercial development there should be avoided. Light-industrial land use should be promoted in the vicinity of O’Farrell and Beacon streets to create jobs in that area.

The San Pedro Downtown Revitalization Corridor should be extended to include Pacific Avenue within the Barton Hill neighborhood so that federal money could become available for low-interest loans to businesses. “Land uses which encourage a negative element"--such as liquor stores--should be limited.

Social Services: More parks are essential. Child care is “a major concern,” and a publicly supported child-care center should be established. Educational programs should be expanded, especially those that promote vocational training.

Public safety: Drug trafficking in Rancho San Pedro is the major concern. The report says dealers come from outside the area and enlist local youths “through manipulation and sometimes force.” The study recommends that certain vacant lots be converted to community use in an effort to discourage dealing there.

Community leaders said that before they concentrate on matters such as education and recreation, their first priority is to preserve the status quo.

“Nobody wants to get kicked out of their house,” said Rancho San Pedro resident Dorothy Amador. “Everybody wants to be able to live where they’re at.”

Added Helen Birondo: “All those apartment complexes along Pacific Avenue, they’re all new today. But that’s what’s going to be the slums of tomorrow.”


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