Neighborhood Fires a Round : Alhambra Schools' Plans for Expansion Opposed

Times Staff Writer

With the fate of her home hanging in the balance, Linda Huff is quickly learning how to be an activist.

In two months Huff, whose 3rd Street home is among 14 the Alhambra School District plans to acquire for a school expansion, has formed a 50-member group called Save Our Neighborhood. She has also brought the neighborhood's predicament to state Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Alhambra) and the state Department of Education.

Although the school district has appeased other residents by deciding to expand three overcrowded high schools rather than acquire about 300 homes for a new one, Huff's group is fiercely determined to fight the decision.

"I haven't worked this hard since I was in high school," said Huff, 32, who lives with her mother, a 95-year-old great-aunt and a 99-year-old grandmother who is legally blind.

The school board voted on Aug. 30 to acquire the 14 homes--rather than a supermarket as originally proposed--to provide additional parking space for Alhambra High School.

Replaced by Parking Lot

According to the current proposal, the homes south of Commonwealth Avenue between 3rd and 4th streets would be replaced by a 180-space parking lot for students and faculty. Half the homes within the 1-acre area are occupied by renters.

Alhambra High is one of the district's three high schools that, if funding is approved, will undergo a $56-million renovation and expansion to relieve overcrowding.

One residence may be taken for an additional driveway to San Gabriel High, Associate Supt. Richard Keilhacker said, but there are no plans to acquire any other homes for the expansions.

With a 1988-89 enrollment of 9,040, the schools have 3,000 more students than they were designed to accommodate.

The school board dropped its original plan to construct a new high school in May, 1987, after angry residents opposed sites the district was considering in Rosemead, San Gabriel and Monterey Park.

So the board opted to expand the three schools, improving facilities and replacing portables with permanent classrooms.

According to Keilhacker, the district is seeking $13.5 million from the state for Alhambra High, $18 million for Mark Keppel High and $24.5 million for San Gabriel High to acquire property and build additional facilities. The schools serve students in Alhambra, San Gabriel, and parts of Rosemead and Monterey Park.

New Library

The final environmental impact report, certified by the board on Nov. 15, stated that 61 classrooms at Alhambra High would replace 64 portables, and a new library and administration offices would be added.

A 2-story academic building would replace 31 portables at Mark Keppel High on Hellman Avenue. A 2-story gymnasium would also be built, as well as a single-story cafeteria and additional music and drama facilities.

San Gabriel High on Ramona Street would gain 77 classrooms in place of its 55 portables, an expanded cafeteria and a new gymnasium. Sports facilities would be improved at all three schools.

Keilhacker said he believes the student population is fairly stable. The expansions are designed to accommodate the excess students more comfortably, but would not provide room for more, he said.

School board trustee Richard Amador, who abstained in the Aug. 30 vote, believes the decision will only delay the inevitable.

The district will need another school within a decade, even after the expansion, he said. "We already need another high school now.

'Political Heat'

"We would've taken substantial political heat by establishing a fourth (high) school site," he said, "but I think it would've been for the good of the students in the long run."

But board member Dora Padilla said she favored expansion "rather than the destruction of homes, rather than continue to butt heads against the many people who would have had to be relocated. We could have continued fighting knowing we would win, but time is critical, and we needed those classrooms yesterday."

According to district research technician Lawrie Hamilton, the high school student population increased by more than 7% from 1979-80 to 1980-81 and by about 2% in the following years. But last year enrollment dropped by 2.5%. This year it dropped again, by 3.5%. District officials disagree on whether the decline will continue.

The arguments do little to console Save Our Neighborhood supporters.

What riles affected homeowners is that in the draft environmental impact report, the Super-A-Foods market on Main Street north of 20-acre Alhambra High had been slated for acquisition for the parking-lot addition.

Only Place to Shop

Keilhacker said it would have cost the district considerably more to purchase the supermarket property. Also, many residents wanted the market to stay because it was the only place to shop in the neighborhood.

"Senior citizens (who shop at the market) called and said the best place to go was south," and acquire the homes of Huff and her neighbors instead, he said.

In addition, city officials had urged the district to spare the grocery store because it might not relocate in the city, meaning a loss in sales and property taxes, City Manager Kevin Murphy said.

"It's a business district, and here we were going to wipe out a supermarket," said Murphy, adding that the city urged the school board to take the homes instead as the "cheapest, closest, least disruptive" alternative.

According to the impact report, the sales tax loss to the city from the supermarket acquisition would be about 0.1% of general fund revenues of $22.4 million.

There is now only enough parking for 100 cars, and students frequently park in the streets, Murphy said.

While conceding that students who park in the street sometimes block driveways and leave litter behind, 4th Street resident Connie Garza is indignant that "we may lose our homes so they can park."

Garza, 39, has collected at least 120 signatures from neighbors opposed to any expansion at Alhambra High.

"We moved here because we wanted to be close to the school," said Connie Hernandez, 48, whose Fourth Street home of 17 years is among those that may be acquired. Two of her children have graduated from the school, and a 14-year-old daughter is attending it, said Hernandez, adding that the family completed a yearlong $50,000 remodeling of their 3-bedroom house just three months ago.

The project will now be reviewed by the state Department of Education and the State Allocation Board, Keilhacker said.

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