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Battle for School Site : Homeowners Mobilize to Fight for Their Land

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

It feels like deja vu to 80-year-old Mary Cone. The Cudahy homeowner moved from Huntington Park in 1978 when Los Angeles Unified School District officials purchased her home to expand Gage Junior High School. Now, she may be forced to move again to make way for another school project.

“I was displaced before,” said Cone, who lives on Live Oak Street. “I can’t move again. Where would I go this time?”

Cone is one of more than two dozen Bell and Cudahy homeowners--many of them retired--who hope to stop a $25-million plan by school and city officials to tear down 263 houses, apartments and businesses to build an elementary school.

The proposed 1,000-student campus, one of four schools proposed to accommodate the area’s growing number of children, would be built on a 13-acre site--half in Bell and half in Cudahy--near Florence and Wilcox avenues.

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‘Growth Is Astounding’

“We are busing kids out of their neighborhoods,” complained Los Angeles school board member Leticia Quezada, who supports the construction project. “And it’s not going to get better. The growth in the area is astounding.”

Nevertheless, with two April public hearings scheduled, a group of angry homeowners is mobilizing for what they expect to be a long, hard battle to save their homes.

The dispute is only the latest example of what is becoming a common problem in the crowded Southeast/Long Beach region, where officials are struggling to balance housing and commercial growth against the need to build more schools.

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In the Long Beach Unified School District, for instance, a group of homeowners and tenants have filed suit to oppose an expansion of Wilson High School. The expansion, approved by the school board earlier this month, would uproot a four-acre section of housing in the Belmont Heights area.

And in Lynwood, the school district has met stiff opposition from business owners who oppose plans to condemn a 12-acre commercial site on Imperial Highway to make room for construction of a high school.

The Bell-Cudahy group, called Save Walnut, is named after Walnut Street, a cul-de-sac that would be consumed by the school site. The street, dubbed Weed Alley, has long been a problem area for police and city officials who complain that drug users and pushers congregate around a handful of run-down apartment complexes there.

“We going to fight this all the way if we have to,” said Bell resident Nancy Glenn, who owns a small, two-bedroom home on Florence Avenue.

“You are taking the homes away from elderly and low-income people,” Glenn continued. “They can’t afford to move. It’s really stressful for a lot of them to think about being uprooted.”

The proposed school site is bounded by Florence Avenue, Wilcox Avenue, an extension of Crafton Avenue and Live Oak Street.

The plan also would eliminate a handful of Florence Avenue businesses, including two motels. The site would exclude, however, a 7-Eleven convenience store and a small garage-door-opener repair shop at the corner of Florence and Wilcox. Store owner Mark Phatipat has joined Save Walnut, saying that he could lose 30% of his business if customers living in the neighborhood are forced to move away.

The new school would be named the Walnut Street Elementary School.

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Since early this month, Save Walnut members have gathered more than 300 signatures and presented them to the school board.

They also have distributed flyers to encourage tenants and other homeowners to attend a Bell-sponsored forum on April 10 and an school district-sponsored public hearing on April 18. Both meetings are scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Bell Community Center.

Condemnation Power

Group leaders fear that the school board will ultimately seize the site under eminent domain law, which gives public agencies the authority to condemn private property and purchase it at a fair price if it is necessary to serve the public good.

“That gives us no choice,” resident Maggie Dootson said. “My civil rights are being taken away from me.”

But school and city officials argue that the school is urgently needed.

“You have to put the school somewhere,” said Councilman George Cole, who added that he is nevertheless sympathetic to the homeowners.

“It’s obvious we have to have more schoolroom space,” Cole said. “It’s going to have to take somebody’s property somewhere. The question is how do we do it so it causes the least amount of disruption.”

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Board member Quezada, whose district includes Bell and Cudahy, agreed: “It is critical that we all work together.” She added that “everyone will have their say” during the public hearings.

Three-Year Search

School district officials have been searching for a suitable elementary school site in Bell since 1986. The new school would replace Elizabeth Street Elementary School in Cudahy, which officials plan to convert to a junior high.

But “because of the density of residential dwellings in the area, it has been difficult to locate appropriate sites that minimize the displacement of the residents,” school district administrator Bonnie R. James wrote in a memorandum last month.

District officials had considered several other sites for the proposed elementary school. But city officials opposed most of those because they would have eliminated too many businesses.

The search became heated about two years ago when school officials considered a site at the Del Rio and Little Oak mobile home parks near the Los Angeles River.

Trailer Park Site Studied

Officials backed down, however, when mobile home residents complained that, for a variety of reasons, they would be unable to relocate to nearby parks.

The current site was proposed in a Jan. 5 letter to the school district and signed by Bell City Administrator John M. Bramble and Cudahy City Manager Gerald M. Caton.

In the letter, the two city executives said they favored the Walnut Street site because it includes properties in both cities and would force out fewer businesses than other proposals.

The administrators also suggested that city and school officials sign an agreement to share the school’s green space. Ball fields and open space make up about seven acres of the school site.

The city of Bell would maintain the playing fields and park land in exchange for use of open space for after-school activities.

Lack of Park Space

“The city is badly in need of green space that would benefit the families in our area and their children,” said Bell Mayor George G. Mirabal. “Half our gang problem is that we don’t have parks and other places for kids to go to.”

Bell and Cudahy currently have only about 10 acres each of park land, according to city records.

Mirabal outlined the city-sponsored plan at the school district’s Building Committee meeting March 2. Although the school board has not decided on the proposal, the Building Committee has recommended approval, administrator James said.

But Mirabal, nevertheless, is critical of the school district for wanting to put another school in Bell.

The city already has Corona and Woodlawn elementary and Bell High School. But the school district plans to put three more elementary schools--including the Walnut School--in the 2.8-square-mile city. (The second school is scheduled for construction sometime this year in an empty field next to City Hall. School officials have yet to find a site for the third school.)

“Pretty soon, LAUSD will be the major landowner in the city of Bell,” Mirabal said. “The only advantage here is the concept of a shared park. That’s the only reason we’ve considered the site.”

One More in Cudahy

Elizabeth Street and Park Street elementary schools and Clara Street Primary Center (kindergarten and first grade only) are in Cudahy. School officials want to build one more elementary school in that one-square-mile city.

The majority of students attending the Walnut Street Elementary School would come from Cudahy, Mirabal said.

Affected homeowners said they are not satisfied that their neighborhood is the best site for a new school.

“There are other places in the city (for the school) that would affect fewer people,” Glenn said.

About 20 members of Save Walnut met for a strategy session last week, Glenn said. Among other things, they discussed possible alternative school sites--most of them in Cudahy--to present to school officials.

Group members say they have found a number of alternative sites, including a vacant piece of land on Santa Ana Street, a stretch of mostly rental property on Clara Street and a proposed site for a card club at Patata Street and Wilcox Avenue. Some group members are even considering suggesting a school built over the Los Angeles River.


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