Alternative to Losing Homes : Put New School Over River, Residents Urge

Times Staff Writer

Faced with the prospect of watching the Los Angeles Unified School District level an entire neighborhood for a new elementary school, residents in Bell and Cudahy are urging school officials to consider building the proposed facility over the Los Angeles River.

During a meeting this week sponsored by Bell officials, about 60 residents of the two cities urged support of suspending the proposed elementary school over the cement-lined riverbed.

The residents oppose the school district's current plan--called the Bell Elementary No. 3--to tear down 263 houses, businesses and apartments and build the 1,000-student elementary school on 13 acres at Florence and Wilcox avenues.

"We have put men on the moon, and we've developed the greatest architectural capabilities known to man," said James Kleinpell, a spokesman for the Committee Against Bell Elementary No. 3.

"With that in mind," Kleinpell continued, "we ask why can't a structure be built over the river that makes maximum utilization of space and doesn't displace men and women and children that potentially could become homeless and a burden on society."

City officials, although stressing that they believe the Florence Avenue site is the best place to build the school, said that they will present the residents' plan to school district officials.

"It beats displacing people," Mayor George G. Mirabal said. The city has no power to approve or veto a school district decision to build a school in the city, but can make suggestions, apply political pressure and offer to work with the district.

More than 1,000 residents would be forced to move if the school district approves the Florence Avenue site, which lies in both Bell and Cudahy. The two cities fall within the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Under the proposal, the new elementary school would be bound by Florence on the north, Wilcox on the west, Live Oak Street on the south and an extension of Crafton Avenue on the east. Walnut Street, a cul-de-sac one block south of Florence, would be eliminated entirely.

If built on the site, the school would be named Walnut elementary School, after the cul-de-sac. It will replace overcrowded Elizabeth Street Elementary School, scheduled to be converted into a junior high. A majority of students would come from Cudahy.

Last month, the resident group's over-the-river proposal was considered an unlikely alternative to the politically sensitive task of forcing residents from their homes, city officials said. At the Monday night meeting, however, several city officials said that the idea should be pursued because it would not displace residents and businesses.

'Innovative Approach'

"I think it's a very innovative approach," Councilman Jay Price said.

The residents' proposal might allow the large school district to take advantage of a new school construction program that was established last year to finance creative ways to build schools without displacing residents, said state Sen. Leroy Greene (D-Sacramento).

The "Space Saver School" program, sponsored by Greene, will subsidize pilot programs by the first four school districts in the state--two in Southern California and two in Northern California--who submit a space-saving school plan, Greene said.

Plans could include putting new schools over freeways, over existing buildings or underground, Greene spokeswoman Alex Ives said in a telephone interview from Greene's Sacramento office.

Several school districts have inquired about the Space Saver School program, and Greene has met with Los Angeles Unified School District officials to discuss the concept earlier this year, he said. But no school has submitted a plan.

'Offers Options'

Bonnie R. James, building services administrator for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said district officials know of the Space Saver Program, but have not decided if the district will participate in it.

"The concept is unique," he said. "It offers options to districts who are highly urbanized. It tries to minimize the impact of displacing people."

He declined to say whether he would consider the residents' Los Angeles River plan. "We're still identifying a number of sites (in Bell) that have potential," he said.

Kleinpell and other residents who supported the over-the-river school plan offered no details about how the school would be built over the river.

Kathy Delegal, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, said that any proposal to build a facility over the cement-lined riverbed would need to be approved by the county and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which paved the riverbed.

She said that no structure has been built over the Los Angeles or the Rio Hondo rivers, which join about two miles south of Bell.

Chance for Discussion

District administrator James said residents and city officials will have an opportunity to discuss the river plan and other alternatives at an April 25 Building Committee hearing at the Bell Community Center. He said several optional sites will also be unveiled at the school district's 6 p.m. hearing.

School district and city officials, in a struggle to balance housing and commercial growth against the need to build more schools, have been at odds since 1986 over a suitable site. The two sides agreed on the Walnut Street site earlier this year after Bell and Cudahy officials added a provision to require seven acres of ball fields and other green space.

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