The Torrance campus of Le Lycee Francais de Los Angeles has been sold for $10.6 million and the 100 students at the private school will be transferred to the Lycee's West Los Angeles campus after classes end in June.
The sudden sale last November to Manhattan Holding Co., a real estate investment firm formed in 1988, marks the quiet renewal of a fierce, two-year neighborhood battle over the land's future. The initial controversy ended in late 1980 with the Lycee's purchase of the site from the Torrance Unified School District for $2.65 million.
Neighbors of the 6.2-acre Torrance campus, located one block from the ocean on the picturesque coastal site of the former Parkway School in Hollywood Riviera, say they knew nothing of the November sale until several weeks after escrow closed, when rumors began to circulate about development plans.
City Council members said they have been contacted both by developers who want to build houses on the site and by school operators interested in converting it to a boarding campus for foreign students. No formal plans have been filed for the site, which is still zoned only for public use.
Residents already have sent council members a flurry of letters and petitions asking them to retain the present zoning and prevent any construction which would block their ocean views.
They said their attempts to get information from Le Lycee Francais officials have been frustrating.
"We are upset that they did this so quickly and quietly without letting us know about it," said Inez McGee, a past president of Riviera Homeowners Assn. "We were extremely open and receptive when they moved in, so you would think they would let us know when they were ready to leave."
Manhattan Holding Co. President Kenneth Slutsky declined to talk in detail about the site, noting only that the company has reviewed "probably 25 options."
"Different brokers have brought offers, and I really don't know what their intent is," Slutsky said. "That's really all I can say at this point."
Lycee officials, who once hoped to attract as many as 1,000 students to its kindergarten through 12th grade classes at the Hollywood Riviera campus, said low enrollment forced them to close the school.
"Despite concerted recruitment efforts . . . the enrollment at this campus has not increased sufficiently to be financially self-sustaining," President Raymond Kabbaz told parents in a Nov. 22 letter. "We have wrestled and worried about this problem for some time. The Overland (Avenue) campus continues to grow and demands expansion; the Riviera campus does not." Lycee also runs a nursery school in Pacific Palisades.
Kabbaz did not return several telephone calls seeking additional comment, but school secretary Clara Szabo said its trustees tried to keep the Riviera campus open, in part by reducing tuition from $5,000 to $4,000 for students who attended at that site.
"It just came to a time when the board of directors decided they could no longer do that," she said. "The best they could do was assure every child that they could complete their school year there."
Trustees plan to use the proceeds of the Riviera sale to add a second wing to the high school building of the main campus, expand the main campus library and build a gymnasium and auditorium.
Because students from the West Los Angeles campus and the Riviera campus often mingle at Lycee social events, she said "a good number" of the Riviera students felt comfortable at the main campus. Szabo said school officials aren't sure how many students will transfer.
But Steve Cangemi, father of an 8-year-old student at the Riviera campus and owner of a neighboring house, said he will not transfer his son to West Los Angeles.
"That's quite a distance to ask a kid to commute," he said. He has not decided where his son will attend school.
Cangemi said he sent the boy to Lycee because of its European approach to education, with small classes--an average of nine per classroom at the Riviera campus--and bilingual instruction. The school is operated by a nonprofit corporation and the Ministry of French National Education.
When neighbors found out the Riviera campus had been sold, they were "hysterical, for awhile," Cangemi said.
"Now the mood is cautiously optimistic," he said. "Everything is kind of in limbo. Nothing is happening."
Neighbors are waiting to see whether the new owner, Manhattan Holding Co., will renew a failed 1980 attempt by the Torrance Unified School District to convert the site's zoning to single-family residential.
A vocal group of homeowners, concerned about losing their views, campaigned against the change. In December, 1980, City Council members voted against rezoning the site, expressing fear that the California Coastal Commission--which has jurisdiction over any development within 1,000 feet of the beach--could require a developer to include federally subsidized housing on up to one-quarter of the site.
In 1981, state legislators removed those provisions of the Coastal Act requiring cities to find room for low- and middle-income housing near their beaches, commission analyst Thomas Cowling said.
The elimination of subsidized housing as an issue, however, does not mean it will be any easier to win a zone change, Mayor Katy Geissert said.
When representatives from Manhattan Holding Co. met with the mayor to discuss a possible change, Geissert said she warned them about the site's political past.
"I told them, 'You should be advised that there is no guarantee of rezoning. I'm telling you that what you want may never happen,' " Geissert said. "They said they had a right to make a profit on the land.
"I do become exasperated with developers who come in after paying an inflated price for property in anticipation of getting zoning for a particular type of use," Geissert said. "Then they come back and tell you, 'Well, we just can't build something smaller or less dense because it just won't pencil out,' and I say, 'I'm sorry. That's why speculators are called speculators.' "