Living on a Gold Mine : Developers Covet Lennox Real Estate, Which Worries Some of Its Residents
A crowded, unincorporated community of one-time chicken ranches, Lennox could easily be dismissed as a case of urbanization gone awry.
Its narrow streets are lined with parked cars on both sides, frequently leaving room for only a single lane of traffic. When two cars going in opposite directions meet, one has to back off.
Multiple families can be found crammed into houses built for one family, and in many cases garages have been illegally turned into extra living quarters. Other building, health and safety code violations abound, county officials say. Abandoned buildings often become crack houses, according to sheriff’s deputies who patrol Lennox. Graffiti and vandalism, though down in recent months, scar many homes and storefronts.
Yet, with all of its problems, little Lennox, all 1.25 square miles of it, may be among the most prized commercial and industrial land in the South Bay. The largely residential community is considered a potential gold mine for developers attracted by its access to major thoroughfares--it is trisected by the San Diego Freeway, Hawthorne Boulevard and Inglewood Avenue--and its proximity to Los Angeles International Airport.
“It’s very obvious if you look at a map,” said Sorin Alexanian, a county regional planner. “It’s right in the middle of a very bustling, fast-growing aircraft and related-industrial area.”
Buzz Dawson, an Inglewood real estate broker with 17 years of experience in the area, said Lennox is particularly attractive for light industrial uses, such as air-freight businesses.
“I think its time will come, but when I don’t know,” Dawson said.
Such talk about Lennox’s future, meanwhile, causes concern among some of its residents, who fear that their needs will be left out of the equation. The community’s residential character, these residents say, serves a purpose and should be preserved.
Lennox is predominantly Latino--86% of its 22,757 residents, according to 1990 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. It has emerged as a starter area for recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America, who are drawn to the community because it offers affordable housing and is just minutes from the hotels and airport-related businesses where many of them work.
Increasingly, however, Lennox residents are aware they can expect growing pressure to give up their homes in the name of progress.
Much of that pressure is expected to stem from huge increases in the volume of passengers and cargo passing through LAX. The Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners estimates that 65 million passengers will use the airport by the year 2000--a projected increase of 44% from the 45 million passengers who used the airport in 1990. Cargo volume is expected to double in the next decade, to 2.6 million tons annually, as LAX closes in on New York’s Kennedy International as the country’s busiest air cargo facility.
Then there is the soon-to-be-completed Glenn M. Anderson Freeway (formerly called the Century Freeway), which roughly forms Lennox’s southern boundary, and the Metro Green Line, scheduled to open nearby in 1994.
Taken together, these factors are expected to lead to a mushrooming of new hotels, restaurants, car rental agencies and other businesses, say developers and neighboring city officials.
These possibilities are not lost on those who could be displaced by such projects. As a result, many residents are suspicious of the county’s latest attempt to revitalize Lennox through the expansion of three commercial-industrial zones. Residents also question the intentions of two neighboring cities--Hawthorne to the south and Inglewood to the north--that are looking into annexing portions of Lennox.
“It is clear to anyone who knows the area that everyone wants Lennox because of its commercial potential,” said Hector Carrio, a Lennox school board member. “But we have raised our families here, made our homes here.” As a result, Carrio said, he and others “will continue to struggle” to preserve its residential nature.
The county’s most recent plan for Lennox would allow individual homeowners to decide whether to sell to developers or remain in their homes.
County planners were soundly rebuffed last year when they proposed a more ambitious plan that would have created a commercial and industrial redevelopment district empowered to use eminent domain proceedings to force homeowners from their property. Faced with strong community opposition, that plan was scrapped.
John Huttinger, an administrator with the county’s regional planning department, said the county’s vision for Lennox involves a balancing act--developing its commercial-industrial corridors to their fullest potential while retaining the strong residential flavor of its other neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, Hawthorne and Inglewood would like to try their hand at revitalizing Lennox. Portions of the community are inside Inglewood’s and Hawthorne’s “sphere of influence,” a planning term that gives those municipalities the right to consider annexation. The cities, some Lennox residents say, would do what the county so far has not--raze homes for commercial projects.
Norman Cravens, Inglewood assistant city manager, said Inglewood in the next few weeks is expected to release a consultant’s report on annexing the portion of Lennox that lies north of Lennox Boulevard. Much of what was once known as east Lennox is now part of Inglewood. Some of that area has been redeveloped into a thriving commercial area, and one Inglewood council member said recently that he supports continuing that trend into adjacent areas of Lennox.
The councilman, Jose Fernandez, said parts of the unincorporated community cannot hope to avoid becoming commercial and that, if necessary, the power of eminent domain should be used to accomplish that.
“Redevelopment is an instrument, a tool,” Fernandez said. “In my area, in my district, redevelopment has done a lot of good things. And it’s an area very similar to Lennox.”
Fernandez, whose district abuts a section of Lennox, said the community has much development potential. “The thing is, how do you make that potential realized and benefit the population that lives there?” Fernandez asked.
City officials are quick to frame annexation issues in terms of blight and crime. Cleaning up Lennox, they say, is necessary because of the spillover effect into Inglewood.
Hawthorne, too, has annexed sections of Lennox, most recently in the mid-1980s just south of the Glenn M. Anderson Freeway. Six months ago, the City Council directed city staff members to explore annexing an area north of the freeway just below 108th Street. As yet, however, no specific annexation plan has been presented to the council, City Manager James H. Mitsch said.
Some Lennox residents maintain that the neighboring cities would like to gobble up their community solely because it would expand the tax bases of the cities. “There isn’t any doubt, personally, that they want Lennox because it’s a new source of revenue,” Carrio said.
Said Jim Keen, co-president of the community group Lennox Coordinating Council: “Everybody thought L.A. County was their enemy, when the county was trying to help the area out. The real threat is . . . the two local governments.”
Division among residents in their views toward the county’s plans has opened the door for Hawthorne and Inglewood, Keen said. “If we ever could have gotten united as a community we would have stood a chance. But now, we’re just up for grabs,” he said.
Another political problem for the community is that a large segment of its residents tends to be voiceless. Mostly working-class people, they are neither property owners nor voters.
About 70% of the 4,998 occupied housing units in Lennox are owned by absentee landlords, according to 1990 Census statistics. Moreover, whereas the 1990 Census found that 14,224 of the community residents are 18 years old or over, the county Registrar-Recorder office reports that only 17% of them--2,352--are registered to vote.
Although debate in Lennox centers on the future of the unincorporated area, how to describe its present situation is also a source of dispute. More so than in most communities, the eye of the beholder shapes views of the community.
When Michael Neill looks out the back upstairs window of his 19th-Century home, he sees the makings of a slum. He points to a run-down trailer sitting in his neighbor’s back yard.
“There’s this guy that lives in there, eats his meals there and God knows what else,” Neill said. “I’ve tried talking to the owner about it” to no avail, he said, adding that his neighbor’s illegal housing is typical of the community’s problems.
Neill, who favors redevelopment, has deep roots in Lennox. His father and grandfather also owned homes there. Neill’s two-story house on Inglewood Avenue was built in 1878 on what was once a chicken farm. The home, which he bought in 1964, doubles as his income tax preparation business.
Today, Neill would like to sell his home and an adjacent lot--the last of the family’s properties in the community--and move out; his brother has already moved away.
“This area will become either a commercial area or a slum,” Neill said.
Down the avenue, Olga Hernandez paints a different picture of life in Lennox. Hernandez and her ex-husband own a panaderia , a bakery that specializes in Guatemalan and Mexican pastries. Hernandez emigrated from her native Guatemala with her then-husband and two children in 1977. They settled in Lennox and had two more children before divorcing.
“Like everyone else that comes here, we came to better our lives,” said Hernandez, in Spanish.
She did brisk business while talking to a reporter and said the bakery has fared well since it opened in 1981. “We are better off than we were before, in our country,” Hernandez said.
She said she knows little of the county’s plans for Lennox or, for that matter, of what might eventually become of the community. But Lennox is her home, and she has no plans to leave.
“There isn’t any reason to,” Hernandez said.
Lennox Population: 22,757
Registered voters: 2,352
Average household income: $28,354
Latino 19,478 86% Anglo 1,361 6% Black 1,260 5.5% Asian 552 2% Other 106 0.5%
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census; Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Office.