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South Bay’s ‘Heart’ Wants One of Own : Lawndale: A General Plan to create a downtown and revitalize the city goes to the council this week. Critics say the plan won’t work in today’s economy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lawndale’s motto is the “Heart of the South Bay,” but for years residents have wondered whether Lawndale itself has a heart.

The 1.9-square-mile city, which is home to more than 27,000 people, has no downtown, no commercial center, no shopping mall, no movie theater, no comedy club and only a smattering of sit-down restaurants--most of them coffee shops.

But a new 292-page plan, which a 14-member citizens committee helped draw up this year, outlines a set of development goals that could give the financially strapped city a sense a place. Although some dissenters believe that this Eliza Doolittle will never become a lady, others say the plan provides the key to her transformation.

“The city (and its residents) don’t have a vision, they don’t have a place, they are nothing but a wide spot in the road between Redondo Beach and Hawthorne,” Lawndale Community Development Director Gary Chicots said. “What we’re trying to encourage in Lawndale is . . . an urban village that would give the city an identity.”

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The proposed General Plan, a blueprint for future development in the city, is scheduled to come before the City Council on Tuesday and will appear on the April ballot if approved. City law requires that voters also approve the plan.

The meat and bones of the plan, estimated to cost from $80 million to $100 million, involves an overhaul of Hawthorne Boulevard, the main thoroughfare that bisects the city.

Although Hawthorne Boulevard is crucial to Lawndale’s commercial and economic health, there is nothing about the six-lane highway that tells Lawndale travelers or residents where they are, according to the plan. The highway’s partially landscaped median, which doubles as a public parking lot, is more than a safety problem, the plan says--it is also ugly.

But if the city ever realizes the vision outlined in the proposal, that wide patch of asphalt between Marine Avenue and Manhattan Beach Boulevard will become a beautifully landscaped plaza at the center of an urban village containing retail shops, restaurants and condominiums.

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Brick-lined pedestrian walkways and bike paths bordered by flowering bushes would wind past benches shaded by jacaranda and camphor trees.

Concrete signs emblazoned with metallic letters spelling out the city’s name and motto would adorn the plaza’s gateway. Parking for village shops would be angled along the curbs of Hawthorne Boulevard, separated from traffic by narrow landscaped dividers.

To finance the renovation, which officials believe could be completed by 1997, the plan encourages using a redevelopment agency as a method of generating funds for the improvements. But it also urges the use of other financing avenues such as bond sales, business licensing taxes, development fees and low-interest loans.

“We’re just going to get uglier unless we make some changes,” said Norman Frantzman, chairman of the citizens committee.

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“We can’t compete with Torrance for high-rise professional business buildings, we’re not going to compete with El Segundo for the aerospace industry, or what’s left of it, and we’re not going to compete with the harbor for international trade companies,” he said.

“We have to find a niche we can fill as a bedroom community and transitional community where we can feed people or bed them down and bring in money.”

But not everyone on the committee was optimistic that an urban village would solve the city’s fiscal problems or image. In sessions that were sometimes so emotional that on one occasion a committee member broke down in tears, several members insisted that the proposals in the General Plan were unrealistic given the current economic downturn.

“I think the General Plan is looking through rose-colored glasses,” grumbled committee member Nancy Marthens, who is lobbying against council approval. “I think (city officials) are trying to sell us an idea that worked 15 years ago, but that won’t work in today’s economy. And we’re going to go into debt for bonds we will not be able to pay.”

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Marthens and committee member and former Councilman Dan McKenzie also criticized the plan, which has been a year in the making, because it does not prohibit the use of eminent domain to acquire private property in the name of redevelopment.

“I don’t believe in that eminent domain,” McKenzie said. “They go in there and start taking people’s homes, and that’s just not right. I think Hawthorne Boulevard and the commercial area should be redeveloped, but not at the expense of the residents.”

The citizens committee agreed to include in the General Plan a policy that prohibits the city from forcing people to sell their property to make room for private development. But the Planning Commission last month decided to delete that sentence before adopting the plan and sending it to the council.

“It’s like saying let’s have a redevelopment area but then taking away the tools to do it,” Planning Commissioner Ignacio Aliaga said. “Without eminent domain, you can’t have redevelopment.”

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But unless the issue is resolved in a way that satisfies a majority of Lawndale voters, the city’s chances of getting its long-awaited heart do not look good.

“This is our only means of salvation--to have money coming in from redevelopment,” Councilwoman Carol Norman said. “We cannot rely on the state. We must find our own solution.”

The New Lawndale

The proposed General Plan that comes before the City Council on Tuesday outlines development goals that would improve the city’s image and add to its coffers. Among them are proposals to:

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* Turn Hawthorne Boulevard into Lawndale’s Main Street with brick-lined walkways, bike paths and benches.

* Eliminate the parking lot on Hawthorne Boulevard’s median strip and install angled parking spaces along the curb.

* Create an urban village that would become Lawndale’s downtown area and would include condominiums, retail shops, entertainment establishments and sit-down restaurants.

* Create a public awareness program that encourages residents to “Shop Lawndale.”

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* Develop recycling programs for city residents.

* Find funding sources to buy additional parkland.

BACKGROUND

Although state law requires every city to have a General Plan, Lawndale has been without one for several years. The problem dates to 1963, when the City Council took the unusual step of adopting an ordinance requiring voter approval of a General Plan. Under state law, only the council’s approval is needed. In 1976, after the attorney general’s office issued an opinion that the ordinance was unconstitutional, the council adopted a General Plan without voter approval. But three years ago, after civic activists resurrected the issue, the attorney general reversed the old opinion, invalidating the 1976 General Plan. In November, 1989, the city put the 1976 General Plan on the ballot, but voters rejected it and the city stopped issuing building permits. The crisis was temporarily resolved when the state allowed the city time to come up with a new plan. The state’s deadline expires Friday. If approved by the council this week, the plan is expected to go before voters in April.

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