A Los Angeles city zoning panel Tuesday gave approval to open a controversial center in Lake View Terrace that will treat teen-age former drug abusers, but insisted that the facility be enclosed by walls with guarded gates to provide a sense of security for neighbors who fear the youths will get loose and commit crimes.
After a six-hour hearing, the Board of Zoning Appeals voted 4 to 0 in favor of granting a permit to the nonprofit Phoenix House project.
"We can't live our lives in a vacuum anymore," board Vice Chairwoman Valeria Velasco told neighbors who had sought to prevent the institution from opening.
"We need a drug treatment facility in every one of our communities," added Commissioner Sherri Franklin, saying widespread drug abuse requires all parts of the city to shoulder the responsibility for housing treatment centers.
The decision will probably be appealed to the City Council by either the neighbors or Phoenix House, both of which were unhappy with the outcome.
The mandated security measures, including an 8-foot-high, decorative wrought iron fence and an entrance guarded round-the-clock by security personnel, will destroy the therapeutic atmosphere the facility tries to create for its clients, Phoenix House representatives argued.
Phoenix House wants to operate a private high school and drug-abuse treatment center for 150 clients, ages 13 to 17, on the 15-acre site, formerly the Lake View Terrace Medical Center. Clients will live on the site during treatment in an 18-month program.
The facility was purchased for $3.2 million by Phoenix House after the hospital went bankrupt and closed in 1986.
During Tuesday's hearing, Councilman Ernani Bernardi urged the zoning panel to reject the Phoenix House project altogether as inappropriate for a residential area.
The lawmaker, who represents the area, accused Phoenix House of flexing "political muscle" to scrap security conditions imposed by a zoning administrator, even as he criticized the measures as inadequate "crumbs tossed to the community."
Andrew B. Sincosky, a deputy zoning administrator, told the board he would rescind his recommendation favoring the project if the security measure conditions were deleted.
Attorney Ray Magana, a former Bernardi deputy, and retired businessman Al Dib, candidates for the seat now held by Bernardi--who is retiring from the council--spoke before the board against the project. To date, only one candidate for the Bernardi's seat, city Fire Capt. Lyle Hall, has taken an outspoken stand in favor of the project.
The major concern of residents has been that teen-agers under treatment at the center would get loose in the surrounding community and commit crimes to buy illegal drugs. Phoenix House denied its clients will pose a problem, pointing to a lack of problems at its other facilities.
Additionally, the agency's representatives argued that the proposed security measures would be detrimental to the Phoenix House program.
"This is supposed to be a home away from home," said William Smith, director of clinical services for Phoenix House's four California facilities. "You don't have this environment when these security measures would create a prison-like atmosphere."
Lew Snow, president of the Lake View Terrace Homeowners Assn., said the project "is not going to despoil this neighborhood."
Believing it will "ignores a 35-year history of this site being used for public service purposes," he said. The 180-bed hospital that operated on the site for years had a heliport, an in-patient psychiatric ward and a methadone center for drug abusers, Snow said.
Phoenix House attorney George Mihlsten told the planning panel that it would be against state law to impose special conditions on his client's property just because it serves former drug users.
In the late 1980s, Phoenix House made its first bid to operate a treatment center at the Lake View Terrace hospital site. But it withdrew the application for a city conditional-use permit when former First Lady Nancy Reagan, a fund-raising supporter, dropped her backing for the project because it drew heavy opposition from neighbors. The center later renewed the request.