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WESTLAKE : Dreams May Spring From the Rubble

In the dusty, rubble-covered lot where the McKinley Mansion once stood, Verona Lopez envisions trees, grass, a playground filled with children and a garden where senior citizens can tend flowers and vegetables.

A community center with green space is a dream that she and other residents believe can rise from the ashes of the abandoned 1915 Italian Renaissance-style landmark, which was destroyed May 23 in a fire that killed two homeless men.

Lopez and other members of the Benton Way Neighborhood Assn. have launched a full-scale effort to turn the rubble at 310 S. Lafayette Park Place, which was once the home of mortuary tycoon Maytor H. McKinley, into a community and recreation space.

“They need playgrounds in this area,” said Lopez, a semi-retired architect and space designer who has lived around the corner from the site for 18 years. “There are not enough parks.”

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The association is enlisting the aid of city officials and a nonprofit agency to help it prepare a plan and a sale offer to present to Lafayette Towers East Partners, the developers who bought the site after its last occupant died in 1986.

Although principal partner Menashe Kozar did not return calls, Lopez said that she spoke with him last week and that he seemed willing to consider the group’s idea.

“He wouldn’t tell me how much the property was worth, but he did tell me to get a proposal together and put in an offer so that at least we’ll have something to talk about, something he can take back to the other investors,” she said.

Susan Shishim, a preservation coordinator for the city’s Department of Building and Safety, said the owners have not filed development plans since the fire. However, plans from 1989--when the owners attempted to tear down the protected property with an illegally obtained demolition permit in an effort to get on with construction--called for a 140-unit apartment complex, which neighbors said is the last thing the area needs.

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“We have enough of those rat warrens already,” said Lopez.

The neighborhood association has been working with the nonprofit Search to Involve Pilipino Americans to draw up a plan for a small, low-income senior and multifamily complex, which would share the three-acre site with a child-care center, a playground, a learning center and library for children, and a community recreation center with gardens and green space.

Joel Jacinto, executive director of the Pilipino Americans organization, said he came into contact with Lopez while conducting a site search for senior and multifamily housing. Jacinto is enthusiastic about the prospect of a mixed-use community project, and said his group is checking into various sources for funding.

David Marquez, a senior deputy for City Councilman Mike Hernandez, who represents the area, said that many of Westlake’s high-density complexes have a large number of vacancies. That and the sagging real estate market, he said, could give the owners reason to sell.

“We can’t have apartment buildings just for the sake of having apartment buildings,” he said. “We have high density with high vacancies. We need quality housing, not these little cracker boxes.”

A housing project that involves senior citizens is something Marquez believes could qualify for city funds. He finds the idea of combining senior citizens with youths in one community center especially appealing because the majority of residents in Hernandez’s 1st District are younger than 18 or older than 50, he said.

Part of the group’s original plan had been to save and incorporate two small structures, a carriage house and gazebo, which survived the fire. However, the carriage house was heavily damaged Aug. 19 by an arsonist, and both structures were demolished by the owners last week.

Fire Department officials are wrapping up their investigation of the May 23 blaze. If arson is determined as the cause, police said, the two deaths will be considered homicides, and any suspects apprehended will be tried accordingly.

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