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Developer Wants to Make Comeback; Residents Have Other Plans

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Folks who live near Long Beach’s Recreation Park say it’s OK if former real estate mogul Michael J. Choppin--a political and financial kingpin who went broke in 1992 in one of Southern California’s biggest real estate collapses--wants to make a comeback. They just don’t want him to do it in their backyard.

Led by a self-described Internet geek and dozens of outraged residents, homeowners have been waging a knock-down drag-out fight with Choppin and his supporters in City Hall over a diagonal strip of rail right of way that has been unused since the late 1950s.

On Saturday, more than 80 residents, environmentalists and their children marched through the ribbon of land that they would like to see turned into a city park or a hiking and biking trail.

“I just want to keep this green,” said Florence Karlik, holding a sign that said, “No Public Land for Choppin’s Private Profit,” one of several that attacked the developer.

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Although one city planner described the weed-infested plot as “unsightly,” residents view the two parcels where Choppin wants to build 32 homes as priceless open space.

“The value of the land is incalculable to me,” said computer whiz Jim Clark, one of the leaders of the Greenbelt Committee, which is fighting the development. “I go out there and hunt butterflies and fly kites with my son.”

Critics complain that the city is selling Choppin the land at a below-market price and that the right to buy the land was secured without competitive bidding. In short, they say Choppin benefited from “back room politics” in City Hall.

The city is prepared to sell Choppin the land for $20,900 a lot, contending that the price was set by a third-party appraiser and is based on the fact that the property will require grading, landscaping, sidewalks, sewer lines and other improvements.

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However, lots in the densely packed neighborhood sell for $100,000 and up on the open market, say real estate agents and others familiar with the area.

Choppin defends the price, saying land with no water or utilities is costly to develop and cannot be compared to other property.

For him, the proposal represents his first major land development deal since the collapse of his real estate empire in 1992.

“I’m trying to start all over again,” he said during an interview.

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During the 1970s and ‘80s, Choppin, now 59, ran the high-flying IDM Corp., which developed properties in five Southern California counties but was especially active in Long Beach, where it helped build the 27-story Greater Los Angeles World Trade Center on Ocean Boulevard.

Choppin, one of Long Beach’s leading citizens, served on numerous boards and commissions, and was active in such things as bailing out the financially troubled symphony and drafting a city general plan.

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But when his fortunes fell, he was forced to seek protection under federal bankruptcy law to reorganize his debts. Numerous lawsuits followed, filed by some of the 12,000 investors in Choppin partnerships said to have lost at least $300 million.

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Since then, Choppin has kept a low profile. The last of the lawsuits ended in 1995 in a way that left him “vindicated,” he said.

Once the owner of one of the city’s grandest homes, a 10,000-square-foot mansion in College Park Estates that he lost to foreclosure, Choppin now lives with his wife in a rented condominium. He had a bout with cancer of the pancreas, which is now in remission, though it left him rail thin.

“I was supposed to be dead a year and a half ago,” said Choppin. The interview was conducted at a coffee shop that serves as a de facto office these days.

The proposed purchase was arranged without competitive bidding after the City Council gave Choppin exclusive negotiating rights to the property.

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Conducting business that way is not unusual in Long Beach, where developers often make unsolicited proposals and then are granted negotiating rights as they put the project together.

In this case, City Manager James C. Hankla gave the project a tentative green light after a meeting with Choppin. Hankla and other city officials said that the land has sat idle for years and that Choppin’s plan to develop it sounded reasonable. Hankla said he would have listened to any qualified developer who had a plan.

“There had been no substantial uses for that property for a long time,” he said. For someone with Choppin’s background, building 32 homes would be “a slam dunk,” Hankla said.

Under the terms of the deal, Choppin would receive two block-long parcels, which run on a diagonal from 7th Street and Bennett Avenue to 10th Street and Euclid Avenue. The surrounding area, just to the west of Wilson High School, is zoned for multiple use and is dotted by older frame houses, duplexes, triplexes and apartment houses.

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“This is a nice, clean single-family development close to a big park in an area zoned for multiple-family use. That combination is unusual,” said City Councilman Jeffrey Kellogg.

With supporters such as Kellogg and Hankla, and old friends such as Long Beach Grand Prix Assn. chief Christopher Pook, who testified for the project at a hearing, it looked like Choppin might get his development. Though still broke, Choppin said he has financial backing for the project from Dr. Seymour Alban, a prominent local physician. Alban’s daughter, deputy city prosecutor Julie Alban, is running as a Republican from Long Beach for the state Assembly.

But Choppin encountered both political and community opposition.

Former City Councilman Doug Drummond, who had supported the project, changed his position. Drummond, who could not seek reelection this year because of term limits, soured on the project because of strong community opposition, he said. He added that the price Choppin is getting is “way too low.”

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Residents, helped by a sophisticated Web site designed by Clark, used lawn signs, petitions and mass meetings to generate opposition to the project.

Even though parts of the neighborhood around the right of way are in decline, some residents like the somewhat seedy feel to the older homes and don’t want an Orange County-style tract in their backyard.

“We are looking at houses that belong in Tustin, not here,” said Mike Driscoll, a retired teacher who lives with his wife, Jan, in a frame house built in 1929.

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The house was sold to them nine years ago as a “tear-down,” meaning its value as a lot was worth the $200,000 purchase price. The Driscolls moved in and fixed it up. Like Clark, they have come to view the open space behind their property, though weed-filled and dusty, as an extension of their homes. The neighbors would like to see the land turned over to them so they could build and maintain a greenbelt.

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the project Tuesday.


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