Fate of Navy Ghost Town Hinges on Deal to Serve Community, the Needy

Times Staff Writer

The empty townhouse on a San Pedro street called USS New Jersey is showing signs of decay. Shards of glass from a broken window litter a small green lawn leading to the door, which swings open to a dusty, dank interior. Inside, graffiti, empty beer cans and other debris suggest the past presence of squatters or perhaps a hideaway party spot for teenagers.

In better days, the semi- detached dwelling was among 545 that housed Navy families in two compounds dotted with tennis courts, picnic grounds and play areas. The military personnel living there was stationed at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, shuttered in 1996.

Now, six years after being declared surplus military land, after numerous studies and contentious public hearings -- and after the discovery of an endangered butterfly on the land further stalled plans -- the fate of the suburban ghost town is finally about to be determined.

The controversy involves competing public interests: How many of the units should be saved from the wrecking ball and rehabilitated to shelter low- income and homeless families? And how many should be demolished and replaced with high-priced single-family homes to help stimulate economic growth in the neighborhoods close to Los Angeles Harbor?

Negotiators face a deadline of next Friday to come up with an agreement. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is then expected to review the results under a federal mandate that the needs of the community as well as the homeless be balanced in the use of such surplus property.

Los Angeles' current plan calls for setting aside about 76 of the units for low-income housing and using a one-acre plot for a community center for homeless veterans. Another portion of the one- and two-story townhouses would be given as residences for students attending the private Marymount College, while another plot would go to the private Rolling Hills Preparatory School for recreation facilities.

One of the original participants, the Harbor/UCLA Research and Education Institute, withdrew its application to build a research park and campus on part of the site after deciding it would be too costly.

The education institute was to get about 142 housing units. The Navy now plans to sell those and others -- about 245 altogether -- to the highest bidder. It is anticipated that the Navy buildings will be demolished and new homes, costing more than $300,000, will be built.

But opponents, led by the nonprofit Volunteers of America, want much more to be retained for low-income dwellings at a time when high housing prices and rents in the Los Angeles area are locking out many families. Last month, Volunteers of America threatened to sue if HUD approved the current plan from 1999 and Los Angeles went ahead with it. That prospect spurred federal officials to hold off on any decision for 45 days, while the city and Volunteers of America try to reach a compromise by the end of next week.

The Navy housing is in two parcels about half a mile apart, one a 59-acre tract along Palos Verdes Drive North bordering Harbor City that has 300 two-bedroom townhomes built in 1988, the other 62 acres along Western Avenue with 245 three- and four-bedroom homes built in the 1960s.

Two years ago, the discovery on the Palos Verdes Drive North site of the endangered Palos Verdes blue butterfly complicated matters. A deal was recently reached to create a 22-acre habitat for the insect, which feeds on abundant deer weed in the area. The preserve will not affect the use of the other housing, Navy caretakers say.

The Palos Verdes Drive North property, a hill with a vast vista of San Pedro's harbor, is ringed by an underground fuel storage tank, which supplies fuel via a pipeline to nearby military bases. Marymount is leasing some of the housing there already. The Western Avenue complex, while older, is in better shape, with less vandalism apparent. The brown, wood-slatted duplexes still have refrigerators, dishwashers, blue-flecked carpet and drapes. At one of the units, on a little patch of lawn, a vibrantly red hibiscus plant still blooms.

The Los Angeles Police Department uses the site for exercises in house-to-house searches, said James E. Hansen, a leader of the San Pedro Enterprise Community. The coalition of religious and community groups was a partner with the Volunteers of America as representatives of the homeless in planning for the property, but was replaced after arguments with the city. Hansen, an emeritus professor of medicine at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, suggested that the homeless and low-income families he hopes will live in the housing share characteristics with the departed Navy households.

"They were struggling young families that didn't have a lot of money," he said. "Many of them had to use food stamps; their children qualified for Head Start programs. They were really the same economic status. What we want to emphasize is that these homeless families in transition can become more productive members of the community. They can give their children hope."

Bob Pratt, president of Volunteers of America in Los Angeles, voiced frustration at the not-in-my-backyard sensibilities he believes have stymied compromise. "They're saying they're going to be overrun by gangs, crime is going to increase and their property values are going to plummet, which isn't going to happen, but which is classic NIMBYism," he said.

But others in the community suggest that there are better uses for the property.

"What we need is market-rate housing," said Andrew Mardesich, president of San Pedro Homeowners United. "Do homeless people shop and spend money the same way market-rate homeowners shop and spend money? There is already a disproportionate level of impoverished people, and if they add another hundred units of the Navy housing to the equation, do we not take it more into the imbalance zone?"

Mayor James K. Hahn, who has made easing the affordable housing shortage one of the goals of his administration, and his sister, Janice, who represents the area on the City Council, both live in San Pedro. They declined to be interviewed on the issue, according to aides.

However, Janice Hahn and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), who represents the district, recently issued a statement of support for the current plan, and urged advocates for the homeless not to continue holding up a decision.

In place of the Volunteers of America partnership, the city has chosen South Bay Crossing, a San Pedro organization that provides recovery services and food distribution, to represent interests of the homeless in the project. South Bay Crossing has accepted the city's offer of 76 units. "Even if you used 300 of the units for the homeless, it wouldn't solve all of the problems for Los Angeles, where there are thousands of homeless every night," said Harlan Heyer, South Bay Crossing's executive director. "I think people in San Pedro felt like other communities need to take their share."

Heyer said his group would use most of the townhomes as transitional housing for single men and women, and parents who have completed recovery programs. The group would work with another organization, Teen Challenge, which has experience in managing housing programs, he said.

The most recent delay in a decision about the Navy property has not troubled him, Heyer said. "We've waited five years, so 45 days is not going to make any difference," he said.


Times staff writer Jocelyn Y. Stewart contributed to this report.

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