New Schools a Mixed Blessing for South Gate
South Gate city officials had a dream: to build shopping centers -- not schools -- on every parcel of undeveloped land to capture the millions of dollars the city believes it loses when residents shop elsewhere.
But when the Los Angeles Unified School District embarked on a $14-billion school construction program, city officials were brought back to reality. Through its power of eminent domain, the district has claimed small businesses, blighted industrial buildings and other sites the city wanted for commercial development.
“With these [school] bonds passing, it’s like the money is burning a hole in their pockets,” said Greg Martinez, vice mayor of South Gate. “They don’t stop to think about the fiscal impact on the cities.”
So far, the school district has spent about $245 million on new schools and additions to South Gate campuses. When the expansion is completed, the district will have increased the number of schools in South Gate from 12 to 21, totaling about 175 acres, or nearly 5% of the city’s total acreage, according to district and city officials.
The issue of schools versus shopping centers has parent groups and L.A. Unified on one side and South Gate city government on the other. Business owners have been largely caught in the middle.
Everyone agrees, however, on the need for schools. Overcrowding has forced L.A. Unified to use trailers as classrooms, switch to year-round calendars, bus students to less crowded schools and require some teachers to move from classroom to classroom throughout the day.
Until five months ago, when a new middle school opened, South Gate had what was believed to be the most crowded middle school in the country.
“We don’t want the kids in our community to be bused to other schools anymore,” said Sonia Miranda, a member of Padres Unidos (Parents United), a grass-roots group that has lobbied for new schools. “Our focus is that kids be able to go to school and learn.”
But for the officials of South Gate, a city that has been plagued by corruption and faces a $6.5-million deficit in the next fiscal year, every acre of land not used for commercial purposes means less money for municipal services such as tree-trimming, pothole repair and trash pickup.
City officials had been pursuing a commercial development at the site of a new elementary school on five acres at Firestone Boulevard and Dorothy Avenue that would have produced $700,000 to $1 million a year in sales tax revenue, said Steven Lefever, the city’s director of community development.
South Gate Mayor Henry Gonzalez said other developments on district land would have produced high-paying industrial jobs and generated sales tax revenue.
“They didn’t take homes; they took jobs,” Martinez said. “Where are these kids going to work when they get out of school?”
For the city’s financial well-being, Martinez said, he would have liked L.A. Unified to revamp the older schools and add classrooms so it wouldn’t have needed to acquire so much land.
District officials dispute the contention that they have taken too much property from the city.
“The impact and the amount of land that we are acquiring for schools is fairly minimal,” said Roderick Hamilton, L.A. Unified’s development manager for the southern region. “Overall, there are a lot of development opportunities, aside from the school development.”
But City Manager Gary Milliman said assembling a site large enough to be developed commercially is difficult. The land the district acquired is considered excellent real estate for commercial development, he said, because it sits on some of the city’s main intersections -- locations that are highly visible and easily accessible.
Glenn Gritzner, special assistant to schools Supt. Roy Romer, said L.A. Unified tries to avoid acquiring sites that are opposed by city leaders and selects locations that are close to communities in need of schools.
“Every square inch of land has a dream behind it,” Gritzner said. “In a theoretical world, [the cities] may want this, but we are here to build these schools now.”
Jesus Angulo, a native of South Gate and the principal of an upcoming campus now called the Southeast Area New High School, says the schools are long overdue.
“Schools have been needed for about 20 years,” said Angulo, a former South Gate High School student, teacher’s assistant, teacher and assistant principal. “At lunchtime and the passing periods, you would just see the masses.”
South Gate High School has more than 5,000 students, of whom about 3,300 are on campus at any one time because of the year-round calendar. When the new Southeast Area campus opens in the fall, it will take the extra 1,700 students plus 700 others.
Dolores Mora is eagerly awaiting the opening of the high school, which is across the street from her South Gate business. She hopes to lure some of the students there.
Her shop, Azteca Market, is a short walk from Southeast Area New High School on Tweedy Boulevard and down the street from the new middle school.
Since Southeast Middle School opened in the fall, students have come in after school and headed straight for the nachos, candy, chips, soda and ice cream, significantly boosting her sales.
“Even having a few kids come in here and there will be good for business,” Mora said in Spanish.
Three blocks down Tweedy Boulevard, business owners aren’t as enthusiastic about the construction of an elementary school in front of their establishments.
Shops had to move to make room for the school, and for the remaining tenants of the strip mall, business was interrupted without compensation from the district.
During building, the stores were inaccessible because the parking lot and side streets were open only to construction vehicles. Business owners became more accustomed to seeing a lack of parking and the debris from the work than the presence of customers.
“They took away businesses that were generating jobs and tax revenue for the city,” said Lorena Guido, who owns Gin’s Liquor Mini Market with her sister, Jenifer. “The schools are needed, but they affected the small businesses owned by people who support families.”
Two stores down, at Williams Cleaners, Jose and Dolores Rubio have been late with their rent and have had to discontinue their telephone service because of a lack of business.
A new tile on the floor marks the spot where soil samples were taken by the district, which once considered acquiring the business. The spot is a reminder of the days they were closed and the customers they lost.
The couple are optimistic that business will improve once the school opens in the fall.
City officials say there is room for compromise on a 35-acre property already owned by the district. The proposed high school and middle school at Tweedy Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue could include housing, commercial or industrial space.
“The configuration of the schools may not be traditional,” Milliman said. “We think there are enough creative minds around ... to accommodate both needs.”
Milliman says the site will meet education requirements and satisfy some level of economic activity. “There just needs to be a balance,” he said.