Faced with serious overcrowding in California's prison system, the Schwarzenegger administration Friday abruptly postponed the sale of a former Youth Authority facility in Whittier to study its possible reuse as a prison.
Whittier officials said they expect residents to be firmly opposed.
The state Public Works Board delayed the sale of the 74-acre Fred C. Nelles site after the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation asked for the chance to assess its needs and evaluate "the potential reutilization of the Nelles facility."
"It may not even be used as a correctional facility," said department spokeswoman Terry Thornton. "We just don't know."
Thornton said the department is examining all options to deal with prison overcrowding. "We've got to look at everything."
Under pressure from a federal monitor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month called a special legislative session to address overcrowding.
There are nearly 172,000 inmates in California prisons today. Thornton said more than 16,000 are housed in double and triple bunks in dorms, gymnasiums and day rooms, "which is less than an ideal situation for many inmates."
The governor has called for building more prisons. He wants to establish secure local facilities for inmates about to be released from prison. Those new facilities also would be used to house certain parole violators.
The mention of possible reuse of the Nelles property for correctional purposes sparked immediate concern in the southeast Los Angeles County community of Whittier.
"Our council and our city would be opposed to reuse of Nelles as a correctional facility," said Nancy Mendez, Whittier's assistant city manager.
"We think the best use of the property ... is that it be developed as some kind of mixed-use development."
The state was poised to sell the property to Los Angeles developer Richard Meruelo for $107 million when the item was pulled from the agenda of Friday's Public Works Board meeting in Sacramento.
Meruelo, the largest landowner in downtown Los Angeles, is a resident of Whittier part of the year.
"We stand with the city and its residents in support of a project that will provide housing and retail for the Whittier community," said Meruelo spokesman Michael Bustamante.
The Nelles facility, established in 1891, was the state's oldest school for youthful offenders. It was closed in May 2004. The state declared the land surplus property and put it up for sale.
Meruelo's Los Angeles-based company, Meruelo Maddux Properties, emerged in March as the top bidder for the site.
Working with another developer, Whittier last month made a final attempt to buy the property but could not come close to the price Meruelo offered for the prime land.
Rather than see the state keep the property and control its use, Mendez said, the city now wants the land sold to Meruelo. "We're looking forward to working with him," she said.
The city would like to see the portion of the property fronting Whittier Boulevard developed as big-box retail stores or other businesses that generate sales tax revenues, Mendez said.
On the remaining property, she said, the city set a limit of 650 housing units.
Meruelo has agreed to preserve the administration building and superintendent's home on the Nelles site. Both buildings are considered historic properties.
Mendez said the weed-covered property has become "a graffiti magnet."