Quest for a small park in Hawthorne turns tortuous

“That lot is who I am,” says Viviana Franco, who grew up just 100 feet away. “You have a shared consciousness in a neighborhood, and that lot stamped us. This was a place of crime and blight, and it shaped our attitudes, our identities. If it was green and had a few trees? Yeah. A whole new world.”
“That lot is who I am,” says Viviana Franco, who grew up just 100 feet away. “You have a shared consciousness in a neighborhood, and that lot stamped us. This was a place of crime and blight, and it shaped our attitudes, our identities. If it was green and had a few trees? Yeah. A whole new world.”
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Viviana Franco stabbed the toe of her boot into the dirt. Behind her, the evening commute was underway on the 105 Freeway, a daily, numbing racket that is as much a sure thing in this gritty pocket of Hawthorne as the rising sun. In front of her was a barren lot, a sorry little patch of dirt, just a third of an acre, ringed with sagging concrete walls, covered with weeds. At her feet was a used condom.

“Oh, man,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s the third one.”

Over the years, Franco has found it all here: couches, tires, condoms -- even a dead goat, which she never did figure out. The lot might have been the bane of her life. Instead, it became her passion.

When she was a kid, it was her proving ground -- the spot where she played baseball against her brothers, where she learned to ride a bike as construction of the 105 began.

When she was a teenager, her parents sent her to private school in Torrance. She discovered the “other” South Bay -- Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills -- and began to ask hard questions: “Why don’t they have a liquor store on every block? Why is it so green?”

When she became an adult, she earned a master’s degree in urban planning at UCLA specifically to clean up the lot and replace its hardscrabble dirt with a blanket of grass.

She’s 30 now, a ferocious community advocate with four tattoos and a nose piercing. Nothing has changed.

Franco’s zeal and idealism have run headlong into reality -- into local politics, dizzying bureaucracy, a weak economy. The lot, the way she tells it, has become a singular, hidden monument to land-use inequity -- to the discrepancy in green space available to the wealthy and the poor.

The lot is 100 feet from the house where Franco was raised. It was a loving home, with parents -- a mother with a third-grade education and a father who worked as a janitor, both Mexican emigres -- who preached the gospel of education and hard work. But as a kid, she suspected that she was no better than the abandoned lot down the street. That, she said, was wrong, and it is an experience that defines thousands of lives.

“That lot is who I am,” she said. “You have a shared consciousness in a neighborhood, and that lot stamped us. This was a place of crime and blight, and it shaped our attitudes, our identities. If it was green and had a few trees? Yeah. A whole new world.”

The 105 construction in the 1980s “literally ripped these neighborhoods in half,” said Hawthorne City Councilman Gary Parsons, and created dozens of forlorn lots like this one, at Doty Avenue and 118th Street.

Even figuring out who owned the lot -- something Franco started five years ago, in graduate school -- was no simple matter. Hawthorne and the Department of Transportation both said it wasn’t theirs. After poring over records, Franco helped prod Caltrans into acknowledging that it owned the land.

Last year, after forming a nonprofit group called From Lot to Spot, Franco asked Caltrans to give her a good-faith $1-a-year lease allowing her to improve the lot. Instead, the department -- under financial pressure, like all state agencies -- put a fence around the lot and put it up for sale.

At the first auction, in February, Caltrans valued the lot at $375,000. No one put in a bid. Again, Franco asked for permission to improve the lot. Caltrans balked and staged a second sale in April, lowering the valued price to $300,000.

“They said: ‘Going once. Going twice.’ And there was this one guy in the back of the room who put up his paddle,” Franco said. “It sold.”

She introduced herself to the buyer, who said his name was Al. It was evident, Franco said, that he was not interested in chatting. When she asked Caltrans for his name, the agency wouldn’t tell her. She found it buried in another agency’s agenda. The lot had been purchased by Ali Awad, an owner of a local repossessed car dealership and a supporter of the mayor.

Politics in Haw- thorne is not for the faint of heart.

Larry Guidi, 50, is a hard-charging, NAFTA-trashing, business-friendly man who has been mayor since 1992. He seems to be everywhere at once, whether it’s a homeowners association meeting or a local girl’s quinceanera.

Guidi is alternately revered for saving Hawthorne from the brink of bankruptcy, though it is not a wealthy city, and reviled for running an old-style political machine, known as “Team Guidi.” To his critics, Guidi cites a passage from Romans 3:13-14: “Snake venom drips from their lips; their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

The Caltrans auction, it turned out, had not been the end of the story. The California Transportation Commission must approve all sales of Caltrans land. In May, Franco asked the commission for a 90-day stay of execution -- to try to raise the money herself so she could turn the lot into a tiny park. The commission, to her great surprise, agreed. Now she needed $300,000.

She approached a series of public land conservancies and received encouraging responses but soon discovered that she was batting out of turn. Traditionally, requests like this one were sponsored by a member of the state Legislature.

Scrambling, Franco found her sponsor. Assemblyman Curren Price (D-Inglewood) agreed to take her case to the land conservancies, provided he had one last piece of ammunition: formal assurance that City Hall would commit to the park’s long-term maintenance, which had an estimated price tag of $6,000 to $10,000 a year.

Franco knew she had the support of two City Council members. She needed Guidi.

In July, she made her case to the council. As expected, she received her two votes. A third councilman recently suffered a stroke and was not there. Guidi voted no, as did his political ally, Ginny Lambert.

“We’ve got equipment falling apart,” Guidi said of existing city parks. “We need new benches. We need new paint. At the end of the day, we have to look at our checkbook.”

Guidi said, in effect, that he could not commit to long-term maintenance unless Franco had assurance that the money was there to buy the land. Franco couldn’t get the money to buy the land unless she had a commitment for long-term maintenance.

Parsons, who voted for the proposal, accused the mayor of double-speak -- saying, on the one hand, that he supported the idea of the park and then finding a way to vote against it. The council could have simply supported the idea conditionally, then pulled back its money if Franco’s financing fell through, Parsons said.

The only beneficiary of Guidi’s decision, Parsons charged, was Ali Awad. According to city documents, Awad has donated at least $5,000 to Guidi -- no trifling amount in a city where entire campaigns have been conducted for little more than $15,000, Parsons said.

“Where is the mayor’s allegiance?” Parsons said.

Guidi lashed out at “innuendoes” from “little troublemakers.”

“I get donations from a lot of people,” he said. “I will just never understand how you can connect those two things.”

Awad, in an interview Thursday, said he has given to Guidi because he considers the mayor a friend of the business community. “I wasn’t expecting anything in return,” he said. He would have no objection to the creation of a park, he said, “if they come up with the money.”

But Franco may be out of time. Her 90-day reprieve from the Transportation Commission, the one that temporarily set aside Awad’s purchase of the land, expired Thursday. Franco drove to Sacramento and asked for an extension. The commission denied her request. It is unclear where she will turn from here.

“To them, it was just a business deal,” Franco said by telephone from Sacramento. “To me, it was so much more.”