GARDENA — After a lengthy, often emotional hearing, City Council members Tuesday refused to give a nonprofit company permission to convert an abandoned hospital into a treatment center for drug abusers.
Saying the building is too close to schools and residences, the council voted unanimously to deny a request by Behavioral Health Services to renovate the former California Gardena Hospital into a 100-bed chemical dependency recovery hospital.
The three-story building at 2315 Compton Blvd., vacant for three years and marked by graffiti, is on land zoned for commercial uses.
"We beg of you to consider the Pandora's box this drug facility would release into our environment," said Mary Zucconi, who lives near the vacant hospital, to council members. "There would be drug pushers on street corners . . . organized crime, then prostitution. We are entitled to express our fears."
Before Tuesday's meeting, some merchants and residents who live near the former hospital distributed a flyer warning their neighbors that the recovery center would be a "house for cocaine, heroin, PCP, alcohol and all other chemically addicted people from Long Beach, Los Angeles, Watts and Hollywood."
Larry Gentile, president of Behavioral Health Services, said he would consult the company's Board of Directors before deciding whether to take legal action to overturn the council's decision.
"It's a difficult type of situation because you hate to shove it down the throat of the community," Gentile said before the vote was taken. Gentile took exception to statements made by residents who said that they were not opposed to drug abuse recovery centers, but did not want one at the former hospital.
"It's like them saying, 'We think your idea is fine, but just do it in someone else's backyard,' " Gentile said.
Behavioral Health Services operates seven inpatient and outpatient chemical dependency centers in the Los Angeles area, five of them in the South Bay. Headquartered in Gardena, it operated a 35-bed inpatient center on Vermont Avenue here for six years until it lost its lease in 1983.
Gentile said the company is in escrow with Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance to purchase the 37,000-square-foot vacant hospital here for $1.1 million. Little Company of Mary bought the facility about three years ago for $2.2 million and transferred the state license allowing it to operate 59 beds to its Torrance facility.
The purchase came after the hospital's operators closed it voluntarily as a result of a county Health Department investigation that concluded there were "life-threatening deficiencies" at the hospital.
Escrow conditions state that if Behavioral Health Services is unable to obtain a permit to open the inpatient facility, the sale can be called off, Gentile said. However, he termed the purchase price a bargain, adding that his company would be hard-pressed to find a comparable building for less than three or four times as much.
The company went before the City Council to seek approval to open the facility after the Planning Department twice refused to give it a conditional-use permit. Such a permit is required before any hospital or group-care facility can operate in Gardena.
Gentile said his company had offered to make concessions to get the permit, including abandoning a plan to build an eight-bed addition on part of the facility's parking lot.
The recovery center was supported by Hawthorne Mayor Betty Ainsworth, who urged Gardena council members Tuesday to approve the company's plan. Ainsworth, who serves on the company's board of directors, said Hawthorne had experienced no problems with a treatment center that Behavioral Health Services operates in that city.
However, more than two dozen residents spoke against the company's plan. Despite the fact that the vacant hospital is on a busy artery dotted by retail stores and office buildings, residents complained that children could be endangered by the recovery center. The hospital is adjacent to Thornburg Park and three schools, including the private Serra High School.
Drug Peddlers Feared
"As a businessman, I am concerned about people coming into the community who might try to sell drugs," said Chuck Nader Jr., who operates a furniture store with his father near the hospital. "I'm totally in favor of what they are doing, but not in a residential area."
Council members expressed similar concerns. And, in a comment that drew applause from opponents of the treatment center, Councilman Mas Fukai questioned why the company had chosen Gardena.
"Why only Gardena?" the councilman asked. "Why not in Beverly Hills or Rolling Hills? Nobody thinks about San Marino or those classy places. They figure they can get into Gardena."
Gentile said the facility would be operated under a contract with the county stipulating that it must be within 14 miles of Norwalk because it would replace services there that have been eliminated under state budget cuts.
"This was, quite honestly, the last building we looked at," he said.
Gardena City Atty. Michael Karger said the council's action becomes final in two weeks. Under the law, Behavioral Health Services then has 90 days to initiate legal action if it chooses, he said.
Times community correspondent Kathee Yamamoto contributed to this story.