COMMERCE — If Montebello school officials have their way, a 500-student elementary school will eventually rise on the northeast corner of Garfield and Gage avenues--encircled by a paint factory, a steel cutting plant, an electric power substation, an auto inspection shop and a cemetery lined with tombstones.
The location is enough to make a city planner cringe.
But Montebello Unified School District officials say it is practically unavoidable because their 50,000-student system, already the third-largest in Los Angeles County, has been growing rapidly in recent years. And most of the growth has been in neighborhoods in that part of its eight-city district.
"Absolutely, there's a serious need," Business Manager Stephen L. Phillips said last week. "We're leasing portable (classrooms) in order to house the kids" now at other primary schools. "We're just overflowing."
Industry and government leaders in the city of Commerce do not dispute that. However, they complain that the school district wants to build on a $6-million to $12-million commercial site, which already is under private development, while a $1.5-million reclaimed trash dump lies vacant less than a mile away.
Trammell Crow Co., owner of the 14-acre site at Garfield and Gage avenues, is framing a lawsuit to stop the school project at least until environmental impacts are given more study. Commerce officials, fearing the loss of property tax revenue, are lending support.
"As long as (school officials) have a good alternative site available, and as a taxpayer in the State of California, I just don't understand how they can ask voters to spend $12 million instead of $1.5 million," said Hayden C. Eaves III, managing partner of Trammell Crow's Los Angeles division.
"I just can't believe that what they're doing is right."
So it boils down to an almost classic confrontation, with business and government at odds over a basic social need, complicated by the fact that this part of the county is running out of vacant land.
Trustees know that if they can't settle on a commercial site that has not been developed, Phillips explained, "they're faced with being forced to condemn someone's house."
Said Trustee Darrell Heacock: "You displace 40, 60, 100 families, that creates real controversy," although he added that the chance of that happening in this case seems unlikely.
The Garfield and Gage property had been owned by the same family for nearly half a century until Trammell Crow bought it last year. The company set out to erect four commercial buildings expected to contain 325,000 square feet of floor space and eventually employ 325 permanent workers. Eaves said about $7 million has been invested in site preparation work thus far, and the company is still spending about $750,000 to $1 million a month. By the time the school district could gain title through condemnation, he estimated, the market value probably would be about $12 million.
Eaves said he has yet to receive any formal notice that the school district wants to buy the land, although that was made clear when he attended a Sept. 18 trustee meeting. At that session, trustees unanimously voted to apply for construction money under a special state lease-purchase program without first calling for a time-consuming environmental impact report.
School official Phillips said an environmental report is unnecessary because "there's no flora or fauna that would be hurt," and an elementary school would have no significant effect on public services.
Trammell Crow and Commerce officials argued that the impact of putting small children in the midst of a potentially toxic industrial zone bordered by busy traffic thoroughfares deserves more consideration.
It's Where They Live
Phillips said school officials believe they will be able to cope with those environmental concerns, noting that the district already has several other schools in busy business regions. "Sure," he said, "you could say it would be better that the kids not go to school in an industrial area. But they live in an industrial area. . . . The school is where the homes are located."
Eaves said Trammell Crow officials had no idea that their parcel might some day interest the school district. But Montebello Trustee Eleanor K. Chow said she has been "talking about that site and looking at it for 16 years," since first being elected to office.
"At one point I went up in an airplane just to look for empty ground. . . . That was the only empty piece of ground that I saw."
The alternate site, a 10.5-acre tract at Gage and Greenwood avenues across from a Commerce branch library, was once home to a trucking company and still holds a small terminal building. Commerce Mayor Pro Tem Robert J. Cornejo said the city has offered to help the school district acquire that parcel, which actually lies just inside the city of Bell Gardens.