DOWNEY — The United College of Business has sued Downey, alleging the city blocked its expansion because of fears that enrollment of additional minority students would "discourage higher income, white customers from patronizing nearby businesses."
Lawsuits filed in Los Angeles Superior Court and in U.S. District Court also allege that Downey was protecting its own economic interests in a neighboring redevelopment project.
The college is seeking $7 million in damages and a court order compelling the city to permit the 250-student expansion. The federal lawsuit was filed Sept. 18, while the Superior Court lawsuit was filed Aug. 24.
Jim Cutts, Downey director of community development, has denied the allegations, saying the city's only concern is lack of parking in the area. He said nearby businessmen already complain that students park in their lots and on nearby streets, and a larger enrollment would only make matters worse.
Cutts called the allegations of discrimination and conflict of interest "ludicrous." "It's just digging and trying to find something that doesn't exist," he said.
The lawsuits contend a key factor in the city's decision to deny the expansion is that 64% of the students attending the college are Latino or black. The school needs a change in its current city permit to expand.
The lawsuits claim that the city is limiting enrollment at the college because of a belief that the "mere presence of these predominantly low-income, minority students would discourage higher income, white customers from patronizing nearby businesses."
College President Alan D. Mentzer also said the city has a conflict of interest in denying the permit because it holds a $1.2-million trust deed on the Embassy Suites Hotel--Downey's showcase redevelopment project near City Hall.
In January, United College of Business moved into a building at 8345 Firestone Blvd., just west of the hotel. The college occupies the second and third floors with Downey National Bank on the first floor.
Parking spots in the area is frequently difficult to find and patrons of the hotel and its two restaurants often park in nearby lots, including the college's, Mentzer said. The lawsuit alleges Downey prevented the expansion so "customers of other businesses in the crowded Civic Center area could continue parking illegally in UCB's unused spots."
The college has 338 parking spots nearby, which the city said may not be enough even though it exceeds the number called for in the latest city study of the school.
Of the allegation that Downey was acting to benefit the hotel, Cutts said, "We don't need to have to try to support the hotel. It's an incredible success story."
250 Students Approved
About 250 students attend classes at the Firestone Boulevard building. Another 200 students are enrolled at a second Downey facility, and about 1,300 students attend the college's Hollywood campus. The college offers day and evening courses in bookkeeping, word processing, secretarial and other skills.
The city Planning Commission issued a permit in August, 1986, to allow the college 250 students at the Firestone building. However, Mentzer said at the time he thought that allowed the college to have 250 students in the Firestone building at any time; 250 students in its day program and another 250 in its night program.
Mentzer said when he discovered that was not the case, the business college applied to increase enrollment to 500.
"The city is trying to limit our use to about one-third the legal occupancy," Mentzer said earlier this week. "It's very harmful economically."
Last April 1, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the permit after finding that additional students would park on city streets and "impose an undue burden" on area traffic and parking.
The college appealed to the City Council, which on May 26 unanimously upheld the Planning Commission's decision.
The city, the City Council and Planning Commission are named as defendants in the lawsuits.
Downey has an existing parking standard for business colleges--one space per five students plus 1.5 spaces per classroom--which would require United College of Business to have 124 spaces. But the Planning Commission and City Council put aside the standard and based their decisions on two city parking studies of the college. The first study, done in December before the school opened the new facility, indicated that the college needed 181 spaces to accommodate 500 students. The second study three months later showed the college needed 317 parking spaces, according to city reports.
With its 338 spaces, the college has 21 more than Downey's highest projection. Nevertheless, the city's planning staff found the surplus may not be adequate and parking "will spill over onto adjacent properties and negatively impact them."