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Around the Foothills

January 28, 1988|Doug Smith

Some residents and business owners in Echo Park did a lot of angry talking last week in a series of intense meetings over a private agency's plans to put a home for the mentally disabled in their community.

But, in the end, they found there was little they could do but listen.

Their anger was aroused when they learned that the Los Angeles Men's Place, an agency that works with the homeless mentally ill on Skid Row, was buying a prominent old building in the community's business district.

LAMP, as the agency is called, intends to rent the ground floor to businesses and convert the vacant living quarters on the second and third floors into 33 apartment units.

These would become the long-term homes of men and women who had made it successfully through LAMP's crisis centers downtown.

Approaching the venture like a private business deal, LAMP negotiated the purchase of the deteriorating building and opened escrow before publicly announcing its plan.

The secrecy was considered a betrayal by those who oppose the project and reason, probably correctly, that if they had known about it sooner, they would have had a better chance of stopping it.

They first sounded off Thursday night at the home of Westley Lau, president of the Property Owners and Residents Assn. of Echo Park. Then Mollie Lowery, director of LAMP, was back on the hot seat Friday morning in an upstairs hall of the staid Mexican restaurant Barragan's on Sunset Boulevard, half a block from the building LAMP is buying.

Jackie Reed, president of the Chamber of Commerce, called the standing-room-only crowd to order with a warning against unruliness. It didn't work.

About half the group booed the opening remarks by Lowery, a tall, slender and reserved woman who was trying to explain that her clients were not the type who would go around slobbering on their businesses.

"We don't want it," one man said several times.

For the next two hours, they peppered Lowery and three deputies to Councilwoman Gloria Molina with their view that there are already too many transients, winos and bums loitering on their streets and in their parks and that the community was too tough to drop vulnerable people into.

Not everyone was opposed.

One elderly woman said she thought the community had a duty to help those who were down.

"What's all the fuss about 33 people?" she asked.

Two ministers said they think the community would benefit from a positive, structured and healing program such as LAMP's.

Echo Park lawyer Arthur Goldberg said he was ashamed of the reaction of a community he always considered caring and tolerant.

Although he did not identify himself as one of the group of lawyers selling the building to LAMP, Goldberg did volunteer that his large family had experienced its own emotional problems and wondered whether most hadn't.

"Don't listen to him," a man then began saying every time Goldberg spoke. "He's crazy."

Several people protested the absence of Molina, who was at a meeting in Chinatown at the time, and railed at the city for using Echo Park as a dumping ground for programs other communities would not tolerate.

In a long, rambling speech, Lau said the people of Echo Park would march on City Hall and "bust down the doors" to make their point.

On Saturday morning, however, Molina came to them, showing up for a smaller, more civil meeting in a pleasantly restored Queen Victorian house above Sunset Boulevard.

She made it clear from the start that she was supporting LAMP.

Her view that the project could go through without new permits was challenged by a young lawyer who said he researched the building's zoning. It had never been used for more than eight living quarters, he said, concluding that LAMP's plan was a significant change of use.

Molina assured him she had talked to the chief zoning administrator and several other high city officials and all had found the project in order.

The councilwoman lectured sternly when fears about the mentally ill came up.

"We're not talking about people walking around in straitjackets," she said.

She seemed to calm one merchant's fears by explaining in Spanish that the men would be under supervision and would be taken away if they caused problems for the community.

Another speaker accused LAMP of launching a "sneak attack" on Echo Park. Molina was contrite.

"That was wrong," she conceded. But she still didn't budge.

"I will not reverse my position on it," she said, with finality.

She did, however, promise that if the community's fears proved true, she would help close the project down.

And she promised to get around to Echo Park more often.

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