WHITTIER — Helen McKenna-Rahder grew up in a comfortable old house in one of this city's oldest residential areas, north of the Uptown business district.
The homes that line the streets there are distinctive. Some have shaded porches overlooking neat lawns. Others are supported by thick pillars. A few have second-story windows peeking through wooden shutters.
McKenna-Rahder knew that many of those homes had been damaged in the Oct. 1 earthquake, some so badly that they had to be demolished. But she didn't get upset until she heard that they were being replaced by apartment buildings.
On one block of Dorland Street, developers have bought nine lots and plan to build apartment buildings. Irate homeowners on the street appealed to the City Council for a zoning change but were turned down.
'Here to Make a Buck'
"Developers have capitalized on our tragedy," McKenna-Rahder said. "They're not here to provide housing. They're here to make a buck on our earthquake. That's disgusting."
McKenna-Rahder and about 80 other homeowners showed up at last week's public forum on the post-earthquake reconstruction of Uptown and pleaded for this Quaker-founded community to save its heritage.
Homeowners are circulating petitions asking that the area north of Hadley Street from Pickering to Painter avenues be rezoned to limit construction to single-family homes or duplexes.
"The uniqueness of this area is being gobbled up . . . by pink stucco apartment buildings," McKenna-Rahder told the Earthquake Redevelopment Citizens Advisory Committee. "These buildings do not belong in Uptown."
Added Sally Schacht: "I am afraid that this city is selling itself short for the quick and easy buck."
Senior Planner Michael Vurnham, a 14-year city employee, said he had never seen homeowners show up "on the scale that they were there (at the meeting) and with that intensity."
Homeowners say apartment developers have bought lots left vacant by the demolition of quake-damaged homes and have offered to buy out owners of surviving homes. Since January, 12 permits for 46 apartment units have been issued, Vurnham said, compared to 18 permits for 69 apartments in all of 1987.
Some of the area north of Hadley Street is zoned R-4, which means that a four-unit apartment building could be built on lots that range from 5,600 to 8,400 square feet. The zoning was not an issue until after the Oct. 1 earthquake, when many single-family homes in the area were demolished.
Homeowners fear that property values will decline and the neighborhood will deteriorate if bulky, square apartment buildings with air conditioners on the roofs end up surrounding turn-of-the-century homes.
"Those developers were out there right away, looking for property," Vurnham said. "But it's taken awhile for those properties to go through escrow. That's why we're only seeing this eight months after the earthquake."
McKenna-Rahder and other homeowners want the zoning changed to R-2, allowing no more than two residences per lot. Ordinarily, such a change would have to be approved by both the Planning Commission and the City Council after a study by city staff. (The council could also approve a temporary rezoning, but such action would require a four-fifths vote.)
But there is some indication that the homeowners will face an uphill battle in getting such a measure approved.
Several weeks ago, Councilmen Gene Chandler and Victor Lopez opposed an urgency ordinance to convert Dorland Street from an R-4 to an R-2 zone. Chandler also blocked a proposed moratorium on new apartment construction on Dorland Street. That measure would have exempted developers who had already submitted plans to City Hall.
Chandler said it would have been unfair to change the rules after a developer had invested in the property and paid for building plans with the intention of constructing apartments.
But homeowners say it is unfair that single-family neighborhoods are becoming dotted with apartments.
"It's very frustrating to see that heritage disappearing day by day," John Smith said to warm applause at last week's forum.
In addition to the zoning change, homeowners want a moratorium on construction of new apartments in the area.
Vurnham said the city is not required by law to allow developers to build under the standards in effect when the property was purchased. "But if they have submitted plans and have gotten some sort of approval, it has usually been the policy of the city to allow them to proceed," he said.
Several Dorland Street homeowners whose property is in escrow wrote to the city to oppose any zoning change.
"Many of the homeowners on Dorland Street bought their property for investments and sold them accordingly," Sally Carrig wrote. "This entire issue is about as ridiculous as someone who buys property by a landing strip and then complains about airplanes."
Vurnham also noted that state law requires cities to provide housing opportunities to all segments of the community, and apartments are generally the cheapest form of housing.