WHITTIER — A drive through the neighborhoods around central Whittier tells the story.
Streets that were once lined with graceful turn-of-the-century homes and 1930s bungalows are giving way to rows of square apartment buildings. Homeowners, many of whom have lived in the city's oldest residential areas for decades, have grown annoyed as their streets became more congested, parking became harder to find and water pressure slowly weakened.
But after the Oct. 1 earthquake, their annoyance turned to anger.
Developers, taking advantage of zoning that permits apartment buildings in much of central Whittier, began buying up land from property owners whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake. Since October, building permits were issued for 32 apartment units in eight structures north of Hadley Road, and in the same four-square mile area plans were filed to construct 123 more dwelling units in 20 buildings.
Scores of residents who had never before been involved in city affairs started attending City Council meetings, demanding a stop to the construction. The earthquake prompted many to start questioning why their neighborhoods were zoned for high-density, and why city officials seemed to ignore their problems while lavishing attention on the Uptown Village business district.
A Spokeswoman Emerges
"Nobody was minding the store" when it came to residential areas, said Helen McKenna-Rahder, who has emerged as a spokeswoman for the homeowners. "You don't see them allowing Taco Bells to be built in the village. Why do we have to put up with all these apartments in our neighborhoods?"
But it was only after irate homeowners crammed the City Council chambers for several consecutive meetings that the council temporarily restricted apartment construction while considering rezoning the whole area.
It is easy to see why homeowners are up in arms, McKenna-Rahder said, when one compares the city's plans for the business district to what has been done for residential areas.
For months, the city has been working to redesign the earthquake-ravaged Uptown Village, where unreinforced masonry buildings tumbled into the streets after the 5.9 temblor and its aftershocks.
Redevelopment of the village, which had been proceeding slowly, suddenly became synonymous with the city's ability to rebound after the earthquake. The city arranged for trailers to serve as temporary homes for displaced businesses. A new redevelopment district was formed. More than $360,000 in donations to earthquake victims were distributed solely to merchants.
Last month, an elaborate plan for the village was unveiled, showing how the 18-block area that was Whittier's original central business district could become a financial and aesthetic success.
"We wanted to reconstruct and protect the village as much as possible," City Councilman Gene H. Chandler said. "That was our top priority."
Residential Areas Take Longer
Have residential areas been neglected in the post-earthquake rebuilding effort?
"Probably," Chandler said. "But I think the residential areas take more time to evaluate where they've been and where they're going."
Chandler noted that the city waived earthquake repair permit fees for all residents, provided free debris pick-up and lobbied lawmakers for federal and state earthquake assistance.
That is not enough, McKenna-Rahder said. She charges that the city has acted irresponsibly, if not illegally, in not looking after residential planning.
McKenna-Rahder spent weeks poring over thick three-ring binders filled with copies of state planning and zoning laws, and she concluded that the city has violated a state planning law that requires the city's General Plan, its blueprint for development, to be revised in the wake of a natural disaster.
The law says in part: "When new information becomes available indicating that a previously excluded issue is now relevant, the General Plan must be revised to address the issue. The discovery of a previously unknown earthquake fault is an example."
But Whittier Planning Director Elvin Porter said the previously undiscovered fault that caused the 5.9 earthquake in October is in the Whittier Narrows area--outside the city limits--and so the law does not apply.
"All the faults in the city, as known, are shown in the General Plan," Porter said.
McKenna-Rahder also pointed out a state law that requires cities to evaluate housing stock at least every five years to see if the zoning is still appropriate to the area. Porter said that such evaluation is an ongoing process, but the zoning for some areas north of Hadley Street has not been revised since the 1940s. He said the department does not produce written reports on the condition of the housing stock.
"We don't have enough staff to have that particular phase going on . . . ," he said.