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Racial Split Emerges in Carson Development Fight

February 09, 1989|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

Racial divisions surfaced this week at a raucous Carson City Council meeting where black residents opposed to a development near Cal State Dominguez Hills accused city officials of treating them as "second-class citizens"--a charge that was hotly denied.

The opponents claim that the development--which needs city variances on lot size, street width, and yard and garage setbacks--is a substandard project likely to attract crime and cause traffic congestion. They allege that similar variances would never be approved outside North Carson.

The accusation is familiar in often-polarized Carson, where City Council factions reflect racial and ethnic divisions in the community. Many middle-class blacks live in the north end of the city. Less well-off Latinos and Asians live in the south.

About 400 people, almost all of them black, jammed council chambers Tuesday, cheering opponents of the project and jeering anyone who spoke in favor or who questioned any of the opponents' assertions. Mayor Kay Calas threatened to have the audience ejected after several outbursts.

South Vs. North

"It is the south side versus the north side," declared April Gipson, a black community activist who led the residents' protest. "It is humiliating and downright embarrassing that North Carson must fight the same old fight over and over. We have just had it. Regardless of our race or creed, we will not be treated as second-class citizens."

Mayor Kay Calas, who is white,

raised her voice in reply.

"I kind of resent what you are saying," Calas said, adding that there are many substandard lots in the south and east of the city. "You haven't done your homework. Don't try to divide the community."

"I am not," Gipson said.

"Yes, you are," Calas replied, shaking a finger at Gipson.

Appeal of an Approval

The issue before the council was an appeal of the Planning Commission's approval of a proposed development of 132 single-family homes on a 17.4-acre tract at Avalon Boulevard and University Drive.

The council decided to resume discussion of the appeal Feb. 21 to consider changes proposed by the developer, Lewis Homes.

Lewis originally sought to build 102 homes on lots meeting the city's minimum size requirement of 5,000 square feet but later decided that the project would not be profitable enough. It later submitted plans for a denser, more profitable development.

On Dec. 13, the Planning Commission approved a revised plan that increased the number of homes to 132 and made the project a gated community with private roads that did not have to be as wide as city streets.

Fire Officials Opposed It

Variances approved by the commission included smaller lot sizes, some narrow street widths, short front yards and reduced garage setbacks.

Fire officials opposed the project because they anticipated difficulties maneuvering emergency equipment on narrow streets. City public works officials said the private roads would deteriorate without city maintenance and might cost the city money in the future.

However, the city staff, citing regional needs for more housing, said the changes requested by Lewis Homes were justified.

Planning Director Pat Brown said the commission decided that more relaxed development standards were acceptable in a gated community with private roads.

Density Was Increased

Opposition to the project began to build after the Planning Commission decision, as the word spread that the project would be denser than originally planned.

On Dec. 28, Councilwoman Sylvia Muise, who lives in the area and had originally encouraged the developer to bring a project to the site, appealed the Planning Commission decision to the full council, arguing against the narrow streets and for a traffic study.

Earlier, residents of the middle-class, mostly black neighborhoods adjacent to the project had successfully campaigned against a condominium apartment proposal.

They noted that students from the site would attend Compton schools which, they said, have a reputation for gang activity. They asserted that the developer therefore would be unable to sell the units and would rent them instead. They said that likely tenants would bring crime, loud parties and violence to the area.

It is this same group that has rallied against the Lewis Homes project, voicing fears of crime and low-income blacks.

'Don't Want Watts'

After the council meeting, Gerry Bryan, vice president for land development for Lewis Homes, was surrounded by a group of opponents to the development. "We don't want Watts," one black woman bluntly told him. "We pay too much taxes."

Gregory Smith, a Cal State Dominguez Hills professor, said the homes built on the narrow streets would be resold quickly, go on the rental market and soon become "fester points, or open sores."

Site Would Limit Asking Price

Bryan acknowledged in an interview that the location of the site in the Compton Unified School District would limit the asking price for the homes. He said price limitations led the company to design a denser project than it first planned.

Bryan, however, said that Lewis Homes is willing to amend the project so that all streets would be at least 36 feet wide, which would require the elimination of several homes. It is not willing to build the project if lots must be 5,000 square feet.

Gipson, in an interview after the meeting, said she is adamant that the houses must be built on lots with a minimum size of 5,000 feet.

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