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Battle for School Site : Homeowners Mobilize to Fight for Their Land

March 30, 1989|JAMES M. GOMEZ | Times Staff Writer

It feels like deja vu to 80-year-old Mary Cone. The Cudahy homeowner moved from Huntington Park in 1978 when Los Angeles Unified School District officials purchased her home to expand Gage Junior High School. Now, she may be forced to move again to make way for another school project.

"I was displaced before," said Cone, who lives on Live Oak Street. "I can't move again. Where would I go this time?"

Cone is one of more than two dozen Bell and Cudahy homeowners--many of them retired--who hope to stop a $25-million plan by school and city officials to tear down 263 houses, apartments and businesses to build an elementary school.

The proposed 1,000-student campus, one of four schools proposed to accommodate the area's growing number of children, would be built on a 13-acre site--half in Bell and half in Cudahy--near Florence and Wilcox avenues.

'Growth Is Astounding'

"We are busing kids out of their neighborhoods," complained Los Angeles school board member Leticia Quezada, who supports the construction project. "And it's not going to get better. The growth in the area is astounding."

Nevertheless, with two April public hearings scheduled, a group of angry homeowners is mobilizing for what they expect to be a long, hard battle to save their homes.

The dispute is only the latest example of what is becoming a common problem in the crowded Southeast/Long Beach region, where officials are struggling to balance housing and commercial growth against the need to build more schools.

In the Long Beach Unified School District, for instance, a group of homeowners and tenants have filed suit to oppose an expansion of Wilson High School. The expansion, approved by the school board earlier this month, would uproot a four-acre section of housing in the Belmont Heights area.

And in Lynwood, the school district has met stiff opposition from business owners who oppose plans to condemn a 12-acre commercial site on Imperial Highway to make room for construction of a high school.

The Bell-Cudahy group, called Save Walnut, is named after Walnut Street, a cul-de-sac that would be consumed by the school site. The street, dubbed Weed Alley, has long been a problem area for police and city officials who complain that drug users and pushers congregate around a handful of run-down apartment complexes there.

"We going to fight this all the way if we have to," said Bell resident Nancy Glenn, who owns a small, two-bedroom home on Florence Avenue.

"You are taking the homes away from elderly and low-income people," Glenn continued. "They can't afford to move. It's really stressful for a lot of them to think about being uprooted."

The proposed school site is bounded by Florence Avenue, Wilcox Avenue, an extension of Crafton Avenue and Live Oak Street.

The plan also would eliminate a handful of Florence Avenue businesses, including two motels. The site would exclude, however, a 7-Eleven convenience store and a small garage-door-opener repair shop at the corner of Florence and Wilcox. Store owner Mark Phatipat has joined Save Walnut, saying that he could lose 30% of his business if customers living in the neighborhood are forced to move away.

The new school would be named the Walnut Street Elementary School.

Since early this month, Save Walnut members have gathered more than 300 signatures and presented them to the school board.

They also have distributed flyers to encourage tenants and other homeowners to attend a Bell-sponsored forum on April 10 and an school district-sponsored public hearing on April 18. Both meetings are scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Bell Community Center.

Condemnation Power

Group leaders fear that the school board will ultimately seize the site under eminent domain law, which gives public agencies the authority to condemn private property and purchase it at a fair price if it is necessary to serve the public good.

"That gives us no choice," resident Maggie Dootson said. "My civil rights are being taken away from me."

But school and city officials argue that the school is urgently needed.

"You have to put the school somewhere," said Councilman George Cole, who added that he is nevertheless sympathetic to the homeowners.

"It's obvious we have to have more schoolroom space," Cole said. "It's going to have to take somebody's property somewhere. The question is how do we do it so it causes the least amount of disruption."

Board member Quezada, whose district includes Bell and Cudahy, agreed: "It is critical that we all work together." She added that "everyone will have their say" during the public hearings.

Three-Year Search

School district officials have been searching for a suitable elementary school site in Bell since 1986. The new school would replace Elizabeth Street Elementary School in Cudahy, which officials plan to convert to a junior high.

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