Despite the objections of a handful of Bell and Cudahy residents, the Los Angeles Unified School District has moved closer to leveling a neighborhood to make way for a new elementary school.
By a 6-0 vote Monday afternoon, members of the Board of Education ordered officials of the district's Building Services Department to prepare an environmental impact report, study relocation costs and appraise the value of the 263 apartments, houses and businesses that would be torn down.
Board member Julie Korenstein was not present during the vote.
As part of a legal compromise late last year, officials of the school district and both small cities have proposed building an elementary school on a 13-acre site bounded by Florence Avenue on the north, Wilcox Avenue on the west, Live Oak Street on the south and a proposed extension of Crafton Avenue on the east. The site is half in Bell and half in Cudahy.
Walnut Street, a block-long cul-de-sac between Live Oak and Florence, would be eliminated but its name would be preserved in the new school, which would be named Walnut Street Elementary School.
"This action has the effect of making us move one step closer to taking the 13 acres," board member Jackie Goldberg said after eight homeowners spoke against the proposal. The step to begin "intensely studying" the area, board members added, would take more than a year.
The homeowners, who first heard about the plan early this year, have formed a group called Save Walnut. Group members have been attending district and city-sponsored meetings and have passed out flyers to their neighbors, informing them of the plan.
They have complained that the Walnut Street site is too close to busy commercial streets, and that district and city officials have ignored other possible locations. Some Save Walnut members have suggested that the district build its new school over the Los Angeles River.
At Monday's meeting, however, board members assured the homeowners that despite the vote to study the Walnut Street proposal, school district officials are still considering two other sites in Cudahy.
"This is not a final decision," said board member Leticia Quezada, whose district includes both Bell and Cudahy. "I want to make it very clear that what we are approving today is only an intensive study of the area."
Most residents affected by the proposal are Latino, many of them low-income immigrants living in dozens of apartment buildings sandwiched between small, bungalow-style homes. Homeowners living within the project site have objected to the plan to take their property by eminent domain, a legal process that allows government agencies to acquire private property to build public facilities, such as schools, roads and libraries. The agency, however, must pay full market value for the property.
Members of Save Walnut, many of whom are retired and living on fixed incomes, have complained that booming real estate values in the county would prevent them from purchasing comparable property if they were forced to move out of their neighborhood.
"I would like to know where I would be able to find another piece of land for the same price," said Ola Mikkelson, a retiree who lives on Live Oak Street in Cudahy.
The homeowners also have criticized the board and Cudahy city officials for signing an agreement last November which named the Walnut Street site as a preferred location.
The agreement was drawn up after Cudahy filed a lawsuit to block the district's efforts to convert Elizabeth Street Elementary School into a junior high school. The Elizabeth Street school, which has an enrollment of 1,400 students, has been identified as one of the most overcrowded schools in the Los Angeles district.
Cudahy officials complained that conversion of the school would make traffic unbearable on residential Elizabeth and Clara streets. They also said that the conversion would force elementary schoolchildren to be crowded into existing schools.
Under terms of the agreement, Cudahy has agreed to drop the suit, and the district has agreed to build a 1,000-student campus at Walnut Street to accommodate elementary schoolchildren from both cities. The district has also agreed to help Cudahy widen the two residential streets to ease traffic congestion.
Bell Wants Parkland
Bell officials endorsed the plan on condition that the school be built on 13 acres, half of which would be grassy park space.
Bell officials, who say that there is not enough parkland in their city to accommodate the more than 30,000 residents living within a one-square-mile area, have offered to maintain the grassy area in exchange for the right to use the space for Parks and Recreation Department activities after school and on weekends.
Board member Quezada said that the financial and environmental studies would take about 14 months to complete. Until then, smaller sites on Elizabeth and Clara streets would still be considered.
"In order to calm any fears," Quezada said, "I assure you there will be no displacement this month, next month or months from now."