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Trading a Wrecking Ball for Renovation : Urban planning: A run-down block of Whittier's Penn Street was scheduled for leveling until residents lobbied to make it a pilot area for low-cost housing and neighborhood renewal.


WHITTIER — With its run-down houses and lackluster storefronts, the 12400 block of Penn Street had long been an uninviting gateway to this city's center just eight short blocks away.

That's why the city considered leveling the block two years ago for a new senior citizen housing complex.

But the idea of moving did not sit well with widow Dolores Pena, 84, who has lived in her house since 1932, or Bob Hancock, 28, whose mother brought him home from the hospital to the Whittier Avenue residence, where he now rears his own daughter.

They and other residents descended on City Hall to protest the plan, mobilizing as never before to save their neighborhood, one of Whittier's oldest.

City officials were impressed enough to try a different approach, a first-of-its-kind solution in Whittier. This tiny block, just four-tenths of a mile around, will become the pilot area for the city's first low-cost housing and neighborhood renovation project.

"For Whittier, it's extremely revolutionary," Councilwoman Helen McKenna-Rahder said. "The city had done redevelopment, where housing was bulldozed and they put up projects like the Hilton Hotel. We have not reclaimed a neighborhood yet. I am hoping this will set a precedent."

The city will spend up to $395,000 this year and $650,000 over the next three years on a two-pronged plan. About half the money will go toward low-interest home-improvement loans to area residents. The other half will develop a low-cost town-home project for first-time home buyers on lots that are now occupied by businesses. There also are plans to improve the neighborhood park.

Rather than demanding that homeowners vacate, the city will ask them to form a committee to help oversee and plan the improvements.

"The idea," said Henry Gray, the city's community development analyst, "is to get the whole neighborhood involved in the decision-making process and to motivate the whole neighborhood to turn itself around. This is not Big Brother. Local participation is the key."

The challenges of the neighborhood include a little of everything: old houses, a 60-year-old, historic school building that is not reinforced for earthquakes, a neglected 2.6-acre park, and a southwest corner with an odd mix of homes and businesses.

The neighborhood's history also had something to do with its becoming a target for action, said Hank Cunningham, Whittier's assistant city manager for community redevelopment.

"Several years ago, there was a well-intended plan for revitalizing that neighborhood that didn't work out. It caused some bad feelings in that neighborhood," Cunningham said.

The original redevelopment plan by Circle T Corp. of Santa Ana called for 148 units of market-rate senior housing, an $8.6-million project that would have con sumed most of the houses on the block and about 40% of the park.

Affected homeowners blanketed council meetings in late 1988 and early 1989, complaining that the developer was not offering a fair price for their property.

Most of all, however, they just did not want to move.

Dolores Pena likes her house because it is within walking distance of her church. The 84-year-old matron, who has 15 great-grandchildren, strolls to services twice a day.

Christine Blaisdell, 19, enjoys living where at least one neighbor "remembers my great-grandfather." It was Blaisdell's mother, Carolyn Blaisdell, who persuaded residents to address the council, an evening that Harry Tancredi, the developer, also remembers well.

"It got so some gal came up and cried," he said. "One lady kept calling me 'darling.' It was kind of a neat production. They should have made a movie out of it."

Tancredi argued that his project would have been good for the city as a whole. "It was a winner," he said, but "they didn't want it."

Ultimately, the council withdrew its support for the plan.

After celebrating, residents said they realized that the controversy was as much a wake-up call as a close call. The neighborhood's unseemly and increasingly unsafe condition made its survival precarious.

Last April, a 20-year-old man was shot five times in apparently random gunplay within earshot of his front doorstep. He survived, but one resident noted, "That was close to home."

The condition of the park is another sore spot. "This is what we have, a big vacant lot," Hancock said. "All the has-been toys from the other parks end up here.

"This isn't the rich side of the tracks. There is no lighting. The gangs get here, and they hide their guns in the ivy. And they paint all over the buildings."

He said the park does not even have a sign to identify it.

Whittier has asked the La Habra Neighborhood Housing Services, one of 250 nonprofit, independent neighborhood U.S. housing services, to coordinate the community rescue. The agency is affiliated with the federally funded Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp, whose mandate is to revive rather than remove old neighborhoods.

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