BELL GARDENS — A controversial zoning plan that will change the face of the city was adopted by the City Council despite the fierce objections of more than 600 residents and an impassioned plea by a state senator.
After a rowdy six-hour meeting marked by several heated exchanges between some City Council members and Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), the council Monday night voted unanimously to approve the new zoning law. City leaders said the new plan will reduce the city's crushing population density and eradicate the hodgepodge of commercial, residential and industrial neighborhoods. Later, Torres accused council members of "shattering the American dream."
Nearly one-third of the city's 9,000 properties will be rezoned. In some cases, businesses will be forced to move from neighborhoods that have been designated industrial or residential districts, and in others, residents will have to move to make way for new commercial or industrial districts, or reduce the number of apartments on their lots.
The plan will not go into effect for at least 20 years and in some cases not for another 35 years or when the property is sold, whichever is longest. City Manager Claude Booker said that an estimated 500 people may be forced to move when the zoning law goes into effect. Critics said he has grossly underestimated the number of people who will be affected.
"Not one house, not one apartment, not one tenant will be disturbed for the next 20 years," Booker told the heckling crowd. Hundreds of residents who could not crowd into the Ross Hall auditorium listened to the meeting outside.
" Mentiras , mentiras ," meaning "lies, lies," the largely Latino crowd shouted in reply.
Community activists, who arranged a protest march before the meeting, said they plan to launch a campaign to recall the entire council.
"They had this figured out from the start," said Rudy Garcia, director of the Bell office of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "There was no way that they would change their minds. They're not being sensitive to the needs of the community. The people very clearly told them that we don't want the rezoning and they couldn't care less. So who is working for whom?"
City leaders have repeatedly told residents that the zoning change is necessary because the city's infrastructure, its sewer and water systems, cannot tolerate for long the stress of 42,000 people living in the 2.4-square-mile city. Quite simply, city leaders said, there are too many people in Bell Gardens, and the uncontrolled development has manifested itself in poor housing, a double-digit dropout rate in overcrowded area high schools, gangs, property damage and increasing costs for municipal services.
Most of the residents who attended the meeting said that there are other options besides such a sweeping rezoning plan to correct the city's problems. They complained that they have worked hard for their property, and that the city should not be allowed to pass laws that will adversely affect property values, or will force residents to move without compensation.
"(The people here) have crossed rivers, they have crawled under fences to get here," one resident told the council. "They have a dream and they are not going to let you take it away from them."
Torres and many of the residents who spoke made much of the fact that Bell Gardens' population is now about 85% Latino, yet no one on the City Council or in the city's administration is Latino.
Torres told the council that the community needs to organize better "to make sure people that look like me are sitting up there." He said later that if a Latino were sitting on the council, city leaders would change their decision-making process.
"Not enough people have been given equal input," he said. "What you see here is anger and frustration because people feel that they are being left out."
Many residents accused the council members of discrimination, and said they are people with "small heads and big pockets" who stand to gain financially from the new zoning ordinance.
"They (City Council members) are ready to get rid of all Bell Gardens residents, and after they do this by rezoning and lowering the price of all land to zero, they will turn around and buy it. . . . They will become the richest public officials in the history of Southern California," stated a flyer circulated throughout the community.
During the meeting, Booker told residents that they had been the victims of misinformation by people who want to divide the community.
All five council members own property that will be governed by the new zoning law, and three of them will be prevented from adding more units to their properties. None will be forced to move.
"I have to admit that some people are going to be hurt in the deal sooner or later, but it is something that will be better for the city in the long run," Mayor Pro Tem Robert Cunningham said.