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Low-Income Project Gets Chic Security : Safety: Mar Vista Gardens is the first public housing of its type in the nation to become a gated community. Residents are hopeful that it will keep crime out, but wonder if they will become trapped.

March 15, 1992|MILES CORWIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are springing up throughout Southern California, private, gated communities with security guards manning the entrances and towering fences encircling the property, luxury developments whose exclusivity stems from who they are able to exclude.

Los Angeles' newest gated community is an entirely different type of place. Mar Vista Gardens is one of the city's 21 public housing projects, a place plagued by gangs, drive-by shootings and drug trafficking.

It is the first project of its type in the country to be transformed into an entirely enclosed, gated community, federal housing officials say. As the only low-income housing project on the city's fashionable Westside, Mar Vista Gardens will soon have all the security amenities of the exclusive enclaves and condominium complexes in the area.

An eight-foot fence encircles the property. Later this month, security guards will man the front gate and limit access to residents and their guests.

"A lot of us in the projects want a gated community for the same reasons rich people want to live in gated communities--to cut down on crime," said resident Shirley Spearman.

During the past few years, applications from Los Angeles residents who want to block off streets and create gated communities have skyrocketed. There are more than 80 applications on file, said Ralph Kennedy, deputy city engineer. It was only a matter of time, he said, before these security measures spread to poor areas.

Residents of communities seeking gated status usually marshal their resources and lobby furiously for city approval because they envision higher property values and enhanced status. But at Mar Vista Gardens, there is no such unanimity. At a recent residents meeting, there were a number of heated arguments, arguments you would not hear at a gated community such as Rolling Hills.

"This is how people get bumped off," said one woman, who opposed the idea of security guards taking the names of visitors and then clearing the names with residents. "People may think we're snitches, helping the police."

Other residents were offended by the concept of gated communities. While residents of upscale communities seek gated status to keep outsiders from getting in, some housing project residents said they thought the purpose of fences and gates was to keep them from getting out.

"This is not a prison," said resident Leeza Alfonzia at the meeting. "We shouldn't be caged in here."

Spearman, president of the residents' advisory council, said that many wealthy people pay more money to live in gated communities. Instead of questioning it, she told residents, they should realize that they are getting added security at no extra cost.

"Everyone will be safer here," Spearman said, "including the gang members, because there'll be fewer drive-by shootings."

Spearman, who has lived at the 600-unit project for seven years, said she has polled residents and the vast majority are in favor of gates, fences and anything else that will cut down on drug dealing and other crimes.

Some residents who oppose the plan have legitimate concerns, said Marshall Kandell, spokesman for the Los Angeles Housing Authority. But a few do not want the gate, he said, because they are involved in the kind of illegal activities that the security measures are designed to combat.

Although Mar Vista Gardens is located in a more upscale section of the city, it has the graffiti, crime and drab stucco apartment units of the city's other housing projects. Still, there are advantages to being on the Westside, just three miles from the beach. The sprawling 43-acre project is west of Culver City and adjacent to a neighborhood of mainly single-family homes that sell for between $200,000 and $300,000.

"We're near the ocean, and we have better schools for our kids," Spearman said. "We like living on the Westside as much as the yuppies." She laughed and added: "I guess you could say we're a yuppie housing project."

The housing authority decided to build the fence and control access at the entrance after similar security measures proved highly successful at Chicago high-rise housing projects, Kandell said. Although some residents at Mar Vista Gardens complained that they were not given a choice about the fence and gate, housing authority officials said they have held meetings with residents to discuss how to implement the plan.

But tenants should have been able to vote on the security measures, said Legal Aid Foundation attorney David Etezadi, who has represented residents during past disputes.

"There could be some constitutional issues involved," he said. "But we're going to see how the security system is set up and how the details are ironed out before we take any action."

Mark Baldassare, a professor of urban planning at UC Irvine, said some aspects of gated communities, which are advantages for the wealthy, can be disadvantages for the poor.

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