ARLETA — Bowing to the will of concerned community members, the Los Angeles Unified School District backed down Monday from its stand that a 12.6-acre former department store site is the best place to build a high school in the northeast San Fernando Valley.
"We are starting from square one, from ground zero," said Bob Niccum, the school district's director of real estate and asset management. "There is no longer a preferred site."
With the encouragement of school board members David Tokofsky and Julie Korenstein, school officials said opposition and concern from at least 200 members of an Arleta Neighborhood Watch group caused the district to put off an environmental impact report, which was scheduled to begin this month.
"We thought it was best to hear from more community members," Niccum said.
The Gemco site is not ruled out, Niccum said, but the district will research other properties, including a Department of Water and Power site in Sun Valley suggested by state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar).
Niccum said the district plans to hold a meeting in May seeking suggestions from northeast Valley residents on possible sites for new schools, such as abandoned or rundown apartment buildings.
School officials said the district needs 51 new schools to cope with its surging student population. In the Valley, the district is searching for property in the area east of the San Diego Freeway and north of Oxnard Street to build six primary centers, three elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools.
"The need for numerous locations is great," Tokofsky said. "But sometimes it's a good idea to slow down and consider various locations."
In recent vocal meetings with school officials and political representatives, neighbors near the Gemco property complained that the district, which had said it would consider acquiring the property through eminent domain, failed to seek community input.
They fear a high school would cause crime, traffic, noise and litter. "It's not a good place for a high school," said Harry Williams, 65, president of the neighborhood association near the property at Beachy Avenue and Van Nuys Boulevard. "[The district] should have asked us about it in the first place, instead of blindsiding the neighborhood with their plans."
Neighbors have also said they favored plans by Mexico City-based food retailer Grupo Gigante to build on the Gemco lot a shopping center, which they believe will provide an economic boost to the area.
Justo Frias, president of Gigante USA, based in Santa Ana and Tijuana, said the school district hasn't communicated much with the food retailer but that Gigante has always planned to forge ahead with its shopping center, having recently finished demolishing the old Gemco and applying for various permits.
On Monday, Frias hadn't heard that the district had backed down from the Gemco site. "If that could be true, I am having a good day," he said.