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Neighbors Oppose Plans to Transform Treatment Center

May 22, 2000|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ronald H. Banner started small in 1988, opening a modest treatment center for addicts in Rose Park, an aging Long Beach neighborhood filled with turn-of-the century bungalows.

Then he began buying the surrounding real estate, steadily building a portfolio of more than 20 buildings that were converted into treatment facilities and sober-living homes for an expanding client list. Virtually all are in the same square block.

Now Banner's nonprofit organization, the Substance Abuse Foundation of Long Beach, wants to unify 17 of the buildings into a large treatment campus in an area that isn't zoned for institutions. The proposal is now before the City Council.

Although Banner may think bigger is better, many of his neighbors don't. Their aspirations for salvaging historic Rose Park and its architectural heritage have collided head-on with his ambition.

Members of the Rose Park Neighborhood Assn. and their allies say the veteran psychologist has quietly tried to secure state licenses and increase occupancy in violation of municipal codes before the city has a chance to approve anything.

"I bought a home in Rose Park because of its charm and sense of community," said James C. Wille. "When someone can come into such a neighborhood, operate illegally and then strong-arm the city into helping them, my trust has been broken."

So far, the opposition has prevailed. Last month, the Long Beach Planning Commission rejected measures that would have cleared the way for the treatment enclave on 7th Street between Obispo and Freeman Avenues.

If approved, Banner's plans "will overcrowd the units and result in bad living conditions that prolong or retard" the recovery process for substance abusers, the commission concluded.

Although he applauded the foundation's efforts to help addicts, Commissioner Ed Ludloff told Banner that he has not controlled his clients and that "there has been a little bit of bullying of the neighbors."

"If you want to be part of the community," Ludloff said, "you need to act like part of the community."

The foundation, however, has appealed the decision to the City Council, setting the stage for a political showdown over the continued growth of the treatment center. The deadline for a hearing is July 18.

Banner declined to comment on the controversy, except to say that he was not aware of any serious dispute involving the foundation's plans. He contends that only a few people in Rose Park have criticized his operations.

"We are now working with the city to find a solution where everyone comes out a winner," Banner said.

He would not elaborate, but city officials involved with the discussions say the options include relocating some of Banner's treatment facilities to a more suitable place.

Today, the Substance Abuse Foundation is one of the largest providers of drug and alcohol services in Los Angeles County, handling more than 2,000 people a year in a variety of programs. Banner's clients include members of the general public, probationers, prison parolees, mentally ill substance abusers and people infected with the AIDS virus.

"We appreciate the need for drug treatment, but we have watched an institution grow in an area that is zoned residential and commercial," said Bry Myown, one of the heads of the Rose Park Neighborhood Assn. "Many people have made a big investment here and they are concerned about potential impacts, like parking, traffic and changes in land use."

Over the years, Rose Park's residents have become increasingly sensitive to land uses that have threatened the neighborhood's architectural history and retro atmosphere.

The neighborhood, which contains about 2,000 parcels, is bordered by 4th and 10th Streets and by St. Louis and Redondo avenues. Its housing stock is predominantly Victorian and Craftsman homes erected between 1905 and 1923. Spanish colonial-style houses and apartments also were built before construction slowed during the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

When building resumed in the 1960s, developers began to alter Rose Park's character by putting in large, boxy apartments and condominiums--a trend that continued into the 1980s.

In an attempt to reverse the situation, Rose Park's residents sought to have the area downzoned to reduce density. At their request, the city designated the neighborhood a historic district and began a stringent code enforcement program.

"The area now tends to attract homeowners who like its antique qualities," said Ruthann Lehrer, the city's neighborhood and historic preservation officer. "People have fought hard for the improvements and don't want to see them eroded."

The dispute with Banner began almost 10 years ago, as the effort to rehabilitate Rose Park got underway. Neighbors noticed that he kept buying property to expand his operation. In 1992, they complained to Councilman-elect Alan Lowenthal that the foundation was acting like an institution in an area that was not zoned for such use.

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