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Fate of Navy Ghost Town Hinges on Deal to Serve Community, the Needy

January 18, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

The empty townhouse on a San Pedro street called USS New Jersey is showing signs of decay. Shards of glass from a broken window litter a small green lawn leading to the door, which swings open to a dusty, dank interior. Inside, graffiti, empty beer cans and other debris suggest the past presence of squatters or perhaps a hideaway party spot for teenagers.

In better days, the semi- detached dwelling was among 545 that housed Navy families in two compounds dotted with tennis courts, picnic grounds and play areas. The military personnel living there was stationed at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, shuttered in 1996.

Now, six years after being declared surplus military land, after numerous studies and contentious public hearings -- and after the discovery of an endangered butterfly on the land further stalled plans -- the fate of the suburban ghost town is finally about to be determined.

The controversy involves competing public interests: How many of the units should be saved from the wrecking ball and rehabilitated to shelter low- income and homeless families? And how many should be demolished and replaced with high-priced single-family homes to help stimulate economic growth in the neighborhoods close to Los Angeles Harbor?

Negotiators face a deadline of next Friday to come up with an agreement. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is then expected to review the results under a federal mandate that the needs of the community as well as the homeless be balanced in the use of such surplus property.

Los Angeles' current plan calls for setting aside about 76 of the units for low-income housing and using a one-acre plot for a community center for homeless veterans. Another portion of the one- and two-story townhouses would be given as residences for students attending the private Marymount College, while another plot would go to the private Rolling Hills Preparatory School for recreation facilities.

One of the original participants, the Harbor/UCLA Research and Education Institute, withdrew its application to build a research park and campus on part of the site after deciding it would be too costly.

The education institute was to get about 142 housing units. The Navy now plans to sell those and others -- about 245 altogether -- to the highest bidder. It is anticipated that the Navy buildings will be demolished and new homes, costing more than $300,000, will be built.

But opponents, led by the nonprofit Volunteers of America, want much more to be retained for low-income dwellings at a time when high housing prices and rents in the Los Angeles area are locking out many families. Last month, Volunteers of America threatened to sue if HUD approved the current plan from 1999 and Los Angeles went ahead with it. That prospect spurred federal officials to hold off on any decision for 45 days, while the city and Volunteers of America try to reach a compromise by the end of next week.

The Navy housing is in two parcels about half a mile apart, one a 59-acre tract along Palos Verdes Drive North bordering Harbor City that has 300 two-bedroom townhomes built in 1988, the other 62 acres along Western Avenue with 245 three- and four-bedroom homes built in the 1960s.

Two years ago, the discovery on the Palos Verdes Drive North site of the endangered Palos Verdes blue butterfly complicated matters. A deal was recently reached to create a 22-acre habitat for the insect, which feeds on abundant deer weed in the area. The preserve will not affect the use of the other housing, Navy caretakers say.

The Palos Verdes Drive North property, a hill with a vast vista of San Pedro's harbor, is ringed by an underground fuel storage tank, which supplies fuel via a pipeline to nearby military bases. Marymount is leasing some of the housing there already. The Western Avenue complex, while older, is in better shape, with less vandalism apparent. The brown, wood-slatted duplexes still have refrigerators, dishwashers, blue-flecked carpet and drapes. At one of the units, on a little patch of lawn, a vibrantly red hibiscus plant still blooms.

The Los Angeles Police Department uses the site for exercises in house-to-house searches, said James E. Hansen, a leader of the San Pedro Enterprise Community. The coalition of religious and community groups was a partner with the Volunteers of America as representatives of the homeless in planning for the property, but was replaced after arguments with the city. Hansen, an emeritus professor of medicine at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, suggested that the homeless and low-income families he hopes will live in the housing share characteristics with the departed Navy households.

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