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Plan to Fund Arts Academy With Billboard Gets Assistance

October 15, 2003|Julie Tamaki | Times Staff Writer

A Hollywood movie producer who wants to open a performing arts academy and help finance it by placing a billboard on the school has cleared a key hurdle.

Moctesuma Esparza, an activist whose film credits include "Selena," wants to take advantage of the proposed school's location -- near the junction of the Harbor and Santa Monica freeways -- to help raise money via a billboard. He enlisted the help of politicians who represent the area to gain exemptions to city and state laws that ban such billboards.

Under state law, it is illegal to erect a billboard within 660 feet of a landscaped freeway without obtaining a state exemption and permit. Written permission from the affected city or county is also required.

Last week, Gov. Gray Davis signed AB 762 by Assemblyman Fabian Nunez, a Los Angeles Democrat, that would allow the academy to have a sign if it complies with city regulations permitting billboards under certain conditions, providing the city makes a determination by Jan. 1, 2005.

The regulations include establishing a special district to give the community and elected officials a chance to weigh in on the proposal.

City Councilman Ed Reyes, who began work last year to establish such a district, said he plans to aggressively move ahead with the endeavor now that Davis has signed the bill. But Reyes said he may also seek an exemption or variance that would permit a billboard without establishing a district.

"I don't want to waste any more time," Reyes said. "Kids need new opportunities and options and every day we don't provide them, we lose kids in the process."

At a time of funding shortfalls statewide, Nunez described his bill as a creative way to bring resources to the area. "I think this is going to be a beacon of hope for the community," Nunez said.

Nunez, Esparza and about a dozen supporters gathered Tuesday in front of a building in the 1800 block of Oak Street that Esparza hopes to transform into a public charter school, to be known as the National Latino Arts, Entertainment & Media Institute.

The three-story, 80,000-square-foot building is a city historic-cultural monument located in the University Park Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, which has a board that reviews exterior work to structures within its district.

Refurbishing the building could take a year, Esparza said. He said the academy, which he hopes would eventually offer courses in music, voice, dance and the entertainment business as well as traditional academic courses, will serve 900 middle and high school students. Esparza said the academy will also be an entree to the arts for children who can't afford private lessons.

His idea, however, was met with resistance from Westside lawmakers who worried it would preempt the city's ban on billboards and rooftop signs, slow traffic and contribute to visual clutter. Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, for example, introduced a resolution earlier this year opposing the Nunez bill.

As for the billboard, Esparza said that the advertising community has already expressed interest in the project, but that no deals have been struck.

"We're not going to do liquor, cigarettes or anything risque," Esparza said.

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