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LAX Check-In Site Is Mired in Delays

Records suggest the 143-acre area won't be cleared by 2005

September 21, 2003|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

The cornerstone of Mayor James K. Hahn's $9-billion plan to modernize Los Angeles International Airport is a passenger check-in center near the San Diego Freeway that would allow officials to ban private vehicles -- and thus the threat of car bombs -- from the current facility.

But after six years of buying homes and apartment buildings in the Westchester area, the city still does not own the property it needs to build the facility, and records and interviews suggest the land will not be available on Hahn's timeline of 2005, assuming his LAX proposal is approved. The effort to acquire the 143-acre area known as Manchester Square has bogged down because of mismanagement, cost overruns and a lack of resources, according to dozens of interviews.

The city must acquire 38 houses and 179 apartment buildings in Manchester Square, demolish them and 263 other structures it already has purchased, and then remove the debris. It must purchase a 52-year-old elementary school from the Los Angeles Unified School District. And it must relocate about 6,200 people, some with federally subsidized housing vouchers, in a region that's experiencing an acute housing shortage. Now several residents and apartment owners say they won't leave voluntarily -- raising the possibility the city would need to condemn their homes and evict them, a time-consuming and expensive process.

"Manchester Square is Chavez Ravine for the 21st century," said attorney Christopher Sutton, referring to the city's eviction of families from a hillside enclave in the late 1950s to make way for Dodger Stadium. Sutton has advised several Westchester residents.

"In the long run, they're going to have a slower project and a more expensive project, and lawyers are going to be crawling all over this thing," he said.

The mayor's office acknowledges it probably won't meet the 2005 timeline, although it is spelled out in the 5,000-plus page environmental review of Hahn's plan, and now says 2007 is a more realistic date.

Officials continue operating as if on the earlier deadline. They have hired a company to speed the relocation of residents in the area and plan to bring another firm on board this fall to manage property acquisitions, said Airport Commission President Ted Stein.

Even if the city acquires the entire Manchester Square site on time, Hahn must convince the City Council that a remote passenger facility is needed.

"I'm not sure there's a consensus, or even a majority of the council, that is for" Manchester Square, said Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa. "One of the most problematic aspects of [Hahn's] proposal is the one-stop check-in center."

Hahn's airport plan would dramatically alter LAX by knocking down Terminals 1, 2 and 3, demolishing the parking structures in the central terminal area and replacing them with a new terminal complex, and moving the airport's two sets of parallel runways farther apart.

The heart of the proposal is the passenger check-in center at Manchester Square. Hahn says it would make travelers and airport employees safer, in part by dispersing them among this facility and several other check-in locations. But it has been the most contentious element of the mayor's plan, with residents, several airlines and lawmakers calling on Hahn to remove it from his proposal, arguing that it would move the threat of car bombs closer to residents and businesses.

Hahn's color drawings of a spacious, glass-enclosed check-in center -- complete with an elevated people-mover and congestion-free roadways for dropping off passengers -- belie the current condition of the site.

Tired of noise and pollution, Manchester Square residents went to the city agency that runs LAX in 1997 and asked it to buy their homes. The airport agency agreed, and targeted 280 homes and 288 apartment buildings in an area bordered by Arbor Vitae Street on the north, La Cienega Boulevard on the east, Aviation Boulevard on the west and just shy of Century Boulevard on the south. To date, about 84% of the homes and 37% of the apartment complexes have been purchased. By the time it's complete, the program will have moved about 7,600 people from the area.

Today, scores of homes are vacant and surrounded by chain-link fences. Residents who remain -- some are the only ones left on their block -- report problems with crime and trash. The neighborhood's condition is so stark that producers of a TV movie chose a street there to shoot a scene depicting the aftermath of a tornado.

Blight isn't the only challenge facing the city's airport agency, Los Angeles World Airports. The acquisition program's budget has doubled to $485 million, mostly because of the soaring real estate market, and a backlog of 590 homeowners and tenants awaiting relocation assistance.

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