In his quest to balance the city's books, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is gearing up to sell city-owned properties in some of the Westside's most sought-after neighborhoods.
But Villaraigosa's budget-saving strategy is running up against one of his biggest campaign pledges: to expand affordable housing.
The plan to sell "surplus" properties, which could be used for low-income apartments, has also put Villaraigosa at odds with one of his closest City Council allies, Bill Rosendahl, and with Westside neighborhood leaders who seem baffled by his determination to give up sites that could house the poor and elderly.
"The only way we can build affordable housing is if the city owns the land," Rosendahl said. "You don't sell your assets, because you can never get them back."
Since the day he took office 2 1/2 years ago, Villaraigosa has made affordable housing one of his top priorities.
He has pumped $200 million into a city trust fund to build transitional housing for the indigent on skid row and apartment complexes for low-income renters elsewhere in the city.
He has used city pension money to expand first-time homeownership programs for teachers, police officers and other middle-income workers priced out of the Los Angeles market.
But Villaraigosa said closing the budget shortfall -- $155 million this year and as much as $500 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 -- takes top priority.
"We're facing really tough decisions," he said. "We can't just wish the budget deficit away. We're going to have to figure this out together."
The mayor has called for the sale of four mothballed fire stations across the city, including No. 62 in Mar Vista and No. 5 in Westchester.
He has also proposed selling three former animal shelters, including one in West Los Angeles, on the advice of the city's chief administrative officer.
Those plans have come under fire from City Council members who view the sales, which they must approve, as shortsighted budget fixes. Councilwoman Janice Hahn, for example, objects to the loss of Fire Station 65 in Watts, one of the city's oldest firehouses, unless its historic features can be preserved.
But the Westside properties on the list have generated the loudest outcry because of a desire for affordable housing in an area where renters and potential homeowners are locked out by some of the highest housing prices in the city.
At the center of the Westside protest is Fire Station 62 on Centinela Avenue in Mar Vista. The station -- with its rusting flagpole, weed-strewn lawn and graffiti-covered walls -- sits on a windy rise amid million-dollar homes with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.
It was replaced last year by a new fire station on nearby Venice Boulevard. In its place, Rosendahl and community leaders envision a complex with a ground-floor community center and three or four stories of affordable apartments for senior citizens.
Last week, the Mar Vista Community Council passed a motion supporting Rosendahl's efforts to block the sale of the station.
"We've been eyeing that property for three to four years, since we knew that Station 62 would be rebuilt," said Rob Kadota, chairman of the community council. "This is a space that could meet a variety of community needs."
Villaraigosa's plan to sell an unused city animal shelter in West Los Angeles is also meeting resistance.
The chairman of the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council called instead for the city to replace the facility on Missouri Avenue with housing that could serve the area's growing ranks of low-wage workers.
"They have to make it so people can live and work within their community," said Jay Handal, who also heads the Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
"It's pretty apparent that the mayor doesn't have very much dialogue with anyone when he does initiatives," Handal added.
Nonprofit developers say the Westside's high land costs present a significant obstacle to affordable housing, a resource that is in increasingly short supply amid major job growth in recent years.
"It's incredibly shortsighted to sell off parcels of land on the Westside that have the potential to support a significant number of units of affordable housing," said Steve Clare, executive director of the Venice Community Housing Corp., which has expressed an interest in developing the Fire Station 62 land.
Clare said the mayor's plan might help solve this year's budget shortfall "but at the expense of affordable housing that could be provided for the next 30, 40 or 50 years."
Villaraigosa told Rosendahl that he would spare the Westside properties if the councilman could find others to sell. Rosendahl said he is reluctant to part with any city land in his district but added that his office is looking for parcels that might substitute for the animal shelter and fire stations.
"I'm hopeful," he said, "we'll be able to work this out."