The plan to transform a vacant lot used as an illegal dumping ground into a youth center and soccer field for low-income residents in South Los Angeles seemed like a winner.
The Los Angeles City Council allocated a $2.4-million community development block grant to the nonprofit Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles to buy the lot and develop the property in a community long bereft of recreational opportunities.
Eight years later, with no youth center or permanent soccer field having been built, the Los Angeles Unified School District has seized control of the blighted six-acre site, with plans for an elementary school and soccer field.
In the meantime, the city and the nonprofit are engaged in a highly personal court fight over the millions of dollars the land fetched through eminent domain.
Construction of the school is scheduled to begin in September, officials said. If all goes according to plan, the 950-student Juanita Tate Elementary will open in 2011.
Tate, who died in 2004, founded Concerned Citizens and spent years trying to improve the area's quality of life by building affordable housing and fighting environmentally unsound projects.
In a lawsuit, the city says Concerned Citizens breached its contractual obligations and violated federal law by leaving the lot barren in hopes of making a windfall in the commercial real estate market after its value increased.
As a result, the city is demanding that the nonprofit pay it more than $5 million -- the amount of the original block grant plus the amount the land has appreciated since 2001.
Concerned Citizens, however, says it fully met its contractual obligations by hauling tons of debris off the property, at Slauson Avenue and Main Street, and building a temporary clay soccer field. The nonprofit also contends that it was already in the process of buying the property to develop it into a soccer field when the city persuaded it to use the block grant to complete the deal.
It also claims that the city and Deputy City Atty. John A. Carvalho collaborated in a scheme allegedly hatched by City Councilwoman Jan Perry to prevent the project from being completed -- and to destroy the nonprofit.
And the group says it agreed to use the block grant only to acquire the property, with no promises to build on it.
"The project didn't get built because of Jan Perry's failure to secure resources the project depended on," Mark Williams, Tate's son and the director of youth programs for Concerned Citizens, said in an interview. "The duplicity the city attributes to us is the city's own. So it should get nothing."
The winner in court probably would get the current fair market value of the property -- about $5.4 million, which was deposited with the clerk of the court by the school district.
The dispute has strained relations between Concerned Citizens and Perry, who was a close friend of Tate.
"Jan Perry is like family. My mother helped get her elected to the City Council," Williams said.
"But the petty level to which she has stooped to destroy us is mind-boggling and not very smart," added Tate's daughter, Noreen McClendon, the nonprofit's executive director.
Perry declined to comment except to say, "I had an enormous amount of respect for Juanita Tate."
On another front, the school district continues to test soil samples from the lot for contamination.
Over the decades, the property was home to an array of commercial enterprises: a lumber yard, a fueling station, brake and metal shops and a lamp store. More recently, Concerned Citizens rented the property to traveling carnivals and used-car events.
On recommendation from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, the district hauled out more than 160 truckloads of soil containing elevated levels of dangerous substances.
Then there were the tons of soil contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons that district officials believe oozed out of a long-inactive Exxon Mobile pipeline under Main Street and just five feet east of the property line.
That soil was treated or removed from the property. As a precaution, the district also built two retaining walls to protect the land from potential future leaks.
"The total cost of cleaning up impacted soils on the property was about $19 million," said Jay Golida, an attorney representing the school district. "The cleanups are complete; Exxon collaborated with the district and helped cover the costs."
Golida said the district would monitor the site to address concerns that the land might be contaminated by pollutants flowing in from the nearby pipeline. "If for some reason levels increase, we will go right back to Exxon to have them removed," he said.
Construction on the property cannot come soon enough for local residents and business owners.
Javier Longoria, manager of a nearby second-hand clothing store, nodded toward the lot and said, "There are no parks for kids around here, nothing, so they play in the streets."
"I hear they are going to build a school and soccer field over there," he added. "That's going to be really nice."