Valley business owners are more than a little tired of the Los Angeles Unified School District's efforts to take over commercial sites to build new schools. So they're fighting back.

The Valley Industry and Commerce Association claims the school district is pursuing a policy of eminent domain that targets successful commercial properties, while all but ignoring residential locations or vacant industrial land. On July 25, the organization's executive committee passed a motion to lobby the school district to change its policies and stop going after businesses.

School board members say they are, in fact, pursuing projects in residential areas. But VICA doesn't think so.

"(In one case, the) district needed to take 20 single-family residences to make the lot big enough (to accommodate a new school), and they refused to do it," said Fred Gaines, a VICA vice chairman who voted for the measure. "We say, 'Look, you have to look at all the sites involved.'"

The LAUSD must find 100 new-school locations throughout Los Angeles to accommodate an increase of 80,000 students projected over the next eight years. To do that, the district will have to use its power of eminent domain to seize some properties, paying fair market value to their owners.

The district must find the sites soon; on July 1, $1.5 billion in funding from the 1998 bond measure Proposition 1A became available to state school districts. The money is doled out on a first-come, first-served basis, and the LAUSD has yet to submit the majority of its school sites for funding approval.

LAUSD officials insist the district is considering all properties.

"We're looking for appropriate sites, including commercial and some residential," said Robert Buxbaum, general manager of facilities for the LAUSD. "I wouldn't say we're looking at one or the other."

VICA's motion was prompted by officials at department-store chain Robinson's-May, whose North Hollywood headquarters was targeted by the school district as a possible school site. Robinson's-May officials immediately appealed to Valley business groups for support; they claim that if the site is taken over, it would have a significant impact on the company's business.

Gaines said VICA officials plan to go to a future school board meeting to urge that more residential and industrial sites be considered, though they haven't yet decided when to make the pitch.

Residential vs. industrial

School board member Caprice Young, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley, said the district is "absolutely" looking at residential properties.

For example, she said, the board is looking at a school site off Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood that would include a parcel of land in a residential neighborhood. The district is also considering a former Department of Water and Power facility, also in the Valley, which she described as "quasi-industrial" land.

"There's more of a tendency to look at residential rather than industrial," Young said. That's because industrial sites often come with pollution problems, as became all too clear after the district sunk $170 million into the contaminated Belmont Learning Complex site in downtown L.A. only to shut down the project after cleanup costs continued to skyrocket.

While the Robinson's-May site is still under consideration, Young said the board would prefer to find another site rather than condemn a successful business.

Yet Gaines and other business leaders still don't believe the school board is taking residential sites seriously. Gaines says political pressures continue to prevent the district from attempting to use its power of eminent domain for residential properties.

"Eminent domain, no matter whose property is taken away, is a difficult thing to do. Nobody wants their property taken away," Gaines said. "Not everyone's going to be happy."

Gaines said VICA believes commercially viable sites like the Robinson's-May property should not be considered, arguing that such moves hurt the community by taking away jobs. The group also wants the district to look at retrofitting and reusing existing schools before taking over commercial properties.

Dividing the community

School board member David Tokofsky, who sits on the district's facilities committee, said he understands VICA's anger at the way the Robinson's-May process has been handled, and agrees that residential sites should be considered.

"The process with Robinson's-May has been infuriating to me, the way in which the district behaved as a totalitarian state," Tokofsky said. "The district didn't engage people and community folks in a community process and has created another division between the school district and the community and business community."

Tokofsky said he would like to see the district pursue a policy of selecting sites with the help of businesses and homeowners, and building new schools in blighted areas as a type of redevelopment. He said he would like the district to use eminent domain for downtrodden businesses and drug houses or apartments that have been cited for slumlord conditions, rather than sites where prospering companies operate.

"I'd like to see the district put itself in a role of redeveloper rather than alienate the community," he said. "The real question is, what can we take in the community, and how can we make the community feel that they own the school?"

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