Facing a looming budget shortfall of as much as $150 million during a time of fiscal austerity and uncertainty, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has proposed selling a number of city-owned properties, including four on the Westside. The proposal has generated a wave of controversy over the last week.
The plan to sell several “surplus” buildings has sparked a debate on economics vs. historical preservation, fiscal realities and community benefits, and whether downtown politics trumps affordable housing in a geographic area where it is desperately needed.
Councilman Bill Rosendahl, a frequent Villaraigosa ally, has gone on record publicly opposing the sale of any land in his 11th Council District, where four properties are targeted by the mayor for sale.
Villaraigosa has identified an animal shelter and three fire stations that are now closed as real estate that could be auctioned off, including the old Fire Station No. 5 on Manchester Avenue in Westchester and the former No. 62 on Centinela Avenue in Mar Vista.
“These are city assets and they should never be sold,” Rosendahl told The Argonaut.
The mayor has couched his argument for selling the city-owned land in financial terms, citing the need to reduce the municipal budget shortfall, which could run as large as $500 million by July 1st, the beginning of the city’s fiscal year.
“We’re facing really tough decisions,” Villaraigosa said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “We can’t just wish the budget deficit away. We’re going to have to figure this out together.”
Residents from the neighborhoods where the mayor plans to sell the community assets are disheartened to hear that the fire stations might be put up for bid.
The old Fire Station 62 was constructed in 1950, according to Glen Howell, which is around the same time that Howell’s Mar Vista home was built.
“That’s one reason that the station has significance to me,” said Howell, founder of the Mar Vista Historical Society and a Mar Vista resident since 1960.
Howell said that the news that Villaraigosa has the Westside properties in his sights has caused considerable discussion in his neighborhood.
“The mayor’s plan to sell the fire station came up at a meeting of our historical society recently,” said Howell. He said there were several firefighters, including former fire chief William Bamattre and his wife, at the meeting and many of the firefighters expressed their support for his organization to keep the station in the neighborhood.
“That was really gratifying,” said Howell.
Rosendahl feels that selling the land that the buildings occupy is not a sound long-term economic strategy. “Once you sell them off it’s a one-time hit for the city’s treasury, but the properties are gone forever.”
Rosendahl and others view these buildings as prime candidates for affordable housing on the Westside, where there is a dearth of lower-income units for the several hundred thousand residents who live there.
“I was surprised and upset when I learned that the mayor was planning to sell these properties,” said Steven Clare, executive director the Venice Community Housing Corporation. “I think that it’s very short-sighted to want to sell these properties.”
The corporation has been looking at the old Mar Vista firehouse as a possible site for affordable housing.
“We were aware that the new station had moved to Venice Boulevard, and we had been in general discussions with the councilman’s office about possibly using the site of the old station for affordable housing,” Clare explained. “What little affordable housing there is in this city is not located on the west side of Los Angeles.”
Rosendahl is aware that the lack of affordable housing is one of his constituents’ chief complaints.
“It’s an investment for the community,” he said. “It’s critical that we create and protect affordable housing.”
Opponents of selling the Westside land also talked about the need for more community-oriented plans for the buildings.
“There is certainly a need for more community settings,” said Howell. “A lot of us see the station as a community center.”
There is the additional, incalculable value of historic preservation of the fire stations to the neighborhoods, Rosendahl noted.
“There is value in land staying in the community for community purposes,” he said.
“The fire station is a part of our neighborhood,” he said. “There’s a sense of historic preservation for us, because it’s been a part of the community for so long.”
Clare believes that there are other ways to raise money for the city’s coffers if the mayor is intent on selling off city land.
“There are smaller parcels in Venice that can be sold,” he said. “But not sites like the fire station, where you can put several units of affordable housing.”
In addition, there are other creative ways to develop more Westside housing, says Clare.
“You can build units on top of existing parking lots,” he suggested. “The city has to take a much more active role in creating affordable housing, because the market isn’t doing it.”
Rosendahl says there might be other ways to bring in revenue to cut into the budget and still keep the stations and the animal shelter in their neighborhoods.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to work this out,” the councilman said.
Howell thinks that his beloved fire station is one neighborhood artifact that he and his neighbors will easily rally around, now that its existence is threatened.
“This is something that we will have no problem getting the neighbors to support,” he predicted.
Villaraigosa’s office had not returned phone calls for comment as The Argonaut went to press.