Em­i­nent do­main OKd for LAX plan

Agency wants to re­place Manch­ester Square with park­ing and a trans­port hub.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Emily Alpert Reyes

Year af­ter year, Manch­ester Square has slowly be­come a ghost town in the shadow of Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

Houses and apart­ments have grad­u­ally been razed or boarded up. Empty lots sur­round the scat­tered build­ings that re­main. Home­less peo­ple pitch tents along its streets, un­der the roar of air­planes.

“This place used to be so beau­ti­ful,” said Jena Mor­gan, who first moved to Manch­ester Square two decades ago. “This whole place was packed with homes. I used to take my 3-year-old trick-or­treat­ing up here.”

“Now look at it!” she said, ges­tur­ing to the va­cant lots be­yond her apart­ment win­dow.

For nearly two decades, air­port au­thor­i­ties have been try­ing to buy up prop­erty un­der the flight path, aim­ing to get rid of homes in a neigh­bor­hood nagged by air­plane noise. Los An­ge­les World Air­ports, the city agency that owns and op­er­ates LAX, is plan­ning to build a rental car fa­cil­ity, park­ing ar­eas and a trans­porta­tion hub there as part of a sweep­ing mod­ern­iza­tion plan that aims to re­duce con­ges­tion around the busy air­port.

And now Manch­ester Square is on its way to fi­nally be­ing empty: The Los An­ge­les City Coun­cil gave the green light Wed­nes­day to ac­quire dozens of homes in the neigh­bor­hood via em­i­nent do­main, a process that al­lows gov­ern­ment agen­cies to take over land for pub­lic pur­poses.

“This is an im­por­tant step for the air­port to get us to the mod­ern­iza­tion that we’ve been seek­ing,” Coun­cil­man Mike Bonin said be­fore the coun­cil vote.

As of June, air­port of­fi­cials had al­ready spent nearly $400 mil­lion to buy more than 500 prop­er­ties in the area, lo­cated just west of the 405 Free­way and north of Cen­tury Boule­vard, but were at a stale­mate over more than three dozen that re­mained. They sought per­mis­sion to get the re­main­ing prop­er­ties through em­i­nent do­main, call­ing it “a fall­back.”

Since the Board of Air­port Com­mis­sion­ers ap­proved that plan, own­ers of 30 of the 37 prop­er­ties have agreed to sell them, though not all of the ti­tles have been trans­ferred. Air­port of­fi­cials still see em­i­nent do­main as a fall­back op­tion as they con­tinue to try to ne­go­ti­ate on the re­main­ing seven prop­er­ties, said Mark Waier, di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for Los An­ge­les World Air­ports.

“It is al­ways pos­si­ble that a set­tle­ment could be reached with­out a trial or sig­nif­i­cant lit­i­ga­tion … and that is al­ways our hope,” LAWA Chief Com­mer­cial Of­fi­cer Deb­bie Bow­ers told the coun­cil Wed­nes­day.

Pur­su­ing em­i­nent do­main is also a wel­come step for some prop­erty own­ers: At­tor­ney John S. Peter­son, who is rep­re­sent­ing two of the own­ers who have not yet agreed to sell, said that em­i­nent do­main al­lows them to seek an­other as­sess­ment of how much their prop­erty is worth, in­stead of re­ly­ing on an ap­praisal that the gov­ern­ment has ob­tained.

“It lev­els the play­ing field,” Peter­son said. “We are not chal­leng­ing the right of LAWA to ac­quire the prop­erty. We’re not try­ing to stop the project. But we are seek­ing just com­pen­sa­tion.”

Waier added that the em­i­nent do­main dec­la­ra­tion also af­fords prop­erty own­ers some tax ben­e­fits. At­tor­neys and air­port of­fi­cials say the le­gal process could take a year or longer, though the air­port agency could take over the re­main­ing prop­er­ties sooner if it sought a court or­der.

Renters are also sup­posed to get help. Air­port of­fi­cials have hired con­sul­tants to as­sist ten­ants with re­lo­cat­ing, Waier said. The agency is also legally re­quired to pro­vide fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to dis­placed renters: Waier said that last year, the air­port agency paid out an av­er­age of $45,000 for each unit occupied by a renter, based on a sam­pling of its data.

But re­main­ing ten­ants like Mor­gan are anx­ious about how much they will ul­ti­mately re­ceive and how far that as­sis­tance will stretch as L.A. rents con­tinue to surge. “I’m scared,” she said on a re­cent af­ter­noon. “If they didn’t do this, we would prob­a­bly have been here for the rest of our lives.”

Oth­ers are wor­ried about what will hap­pen to the hun­dreds of home­less peo­ple who have found refuge along its empty streets. “I fear they’ll just fence ev­ery­thing off,” said Heather Oblon, a Her­mosa Beach res­i­dent who co­or­di­nates com­mu­nity ser­vice projects in the area.

Waier said rev­enue re­stric­tions pre­vent the air­port author­ity from pro­vid­ing fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance di­rectly to the home­less, but it has hired a man­ager and part­nered with other groups to help con­nect them to hous­ing and ser­vices. So far, 23 peo­ple have been housed, he said, and that process is ex­pected to ac­cel­er­ate now that a non­profit team is fo­cus­ing on it full time.

The City Coun­cil vote Wed­nes­day did not ad­dress how much any owner would be paid, though the air­port com­mis­sion ap­proved spend­ing up to $108 mil­lion to ac­quire the dozens of re­main­ing prop­er­ties in June.

The sole owner who came to speak at the Wed­nes­day hear­ing was Michael Par­ris, a 92-year-old who lamented that he did not want to leave his home of 60 years, where his wife and fa­ther died, and where his sons grew up.

“Now they’re ready to throw us out,” Par­ris said.

emily.alpert@la­times.com Twit­ter: @LATimesEmily

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

FOR NEARLY two decades, air­port of­fi­cials have been try­ing to buy up prop­erty un­der the flight path, aim­ing to get rid of homes in a neigh­bor­hood nagged by noise. More than 500 prop­er­ties in the area have been bought.

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