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Who Killed Manchester Square?

Hillel Aron |
December 16, 2009 | 8:49 a.m. PST

Senior Editor

Manchester Square is quiet. Even the planes flying into LAX, just to the southwest, aren't too loud.

The reason Manchester Square is so quiet is because more than three quarters of the buildings are gone, demolished, replaced by long fields of grass surrounded by chain link fence. Most of the area looks like a giant park that no one is allowed to use.

This was no premeditated plan. It is what has happened in the absence of a plan. Though the city government's expansion strategies have changed a number of times over the last 12 or so years, the practice of buying up Manchester Square property has taken on a momentum of its own. It can't be stopped, but it can't quite finish the job either.

•••

Whoever designed Manchester Square must have had a strange sense of humor. Numbered streets run east-west, starting with 93rd Street. Except that after 99th Street comes 99th Place, the latter of which curves around the former, so that there's actually an intersection of 99th and 99th, as well as one of Hindry Avenue and Hindry Place.

manchester-square-inner.jpg

The inner circle (the pink area in the map) is zoned for single-family housing. Built in the late 1940s, the homes are nicer and less uniform than those built later and farther from the city. There is also a school at Isis and 98th. The outer circle is zoned for multi-family housing. In the late 1940s, that meant duplexes with two to four units. All but a couple of those were replaced with apartment buildings in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1997, Los Angeles World Airports, a branch of the city government that runs LAX, Ontario, and Van Nuys Airports, unveiled its "LAX Master Plan." It called for, among other things, expanding by adding a runway north of LAX, which would swallow a number of businesses, including the In-n-Out Burger on Sepulveda. Planes would come right over Manchester Square. To appease homeowners, LAWA offered to soundproof all the houses, a "noise-abatement program."

"We used to have neighborhood watches over at the school," recalled Brenda Underwood, who has lived in her Manchester Square home since 1991. "So we start having bigger and bigger meetings with the airport. And they were like, 'We'll sound-proof your windows.' And we were not pleased with that because - what about going outside, right? The soot would be on everything. The noise would be unbearable."

It was then that a small group of homeowners told the city that they'd rather just sell their houses. City Councilmember Jackie Goldberg stated their case as well. No poll was taken, although opinion was informally solicited at the neighborhood watch.

And so the noise-abatement program turned into an acquisition program (only five houses were ever sound-proofed) and received funds from the federal government. The program was voluntary. LAWA did not solicit anybody. They waited for homeowners and apartment building owners to come to them.

And come they did. First the residents who had wanted to sell anyway, then the ones who did not like the idea of a runway in their back yard, and then the ones who did not want to be the last house on the block.

"People got scared," says Underwood. "The neighborhood just... left."

It wasn't a buy-out so much as a self-perpetuating mass exodus, like a bank run. By 2001, more than 20 percent of the residential properties had been bought by the city. City planners started to consider using Manchester Square for fueling stations, repair shops, or cargo facilities.

September 11th changed everything. Newly elected mayor Jim Hahn directed LAWA to change the Master Plan. Instead of expansion, the new watchword was security. Much was made about LAX's distinct U-shape. A well-placed car bomb could take out the majority of the terminals and runways.

The answer to this perceived danger was Alternative D, which called for closing LAX to all traffic. Manchester Square would be turned into a secure check-in area. Passengers could park there, check in, and then take a monorail to their gates. Baggage would be transported through an underground tunnel.

manchester-square-master-plan.jpg

"We will have, effectively, the first 'code red' airport in the nation," said Mayor Hahn, when the proposal was announced.

The plan met stiff resistance right away. Airlines hated it because it would make flying more of a hassle, and because they would have to eat most of the $9 billion price tag through gate fees. El Segundo, Culver City, and L.A. County sued the city of L.A. to halt the plan. A settlement was reached in 2005 that allowed for some improvements, like modernizing the Tom Bradley International Terminal. The more controversial measures, like the off-site check-in area, were set aside for further study.

By then, 85 percent of the houses and 35 percent of the apartments had been bought and demolished. LAWA had purchased some commercial properties too, like the Travelodge on the corner of Century and Aviation boulevards, which it continues to operate to this day. The 98th Street Elementary School had closed after years of sinking enrollment.

"There's a point of no return," City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski told the LA Business Journal at the time. "When you start to buy out people from a community and leave the properties vacant, it starts to spiral in on itself where you need to continue, if not increase, the momentum. Otherwise, you're creating a ghost town, which nobody is comfortable with."

No one may have been comfortable with it, but no one tried to stop it either. An additional $54 million has been spent since then. LAWA owns about 425 plots of land. Only about 92 lots remain private, most of them apartment buildings.

•••

So what's the current plan for Manchester Square?

There isn't one.

Debbie Bowers, Deputy Director of Commercial Development for LAWA wrote in an e-mail:

There are no current plans for Manchester Square. We have included it in some of our planning studies as we do with all land LAWA owns, but we have not yet formulated a final plan to present a recommendation to the Board of Airport Commissioners.

And so the neighborhood has become a sort of all-purpose playground for the city. LAPD uses a stretch of five LAWA-owned, abandoned houses on 98th Street, next to the school, for training to bust into houses and block off streets. The Fire Department uses a house on Aviation Boulevard to practice chopping holes on a roof, an important technique for fighting house fires that lets much the heat out of the house.

Filming in Manchester Sqaure is also common. A producer friend of mine, who asked me not to use his name, wrote in an e-mail:

They let you shoot there cheap and you can do whatever the fuck you want to the house. So like every music video where you see people trash a house was shot there.

Residents told stories of downed helicopters, dune buggies, and houses engulfed in flames, all for the sake of LAWA trying to make a little bit of money off of its more than $225 million investment.

On the plus side, Bright Star Charter School now rents the old elementary school. Enrollment is up to about 300 students.

•••

The remaining homeowners are not exactly holdouts. They just don't feel like moving. Steve Markossian, an elderly man who has lived in a big yellow house on 96th Street for 39 years does not mind the fact that his neighbors have all left.

"It's made the neighborhood very quiet," he said.

Underwood agrees. "It's peaceful. And I'll never live in a giant park again. Since everyone left, I've seen hawks, possums, birds. Once, I swear, I saw 5,000 birds. They sing, and you can hear them all through the house. This area is now a haven for wildlife."

Brad Moon, a friend of Markossian's son, said he used to hop the chain link fence and play golf on the grass.

Those that live in the outer ring, in apartments, feel a little differently.

"We got snakes, rodents, possums, all because of the open grass," said Anthony White, who has lived in an apartment on 99th Place with his family for the last seven years. "If you think about it, it's a health hazard."

There is a bit of a divide between the inner circle and the outer circle of the neighborhood. Homeowners are left with quiet blocks and the knowledge that if they do get bought out, it will be for a fair price. Renters are left with cheap buildings that owners have little incentive to improve, since they could get bought ought by the government someday.
"We pay close to $1,500 a month," said White. "It's just not worth it. To live in half a neighborhood."

The owners are reluctant to sell. Their properties generate more income than other buildings of comparable value in other areas would generate -- that is, if the neighborhood had not been obliterated.

Peter Plotkin owns 22 apartment buildings in the area, most of them along 99th Place, including the one where Anthony White lives. Thomas Hood owns 16 buildings. They are suing LAWA for allegedly blighting the neighborhood. Homayoun and Monica Aghaei, who own two gas stations on the corner of Aviation and Arbor Vitae, are also suing LAWA.

"Anyone who's gone down there would say that the area has been blighted," says Joseph Dzida, the attorney for the owners. "They've essentially created a ghost town down there."

•••

"Well obviously, the neighborhood has become what it has become, which is not much of a neighborhood," said City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, who succeeded Miscikowski in 2005. "The question is what are we gonna do with it, right? No decision has made on how to use Manchester Square going forward. I personally see the area as an ideal spot for the consolidated car rental center."

Another morsel from Alternative D, the consolidated car rental center would supposedly reduce traffic by locating all the car rental places in one area, so people would not have to drive around looking for each one.

Others have suggested that houses be put back in. Dzida said that is what his clients are hoping for. It is also what City Council President Eric Garcetti suggested when I spoke to him a few weeks ago:

"I think that in a housing crisis, it's a great opportunity to get people back into solid middle class housing, which is what it was. It could be a wonderful opportunity, as the economy comes back, to put out a request for proposals, to ask city planners, now that this tragedy has happened, what can we do to plan a great community? People have been moved out, it's too late to get them back. What can we do to plan a great community?"

The fact is, no one knows what to do with Manchester Square, and if they do, they don't feel very strongly about it. The history of the neighborhood is littered with long-term plans, studies and periods of "gathering input from the community." The ambivalence seems almost universal.

I asked Brad Moon how he felt about what's happened to the neighborhood.

"A little sad, I guess. I grew up on the streets here, playing baseball and basketball with my friends. But I guess, you know," he said with a shrug and a smile, "progress is progress, right?"


Reach reporter Hillel Aron here. Join Neon Tommy's Facebook fan page or follow us on Twitter.



 

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