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Nuns lose appeal to keep beer-and-wine pizza parlor, video arcade away from schools

LOS ANGELES, CA (The Tidings) - Sister Vincent Marie Finnegan is showing a visitor around the sloping, landscaped, four-acre grounds of the Little Flower Missionary House off North Broadway. An institution in Lincoln Heights since 1943, the complex of light tan stucco structures and five playgrounds provides pre-school, pre-kinder and kindergarten classes to 115 children ages 2 1/2 to six. Seventy percent come from the community.

TROUBLED NEIGHBORHOOD - Sister Vincent Marie Finnegan watches LAPD officers break up a conflict at Lincoln High School. At least five gangs fight over turf in Lincoln Heights. (R.W. Dellinger)

TROUBLED NEIGHBORHOOD - Sister Vincent Marie Finnegan watches LAPD officers break up a conflict at Lincoln High School. At least five gangs fight over turf in Lincoln Heights. (R.W. Dellinger)


On a clear day the Carmelite Sister of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles says you can see way beyond the skyscrapers of downtown and Century City all the way to Catalina. But this is a hazy — and somber — Friday afternoon.

The seven Carmelites who live at 2434 Gates St. were one of two groups of unsuccessful appellants trying to overturn a recent ruling by the East Los Angeles Planning Commission. The other appellants were Lincoln Heights residents. The decision allows a nearly 22,000 square-foot pizza parlor selling beer and wine, and featuring a 100-video arcade, to be built directly in front of their tranquil hillside childcare and convent urban oasis.

“The developers say it’s going to be a family restaurant and not one person I’ve talked to is opposed to having a family restaurant, even with the beer and wine, even with the 100 video arcade games,” Sister Finnegan explains. “The crux of the difficulty is about the location and children. It’s not about Little Flower or the sisters. It’s about the children.”

She notes that on the corner of the approved block-long Las Villas Entertainment Center at 3319-25 North Broadway, there are three schools with more than 3,000 students. Next door to Little Flower is Lincoln High School, with Gates Street Elementary right across the street.

Nearby are the Gates Street Educator Center, Kwan Ying Vietnamese Buddhist Temple and American Vietnam Chinese Friendship Association, where some 350 children attend classes on weekends.

When the schools get out around 3 o’clock on weekdays, it’s like a “flood” of students and cars on North Broadway crisscrossing intersections, according to Sister Finnegan. She says parents are really worried that drinking patrons leaving Las Villas will add a new dangerous element to the already chaotic street scene.

Parents in the community are also concerned that the mammoth video arcade will be a temptation that some students at Lincoln High may find impossible to resist, both during and after school. The secondary school with more than 2,600 students is already one of the Los Angeles School District’s lowest performing high schools and in danger of being taken over by the California State Department of Education.

And then there’s Lincoln Heights’ notorious gang problem. Sister Finnegan says there are at least five in the immediate area. Although “they don’t bother our children and they don’t bother us,” she’s worried that the entertainment center with its alcohol and video games will spark new turf wars and violence.

Hope casualty of hearing

The Carmelites spent weeks preparing their appeal of the project, which has been approved twice over seven years. The appeal included eight single-spaced pages of reasons against the development on North Broadway between Gates and Thomas streets, a 10-page application plus a dozen color photos from different angles of the graffiti-scarred site.

The appellants, along with more than 200 supporters, were encouraged. Their Feb. 27 hearing at Ramona Hall on Figueroa Street lasted from about four in the afternoon until way past midnight. More than 30 members of the Lincoln Heights community testified against putting a restaurant that served alcohol with a video arcade so close to schools. Citing a City of Los Angeles ordinance banning the sale of liquor near schools and churches, many wanted to know why legal variances were granted so the pizza-and-beer establishment could be built.

At almost 1 a.m., the three members of the East Los Angeles Planning Commission asked Sister Finnegan to return to the microphone. One of the commissioners wanted to know if the issue was “negotiable.”

Tired and emotionally drained from the eight-hour session, the nun recalls feeling almost like being in some “foggy” movie. “I stood there a moment and I thought about the children and everything,” she says. “And then I said it out loud: ‘Alcohol and video games and children — is that negotiable? No!’”

The commissioners called a recess and shortly after came back with a 2-to-1 decision denying the Carmelites’ and community’s appeals.

“The people went crazy,” reports the women religious. “They started screaming and yelling, ‘Shame on you!’ and ‘Wait ‘til it’s time to vote?’ and ‘How could you?’ The people could not believe that after all our testimony and pleading that it was over.”

Looking through the rusty iron-mesh fences separating, by just three feet, Little Flower Missionary House from the vacant lot that is once again on track to be the Las Villas Entertainment Center, Sister Finnegan says she knows Lincoln Heights and her own religious community are almost out of options.

The Carmelites are studying the administrative process to see if any other city permits must be obtained before construction can start. The nuns are aware that their pastor at Sacred Heart Church, Father Mario Torres, is considering joining with community members to hire an attorney to initiate a lawsuit.

“We can’t just sit here and pretend it’s not happening,” says Sister Finnegan, shaking her head. “The parents who are most affected by this decision are the people who empty your garbage, clean your toilets, mop your floors. And they’re being steamrolled.

“We’re trying to back the people in the area up, because it’s a moral and justice issue,” she stresses. “That’s the way we see it and why we have to be active. It’s not that we can’t put up with the noise and that sort of thing. This always has been and always will be about the children — more than 3,000 on this corner.”

Disrespected

Father Mario Torres, pastor of 121-year-old Sacred Heart Church at Sichel and Baldwin streets in Lincoln Heights, was deeply displeased at the way the city commissioners treated Sister Finnegan and the other Carmelites who attended the appeal hearing.

“When the commissioners made their decision, they disrespected the sisters by saying they were ‘closed-minded’ and not open to negotiation,” he maintains. “But what is there to negotiate? I went back after they decided to make a public comment, and I defended the sisters by saying, ‘How can they be open to alcohol?’“

“I don’t think it’s right what’s happening to them,” he declares. “They’ll be right behind Las Villas’ fence when it’s built. And that’s very disrespectful of them, too. They have a right to have a place where there’s some privacy and safety with their pre-school and silence with their own convent. But nobody’s listening to them.”

The 39-year-old pastor points out that in January, City Councilman Ed Reyes had LAPD Hollenbeck division officers testify at a council meeting about local gangs and crime statistics in denying a liquor license to J & L Meat Market, also on North Broadway. Capt. Todd Chamberlain stated that during the most recent two-year period 564 serious crimes had been committed in the area, including aggravated assaults, robberies, rapes and homicides.

What really gives Father Torres pause is Councilman’s Reyes’ steadfast support for the Las Villas project even though it’s literally surrounded by three schools. He notes that opponents have used the same arguments — more opportunities for truancy during school hours, loitering after school, plus drunken behavior and gang violence — that the councilman himself employed to block the meat market’s alcohol license application.

He stresses that the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council, which also backs Las Villas, was greatly outnumbered at the appeal hearing by more than 200 opponents to only a handful of supporters. “They’re not really representing our community,” observes the priest.

His parishioners are 100 percent against placing any establishment that sells alcohol next to a school. He took more than 1,000 signatures to the city council as well as to the appeal hearing. “I could have had more, but I figured that was going to be enough,” he says with a half-smile, half-chuckle. “I guess it wasn’t.”

For Father Torres, first and foremost, it’s a moral issue: putting business interests over children’s safety. He believes it’s a “great example” of developers’ ambitions — in this case, Alice Corona’s and Teresa Duarte’s, who run Teri’s Fashion in Lincoln Heights and are the main backers of Las Villas — superseding the wishes of people who live in the community.

He wonders why so many city variances have been granted to the businesswomen over the seven-year struggle, including allowing the proposed structure to be the tallest building in Lincoln Heights at 45-feet, permitting zero percent setback from the sidewalk and having fewer than 25 percent of the required parking.

The pastor says he’ll support community efforts to hire an attorney to initiate a lawsuit stopping Las Villas from going up. But he also notes that his parishioners are immigrants and Spanish-speaking workers, often holding down two or three minimum-wage jobs just to survive. They just don’t have any spare funds.

“I know the people are upset and trying to raise money for a lawyer,” Father Torres says. “We’re not giving up. Maybe there will be somebody out there, a good lawyer willing to do it pro bono? I think that’s our only hope now.”

‘This shouldn’t be forced upon us’

When Robert Vega went to Lincoln High in the mid-’70s, he and his buddies would walk three/quarters of a mile to a little restaurant off Broadway just to play pinball instead of going home to hit the books. Today, as a 48-year-old parent of two daughters — Sierra, a seventh-grader at Sacred Heart Elementary School, and Sabrina, a junior at Ramona Convent Secondary School — he has a whole different perspective. But he’s convinced that it’ll be even harder for today’s Lincoln High students to resist hanging out at a pizza parlor and video arcade right next door.

“Where I see the danger is older guys going in there watching a game on a big- screen TV and drinking pitchers of beer, and then leaving and driving home drunk,” he says. “It’s so close to the three schools that it’s going to put our children in danger.”

The auto dismantling shop owner is also worried, however, about junior high and high school kids mixing with older patrons in the arcade and restrooms. Look up Megan’s Law on the Internet, he says, and the names of 44 child molesters come up in Lincoln Heights’ zip code.

Moreover, Vega is concerned about violent gangs like Eastlake, only a block away, taking over Las Villas as other gangs have done to popular hangouts.

“And this being a low-income area, I can see older kids taking money from young kids to play the video games and buy pizza,” he says. “So there’s a lot of things that really weren’t looked into before they developed this idea.”

Both of Vega’s daughters attended pre-school at Little Flower Missionary House. He got to know the Carmelites and admired their special dedication to educating young children. When he found out the Las Villas Entertainment Center was going to actually abut the nuns’ property, he decided to speak out publicly about its location.

“I knew how much this was going to affect them,” he notes.

Hope turns to devastation

At the appeal hearing on Feb. 27, the father had “some hope” that the commissioners would see just how strongly the Lincoln Heights community was against putting the restaurant and arcade next to three schools.

“I was really devastated when they denied our appeal,” he admits. “I thought for sure we may have changed some opinions with all the people we brought to the hearing from different groups, including the Highland Park Neighborhood Council and a nearby white Protestant church.

“I mean, we’re all in agreement that we support this project, except for the alcohol and the games,” he points out. “I’ve asked again and again, ‘Why do you think this is what we need at this location?’ And I’ve yet to this day been answered. This is something the developers, Councilman Reyes and the neighborhood council will not let go of.”

After a moment, Vega adds, “I feel as a parent and as a member of this community that we have every right to speak up. This shouldn’t be forced upon us.”

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Tidings (www.the-tidings.com), official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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