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)
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, ...
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