By Ian Lovett, 2/25/2010
Many parents who brought their kids to Hancock Park Elementary on Monday arrived to find themselves banned from the Ross Dress for Less parking lot where many of them park before walking their children across the street to school. Then on Wednesday morning, they were allowed to park there again. The situation surrounding has parents’ heads spinning.
“I’ve gone there every day, twice a day, for drop off and pickup,” said Naoko Wantanabe, parent of a first-grader at Hancock Park Elementary.
“Monday I got there as usual, and the Ross store was completely chained off, and a bunch of cars lined up who didn’t know where to go. There was no prior notice, no sign, just all of a sudden a rude awakening.”
The plot on which the Ross Dress for Less is located has come under increasing scrutiny during the last several weeks. Casden Properties, the Beverly Hillls-based development company that owns the Ross site, has made a proposal to turn the property into an apartment and condominium complex. In January, however, the Mid-City West Community Council voted to recommend the city council not approve Casden’s proposed project, in large part because of the potential effects on the elementary school.
Hancock Park Elementary School Principal, Ashley Parker, said the school never had an official arrangement with Ross, but she had often spoken to managers and security guards at the store, who told her it was fine for parents to use the lot.
“We had an understanding, nothing was ever signed or official,” Parker said. “As a good neighbor, they realized that they’re right next door to us, and they knew parking was very sparse around the school. It didn’t interfere with their business because parents were parking early in the morning, prior to the store’s opening, so managers said ‘OK’ over the years.”
Parker sent an email to parents on Monday, letting them know that “the Ross parking lot is no longer being made available for our use during morning drop-off or afternoon pickup.”
Jennifer Anderson, Casden’s community development associate in charge of the project proposed at the Ross site, said she was unaware that parents had been parking at Ross, and that Casden has not changed its policy with regard to the lot.
“We haven’t directed any change in policy,” Anderson said. “There has never been any expressed authorization from the owners, who are the only people who can authorize that, for the school to use the parking lot for drop off and loading. To the extent it was being used de-facto for that purpose, we didn’t issue any new directive to make them stop doing that.”
Anderson also brought up potential liability problems with allowing children to cross the street from the lot to the school, because there is no crossing-guard at the crosswalk.
However, Eitan Bazaz, the operations manager for the lot, said he received a directive from the property owner — Casden — on Monday to close the lot until 9:30am, when Ross opened for business.
“I got that directive from the owner,” Bazaz said. “And then got another phone call yesterday, telling me to allow them in. I was told to allow them to park until further notice from the owner. They want a good relationship with the community. Basically, parents have been parking there for free, not as customers at Ross, but just to pick up and drop their kids. There’s going to be a discussion between the school and the lot’s owner to settle it.”
A note at the security stand in the parking lot spelled out the new directive to the security guards to allow parents to use the lot, with the word “allowed” underlined. Anderson confirmed that Casden has decided to leave the parking lot unlocked in the morning, but said that they had not authorized the school to use the lot.
Parker spoke to Anderson about the situation on Tuesday, but she didn’t find out that parents were allowed back into the lot until she went out to try to monitor children’s safety Wednesday morning.
“I went out because I’ve been trying to monitor the safety of the intersection, and I saw the security guards trying to wave parents into the lot,” Parker said. “Right now, I’m just happy we’re able to park over there, because it improves safety, even though it’s still a challenging issue over there.”
Parker said she is planning a meeting with Casden to discuss the traffic survey for the proposed new development, but no date has been set.
Tracy Balsz, president of the Hancock Park Elementary Booster Club, questioned Casden’s motives for the closure and quick re-opening of the lot for parent use.
“My perspective is that they didn’t think this through and now they’re just trying to cover themselves,” Balsz said. “They were very well aware that we were using that lot for parking, we’ve been discussing that with them for two years. It’s just a ploy. I don’t know what their next tactic will be to make life difficult for us.”
Wantanabe, on the other hand, is just glad to be able to use the lot. She said that on Tuesday, she got her kids ready ten minutes earlier and managed to find a spot on Fairfax where she could park.
“My husband counted 120 cars using the lot for the school one morning,” Wantanabe said. “The lot is usually full by 7:45. I don’t know what else we could do. The Whole Foods and K-Mart are already open early in the morning. If I could walk the kids I would, but we live a mile-and-a-half from school. I’m not sure where else 120 cars could go.”