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The City Wants Housing For The Homeless. A Nonprofit Wants To Keep Its Playground. Who Wins?

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A homeless encampment in Los Angeles (James Bernal for KPCC)

A conflict over a parcel of land in Echo Park is pitting the city against a local nonprofit organization.

The dispute stems from a small plot located behind the offices of El Centro del Pueblo, an organization that works to mitigate the effects of gang violence on communities and young people. The 27,425 square foot area, which El Centro del Pueblo leases from the city on a month-to-month basis, currently includes a basketball court, handball court and volleyball court.

Two years ago, the city conducted an assessment to identify properties that could be redeveloped or repurposed to house homeless people, according to Christine Peters, the policy director for Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell. El Centro del Pueblo is located in his district. More than 700 sites made the list, including the organization's playground and recreation area.

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After deliberation, city officials selected the area for redevelopment.

According to Peters, the land was ultimately chosen because zoning regulations would allow a larger number of units to be constructed than other parcels in the district, and because those other parcels would be more costly to redevelop.

"We were tasked with [figuring] out which of our Echo Park parcels would be the most feasible for redevelopment at the least cost," said Peters. "We had to do a cost-benefit analysis... The obvious choice became this particular lot."

Helen Sanchez, a spokeswoman for El Centro del Pueblo, said the courts provide a safe space for kids and teenagers in the neighborhood to hang out. Because the organization's offices abutt the recreation area, she added, trained staff can monitor the children, some of whom have emotional issues.

For that reason, she said, recreating that space isn't as easy as "you can build another playground, no big deal."

At Wednesday's City Council meeting, demonstrators who want to save El Centro del Pueblo's recreation area made it clear that they support more housing for the homeless in their neighborhood, but they wondered why it couldn't be on a different lot.

"I'm here to urge you not to take services away from one vulnerable population to serve another vulnerable population," said one demonstrator during public comment.

City officials say they will do their best to rebuild the basketball court and other amenities on which El Centro del Pueblo relies. Peters said that attempts to involve representatives from the organization in deciding which parts will be rebuilt have been rebuffed.

"We keep asking them for input on what's important for them [but] they refuse to participate in the conversation," she said. "All they are telling us now is they don't want us to do it."

Sanchez, meanwhile, said that the city's approach has been "a non-starter."

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"It's just kind of like, 'This is going to happen, figure out what you want,'" she said. "And that's not acceptable."

According to representatives from O'Farrell's office, the city will begin soliciting proposals for the new building in September. Meanwhile, representatives at El Centro del Pueblo hope to be able to meet with O'Farrell.

"They want to sit down with him personally," said Sanchez, "and have a discussion."

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