Education

The neighborhood tug-of-war over opening a Santa Monica preschool

Priska Neely/KPCC

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The yard signs on Delaware Avenue have a story to tell.

Bright yellow and blue posters dot the lawns of many houses along this quiet, three-block Santa Monica street insulated by the noise of the nearby freeway and metro by a thick canopy of ficus trees. The signs read: “Preserve Our Neighborhood.”

They are there in response to another sign in front of one particular house. It’s bigger and plainer than the others – sturdy, white, 6 x 2 feet:

NOTICE OF PENDING CONDITIONAL USE PERMIT:
Proposed change of use of 1,487sf from single family residence to non-profit early education center without residents.

This house is at the center of a project that’s riled the neighborhood. The owner purchased it with the goal of turning it into a non-profit business – a preschool. But many of the neighbors don’t want the preschool there. 

The project is the latest in a string of changes in the Santa Monica neighborhood that pit one view of community needs against another. Neighbors aren’t opposed to having more quality preschools embedded into communities, but many say their street isn’t the place to do it. And the fight raises thorny questions about where preschool spots get located and citizens' right to determine what happens to their neighborhood.

THE TIMELINE

Laila Taslimi spent years looking for this house. On a wall, she keeps a timeline with photos and papers going back to Spring 2015, when she first developed the idea to open a preschool. A former elementary school teacher in Santa Monica Public Schools, she wanted to start an early education center to help kids start school stronger and close gaps in achievement between privileged and less-privileged children.

In 2015, when she learned about the Reggio Emilia approach, where learning is guided by a child’s interests, she went to Italy, where it originated, to study it.

“I came back looking for, 'where would our preschool be?'”

She wants to serve the children of working parents who need full-day care, with hours from 7:30 a.m.  to 6 p.m. So a house seemed ideal, somewhere that could feel like home to the kids, with a kitchen, outdoor space, a quiet street, a nearby park.

Delaware Avenue has all of those things. Taslimi formed a non-profit and purchased the home for more than a million dollars.

“It was a wonderful day – Valentine’s Day – that we closed escrow,” she recalled, smiling. “I couldn’t have been happier.”

Laila Taslimi stands in front of the timeline posted on the wall of the house she purchased to turn into an early learning center. She got the idea in the spring of 2015.
Laila Taslimi stands in front of the timeline posted on the wall of the house she purchased to turn into an early learning center. She got the idea in the spring of 2015.
Priska Neely/KPCC

She can already vividly envision the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves she plans to place at the entrance, the children playing in the backyard and learning to cook and bake in the kitchen.

The center, which she calls Untitled No. 1, plans to start with 12 4-year-olds and grow to enrolling 20 4-and 5-year-olds. She wants to serve children from all income levels, with the families who can afford it paying market rate and other families covered by scholarships raised by the nonprofit, or subsidies available through state programs. “Administered and taught by experienced, highly- quality educators nurturing active citizens of the world,” reads a flyer Taslimi made to distribute to neighbors.

The timeline on the wall ends with the fall of 2018, the date when she hoped to be ready to open, and an arrow pointing into the future that says "change the world."

The city's zoning laws say Taslimi, who lives in a different area in Santa Monica, can open this preschool in this residential neighborhood.

A provider can operate a day care or preschool for up to 14 kids out of the home where they live in California – that is allowed by right. But this project is different. It would be a preschool during the day – a business, without any residents at night. Two years ago, the city of Santa Monica changed its zoning laws on to permit this kind of project, converting a home in a single-unit residential district, known as an R1, into a child care center or preschool without residents.

“The advocates of early childhood felt that we’ve had elementary schools right in the heart of residential zones for many, many years, and and they exist quite comfortably with the neighborhood,” said Irene Zivi, a member of Santa Monica’s Child Care and Early Education Task Force. “We saw no reason that a child care center is any different.”

Taslimi’s project is the first to attempt this kind of conversion after the change to the zoning laws. And the neighbors are pushing back.

'Just not in our neighborhood'

The very things that drew Taslimi to this neighborhood are the things some neighbors fear are at jeopardy.

To operate a business like this, homeowners must obtain a conditional use permit to assure the facility is safe for children and is compatible with the surrounding neighborhood. Those decisions are made by the city’s planning commission and must go through a public hearing process.

And that’s where things got tense.

Discussions around the Delaware Avenue property at the meeting on Sept. 6, 2017 lasted over five hours. Dozens of residents came out in a show of opposition – voicing concerns about increased noise, traffic, a tall fence zoning laws require, and erosion of the quiet street they call home. A few did testify in support, but the majority were opposed. Voices were raised. Tears were shed.

“I’m for the project,” one resident testified. “Just not in our neighborhood.”

The meeting went on until after 1 a.m. At the end of the night, the planning commission approved the project.

The neighbors have filed an appeal, submitting a packet of materials – petitions, data sheets and letters – nearly an inch thick.

“The metaphor I use is it’s like trying to shove a round peg into a square hole,” said Brian O’Neill, who lives five doors down from the house Taslimi wants to convert. He and his wife, Nada Shamonki, a lawyer, organized the appeal.

They worry the new traffic from families will make the quiet street a common cut-through, that it eliminates existing housing stock, and "allows for encroachment of commercial uses into quiet residential neighborhoods."

“When the community has explained why it doesn’t want it, those concerns are just swept aside and ignored,” said Shamonki, who's lived in the neighborhood for a year and a half.

“It’s not a simply opposition to children or a school, it’s much, much more nuanced than that."

Neighbors have organized to create a website, design those colorful lawn signs, and even start a petition, which they say has over 200 signatures. Shamonki says if there’s one benefit to the situation, it’s that she’s gotten to know her neighbors.

"We live here," said Elana Clark-Faler, who has lived on Delaware for seven years and loves her peaceful street. "I didn’t move into a neighborhood next to a school. This is being forced and there was no vote on this. It’s literally getting rubber-stamped right through." 

This community has been subject to a lot of change and this preschool is the latest project to make it feel squeezed. The tension dates back to the 1960s, when the 10 freeway was built nearby. More recently, Bergamot Metro station on the new Expo line extension came just blocks away, along with a Metro maintenance yard – which the neighbors also unsuccessfully fought against. 

The quiet street on the east side of Santa Monica is coated by a thick canopy of ficus trees.
The quiet street on the east side of Santa Monica is coated by a thick canopy of ficus trees.
Priska Neely/KPCC

'Over-preschooled'

During that late night public hearing, one of the city commissioners acknowledged the neighborhood's history.

“They are gonna experience this as just another insult from the city,” said Commissioner Mario Fonda-Bonardi.

Groans and shouts of “It is!” welled up from neighbors seated in the audience.

“It may feel that way,” said Fonda-Bonardi, “but I’d like you to look down the road and when you look down the road, the fact that you can walk your kids or your kid’s kid’s to a nice preschool in your own neighborhood.”

The neighbors don’t want to look or head down that road. Another part of their argument is that there are already plenty of preschool options nearby.

There are a large number of programs in the area that serve 4- and 5- year olds, including a family day care one street over. The latest report from the L.A. County Office for the Advancement of Early Care and Education, which evaluates supply and demand of early education slots every five years, does show a surplus of preschool slots in that zip code, 90404.

But another report from that office shows that 44 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds from low-income, working families eligible for state-subsidized care in 90404 are unserved. Connections for Children, the local resource and referral agency that helps families find child care, says that in the 90404 zip code, there's a waitlist of 4- and 5-year-olds who need the kind of full-day, subsidized care Taslimi wants to provide.

While the preschool options are more plentiful, there is an undeniable demand for infant and toddler care in Santa Monica and throughout the state. But last year, another provider wanted to rent a church building in the same zip code – 90404 – that was unused during the week as a center for infant and toddler care. That project dissolved after extreme pushback from neighbors.

'What else is it, though?'

The issue of supply and demand is not ultimately what the city is tasked with evaluating. This is a zoning issue. Since the planning commission approval was appealed, this has been kicked up to City Council, which will make a final decision about the future of the project Jan. 23, 2017*.

In approving a conditional use permit, officials are evaluating “where and under what conditions a business may operate in the City.”

“If you take away this sort of triggering argument of ‘it’s for the kids’ and you actually look at, OK, we love kids, what else is it, though?” said Shamonki, who has preschool-aged children, “What is it doing to a community? Because our communities are made up of all different kinds of people and every voice matters.”

Just as the two groups have different visions for the street, they have different visions for what will happen that day.

“We hope they honor our appeal,” said O’Neill, who hopes to have hundreds of neighbors attend and express their concern. “We’re hoping for a complete reversal.”

Taslimi hopes to get city approval and begin the renovations to turn the house into a preschool she hopes can unite the neighborhood. She had hoped to start enrolling kids next fall, but says that target on her timeline will be difficult to meet now.

“I really hope that the happiness and liveliness that children learning their role in the world can bring,” she said, “my neighbors also would want to participate in nurturing that. And I do believe that that would happen and will happen.”

This story has been updated with a statistic about children eligible for subsidized care in the 90404 zip code.

*The City Council was initially scheduled to take up the project on Dec.5, but it has been moved to the agenda for Jan. 23, 2018.