Neighbors fighting plans for a 20-student preschool near Gandara Park scored their first political victory Tuesday, when four City Council members voted to postpone the debate over a Conditional Use Permit needed to open the school.

The dozens of residents who are fighting the City over the proposed school at 2953 Delaware Avenue still need to convince four out of seven councilmembers to deny the CUP.  However, with only five elected leaders present for Tuesday’s meeting, they were facing an uphill battle.  The debate is rescheduled for Jan. 23.

“We were thankful but we didn’t know why,” said Christine Parra, an 18-year resident of the neighborhood where a former McKinnley Elementary School teacher has purchased a home to convert into a school.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown’s motion to delay the discussion is now giving neighbors time to strategize and regroup, though the councilman says it had nothing to do with his decision.

“Based on information I received this afternoon from counsel, I believe it may be legally prudent for us to continue item 6A,” Councilmember Kevin McKeown announced about an hour before Delaware Avenue neighbors were prepared to plead their case.  McKeown told the Daily Press he decided to make the motion because the neighbors may not have received some requested information “in a timely manner,” citing his commitment to transparency.

“I want to stress that the reason of my motion is not the number of council members on the dais,” McKeown said.  Long-standing policy limits postponements over the number of members present in order to prevent applicants from gaming the schedule.  Appellants can only request a continuance if there are just four members.

Both sides of the issue were caught off guard by the last minute motion.  The preschool’s founder, Laila Taslimi was in the lobby helping her supporters file requests to speak when she heard the motion and rushed into council chambers.

“I was surprised and didn’t expect it,” Taslimi said.  “I had absolutely no idea why or how it happened.”

Instead of moving forward with her preschool, Taslimi found herself back at home pouring over nearly 200 pages of letters submitted to the Council concerning the item.  She was surprised to see several other neighborhood groups had written to fight her school, which she deems badly needed in the 90404 zip code.

“It feels like a runaway train in a way,” Taslimi said, who is also rethinking her strategy in the wake of the postponement.

One of those letters came from Zina Josephs, another former elementary school teacher who is also president of the Friends of Sunset Park neighborhood association.  Josephs says she questions the wisdom of placing 20 children in a former single-family residence

“To have 20 kids next door is not like having a family next door,” Josephs said. “Nobody has a family of 20 kids.”

The Council opened R1 Zoned Districts, like Delaware, to preschools in 2015, requiring a CUP to address potential conflicts like parking, noise and remodeling needed to turn a house into a school.  This is the first application to go before the Council.

“The CUP conditions should protect neighborhood residents while ensuring that the facility is able to operate its educational and developmental program to provide high-quality childcare and early education that meet the needs of working families,” reads a City report on the preschool.

The zoning change was controversial at the time. Other neighborhood groups are closely watching this issue and, with several Councilmembers facing reelection in 2018, active residents are watching as well.

“It’s just a microcosm of what’s going on in the city,” Josephs said.  “Someone has a grand idea and then it gets imposed on the residents whether it’s a good idea or not.”

Councilmember Sue Himmelrich voted to delay the debate, saying there were legal issues concerning whether the appellants had received all the documents they requested.  She agreed it will be better if the full Council is seated for the vote.

“It’s better to err on the side of caution,” Himmelrich said.

kate@smdp.com

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