After a tense and sometimes rowdy public debate, the City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to deny a neighborhood’s appeal to block the first preschool opening on a street zoned for single-family homes (R1) in Santa Monica. The Council included a lengthy list of conditions before approving a Conditional Use Permit for the 20-student school called Untitled No. 1 on 2953 Delaware Avenue.

Gandara Park neighbors presented a united front against the school for 4-to-6-year-olds led by the appellant, Nada Shamonki, who claimed traffic and noise from the school would “destroy the fragility and peace that we hold onto desperately” on the quiet street surrounded by the Bergamot arts center, an Expo stop, and Metro Maintenance Yard to the North and the 10 Freeway to the South.

“For most of the residents in Gandara Park, the approval of this preschool would be a slap in the face,” said resident Christine Parra, calling local advocates for early childhood education a “special interest group.” Parra’s name was one of hundreds of signatures from neighbors opposing the school.

The Council was initially scheduled to make a decision on the school at the Dec. 5 meeting but delayed the discussion until neighbors could get all the public documents they had requested from the City. In the meantime, the Council changed the zoning code to allow parking outside of an enclosed garage in R1 neighborhoods, effectively reducing the number of variances required for the preschool from three to two. The delay also created arms race between the two sides of the issue, as both enlisted public speakers to persuade the Council Jan. 23.

The resulting four-hour public comment period exposed an inherent conflict in the city’s land use policy that strives to preserve housing and neighborhood character while expanding opportunities for early childhood education. Speakers sparred over whether a preschool, rather than an in-home family daycare (the applicant, Laila Taslimi, lives north of Montana Avenue), is appropriate next to single-family homes. Opponents of the school also attacked Taslimi, a former McKinnley Elementary School teacher who traveled to Italy to study the Reggio Emilia approach to education.

Councilmember Tony Vazquez, who voted against granting the permit and variances to allow the school, said he supports the concept of private preschools in R1 neighborhoods but could not support a school facing unified opposition from surrounding home owners. Vazquez said Taslimi’s unpopularity did not reflect well on her plans for the school.

“She hasn’t been able to convince me to this date that she’s able to follow through,” Vazquez said. “I haven’t come across one neighbor that loves this thing, that wants it.”

Councilmember Sue Himmelrich also voted against the CUP.

“I think that this is emblematic of picking the wrong property,” Himmelrich said.

Taslimi said she specifically chose to open her school in the 90404 zip code because of the lack of quality, affordable options for low income families. The Pico neighborhood has a disproportionate number of kids on a Connections for Children waitlist for preschool, according to senior planner Elizabeth Bar-El. The school will offer scholarships to 60 percent of its students.

The permit includes nearly 60 conditions Taslimi must follow. The Council also granted two variances that will allow employee parking in the front yard setback, one on-site passenger loading space instead of two and a fence modification for a five-foot wall to comply with state requirements.

To address neighborhood traffic concerns, city staff took a traffic count on Jan 11 on Delaware Avenue and found there were about 320 car trips on the street. The planning department estimates the school will generate an additional 52 car trips per day, below the city threshold of a “significant impact.”

Extensive remodeling will transform the 1,500 square foot home into four classrooms and 2,600 square feet of outdoor play space. The school will allow early drop off beginning at 7:30 a.m. and late pick up until 6 p.m. with a monthly event night for parents to connect with teachers at the school.

Dozens of residents who showed up to support Taslimi expressed bewilderment at the neighborhood’s strong opposition to a school serving small children, especially with Taslimi’s commitment to providing scholarships to low and middle-income families.

“We have an opportunity to grant access to a quality preschool…this is not an opportunity we will likely see again,” said Untitled No. 1 board member and Pico resident Kristina Lizama. “If you believe a preschool is a community benefit, why wouldn’t you want it in your own backyard?”

Mayor Pro-Tempore Gleam Davis said she was “troubled by this entire conversation” of whether schooling is an appropriate addition to a neighborhood. The opposition frequently criticized Untitled No. 1 as a commercial business that would disrupt the virtue of the neighborhood.

“I’m just not understanding why it’s so difficult to accept a preschool: an early childhood education center. A preschool,” Gleam repeated. “It troubles me a great deal and it troubles me because we’re talking two different languages.”

Councilmember Terry O’Day, who lives in the Pico Neighborhood, said he hoped the extensive list of conditions, including limiting enrollment at the school during its first year to twelve students, would reduce negative impacts like noise and traffic. Mayor Ted Winterer said he hoped the neighbors would learn to work with Taslimi to solve any problems that result from the school.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press