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Neighbors Worry about Santa Monica Day Care Center Expansion

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Hector Gonzalez
Staff Writer

June 30, 2015 -- It’s 7:30 a.m. and parents are already pulling up in SUVs and other cars in front The Activity Place, double-parking and pulling into private driveways to make U-turns in search of a precious space along the curb.

Residents of the small stretch of apartment buildings, condos and single family homes in the 1900 block of 22nd Street just behind Virginia Park have lived with the twice-daily ritual of pick-ups and drop-offs at the day care center since 2012.

But now a plan by The Activity Center to expand from a “large child care facility” with 14 children to a full day care center with as many as 30 has angered some neighbors.

“What she has there right now is beautiful. Anything more and it will be a disaster,” said a resident who lives across from the center as parents dropped off their children on Monday morning.

Despite such objections, Santa Monica City Planning Commission members approved a conditional use permit last week to allow for The Activity Place’s expansion. If no one appeals the decision by 5 p.m. Wednesday, the permit will be approved, planning officials said.

Commissioner Jim Ries cast the only no vote. Ries said that although he favors creating more child care opportunities for local parents, he believes doubling the center’s size “will have an impact” on the surrounding community, which already has “a number of day care centers.”

“I think we need to disperse these centers throughout our community and not have one with 30 kids,” said Ries.

Owner Maria Kirshenstein is seeking City approval to convert existing structures at her day care center at 1931 22nd Street into classrooms and to create a 2,690-square-foot outdoor play area in the backyard. An existing 376-square-foot detached garage also would be converted into a classroom.

Associate Planner Ariel Socarras said staff recommended approving the application but with several conditions, including keeping The Activity Place’s operating hours to the current 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., add or maintain fencing around the property, and create a 15-minute passenger loading zone in front of the center.

Staff also is recommending that the center provide an employee to help parents drop off and pick up their children, he said.

In addition, the expansion is in line with “the City’s goals of increasing child care” options for local residents, said Socarras, adding that one of the permit’s conditions requires The Activity Place to give preferential treatment to parents who live within a five-block area around the center.

Although no formal complaint has been filed with the City against The Activity Place in the two years since it began operating, Socarras said the City received several emails from residents opposed to the conditional use permit application, including one from the center’s adjacent neighbor who complained about traffic problems and noise from the current operation.

Five residents spoke during a public hearing at the Planning Commission’s meeting last week, including Jody Sullivan, who said his home on 22nd Street is about nine feet from The Activity Place’s outdoor play area.

Sullivan said he’s never complained about the center before “as that struck me as being a bad neighbor,” but the proposal to expand the outdoor play area “is a bridge too far.”

“My wife bought a home for half-a-million dollars in this community so that she could throw open the windows and the doors and enjoy the breeze, and instead she’s been subjected to 14 children in the backyard,” said Sullivan, adding that the constant noise “has become a source of hypertension for her and angst.”

If the expansion is approved, Sullivan said he and his wife will need to move. He “begged” the commission to at least require the center’s owners to install sound walls or other noise barriers.

Commission chairman Jason Perry noted the new conditions require the center to restrict to 11 the number of children allowed to play in the outdoor area at any given time. But Sullivan said “it only takes a handful” of children to generate noise loud enough to force him to shut his windows.

“Frankly, the prospect of 11 children is frightening,” he said.

Shawn Kirshenstein, speaking on behalf of the owner, said he’s never received any complaints from neighbors. He said he appreciated the fact that Sullivan and other residents “wanted to be good neighbors.”

“But also, I just want everyone to know that we are reasonable people,” said Kirshenstein. “They should come to us with anything. We’ll do whatever we can do within our power to take care of it.”

Most residents, he added, favor the day care because it provides a critical service for local working parents.

“We get a lot of panicked parents begging to come in because they can’t find day care,” said Kirshenstein. “Our waiting list is 35 families.”

Other parents praised the care their children received at The Activity Place. One parent said the center’s garden is unique, providing fresh vegetable used in meals for the children.

“We don’t trust anyone with our kids -- we trust Maria,” said one parent.

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