Gladys Avakian

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FRESNAN WON'T YIELD TO SCHOOL By Erin Kennedy

The Fresno Bee Updated Sunday, December 11, 2005, 9:20 AM

39 Homes Sit On The Site Proposed For Olmos Elementary.

The Fresno Unified School District board meeting will begin at 5 p.m . Wednesday in the second-floor board room of the Fresno Unified Education Center at 2309 Tulare St.

Gladys Avakian, who has lived all her 68 years in a house her father designed near Butler Avenue and 10th Street, vows she'll be the last hold-out and the biggest obstacle Fresno Unified could have if the school district tries to tear down her neighborhood to build an elementary school.

"Over at that other school site, they still have one old lady in her house. That will be Gladys if they do this here," said Avakian, referring to the Olmos Elementary School site off Chestnut Avenue, just north of Kings Canyon Road in southeast Fresno.

Dixie Navarette's house is the last standing at the Olmos school site because the 65-year-old woman dug in at her three-bedroom home on East Inyo Street and refused to move for more than 14 months after a neighborhood evacuation deadline for families in 35 houses. The opening date of Olmos was pushed back a year to August 2007 while the school district negotiated with Navarette and a few other homeowners who went to court to fight eminent domain proceedings that forced the sale of their land.

Navarette said she plans to move out before Christmas to a Clovis house she bought with her district settlement in May 2004 and that Fresno Unified is now remodeling to meet her medical needs.

Demolition crews are standing by to clear the way for construction, said Ruth Quinto, the school district's chief financial officer.

Rather than repeat what happened with the Olmos site, Fresno Unified is rethinking tearing down a neighborhood of 39 single-family homes at Butler Avenue and 10th Street to build an elementary school.

A citizens committee -- the Choosing our Futures Operational Strategies Task Force -- suggested to the school board last month that it consider another 8-acre parcel just to the south at Cedar and Hamilton avenues, adjacent to Sequoia Middle School. The alternative site has fewer single-family homes, more low-income rentals, and some vacant lots.

The California Department of Education has given initial approval to that Cedar and Hamilton site, Quinto said. Now the district must do further study on whether the land meets Fresno Unified and state safety and environmental regulations and provides safe walking routes for children, she said.

Quinto said the Butler and 10th site is still under consideration, but administrators are looking at the alternative site at the request of some school board members.

At a previous board meeting, trustee Manuel Nunez chastised staff: "What you should've learned from the Olmos site is the expense and time it takes to buy out and move people."

Quinto agreed. "Before we tear down a neighborhood, we better make darn sure we have exhausted all viable alternatives. And in the process we might actually find an alternative that wouldn't require displacing 39 single-family homeowners."

This would be the fourth school Fresno Unified builds with the $199 million Measure K bonds approved by Fresno voters in March 2001.

Elementary schools are needed mostly in southeast Fresno to relieve crowding and take nearby schools off year-round schedules.

Avakian said the alternate site proposed at Cedar and East Hamilton was on a list of properties with "more rickety buildings" that she gave district officials at a June school board meeting.

Avakian and her 38 neighbors have argued that they live in a historical neighborhood that was once connected to Fresno's old Armenian Town. "These are not just homes or houses, these are works of art," Avakian said of the houses designed by local builder Armen Franken. "At one time this was the only place Armenians could build."

Famous Armenian sculptor Varaz Samuelian, who created art at Fresno's courthouse park, once lived there, along with Jake Beiden of the baseball Beidens, and Florence Vukovich of the Indianapolis 500 racing Vukoviches.

At Wednesday's school board meeting, the board will vote on other school construction suggestions from the Choosing our Futures Operational Strategies Task Force. The group, which includes local businesspeople, a former city redevelopment director and district staff, has recommended Fresno Unified buy two possible school sites before rising real estate prices push the purchases out of the district's reach.

A school site at the southeast corner of North Hughes and West Olive avenues has already been proposed for purchase. Rather than wait another two years until the district is ready to build, Kurt Madden, chairman of the task force, suggested buying now while prices are lower and the sellers are willing. The 8.15 acres are divided into two parcels: 4.92 acres of vacant land and a 3.23-acre parcel with a business on it.

The other recommended purchase would be an exchange of the school district's 2.86-acre former maintenance yard at the corner of Ventura Avenue and Eighth Street for the city of Fresno's 5.03 acres of vacant land just east of Storey Elementary School in far southeast Fresno.

That land would help the district handle the students expected to move into the new Fancher Creek neighborhood and could be used for expansion of Storey or for a new school. The difference in the two properties is $185,000 and would have to be paid by Fresno Unified, Quinto said.

The reporter can be reached at ekennedy@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6197.


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