Los Angeles school wins fight with ‘crime magnet’ motel next door

The September 2021 shooting at the “crime magnet” motel flanked by two schools crystallized the urgent mission for the campus community.

A police officer had shot and injured a motel occupant, and the investigation forced the last-minute, all-day closure of the KIPP Academy of Opportunity, a college. Staff members rushed to inform parents and create a waiting area for students, who were already arriving on foot and by car.

“I received an early morning call that there was a police-involved shootout at the motel,” Principal John Coleman III said. “I cannot open my school. I can’t even get near my school.

Some parents couldn’t take it anymore – the blaring sirens, the hovering police helicopters, the rampant prostitution, the drug trade around campus. The shooting has led to an increase in departures from the well-regarded organization KIPP, which deals with waiting lists more generally than departures.

The college, with a capacity of 490 students, fell to 369 students, threatening its future. One way or another, either the motel had to be cleaned up or it had to go.

The best, the worst place for a school

So many aspects of this stretch of Figueroa Street, north of Manchester Avenue, seem incongruous for a school. It backs onto the 110 Freeway – an off-ramp winds around campus. Overwhelming traffic passes all day on Figueroa, a major thoroughfare. There are too few parking spaces for staff, no room for a grassy playground or sports fields. And right in the middle was the Palms Motel.

But around the 8400 block, working-class families live, raise children and work for a better life — the kind of urban setting where KIPP SoCal has located 19 campuses, part of a nationwide network of 242 schools.

KIPP Empower Academy, the elementary school, opened on the site in 2014, just north of the motel on land that once housed a towing business. The college moved south of the motel in 2017, where a church used to be. The colorful cube-shaped structures of KIPP rose on either side of the motel. KIPP had wanted to buy the motel property, but the owners were not interested.

Critics described Palms Motel, located between two KIPP charter schools on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, as a “crime magnet” that put students and staff at risk.

(Google Maps)

The trouble started right away. In 2017, after-school gunfire injured a passerby when bullets hit the school’s main pedestrian gate, leaving spent casings strewn across the floor.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the issues have escalated, said LAPD senior senior officer Ruben Cardenas. “We would have problems pretty much every day with prostitution, gangs, drug activity – inside and outside the motel. …And we have these kids coming and going from school.

Two women in high heels walk past the Palms Motel.

Two women walk past Palms Motel, where LAPD responded to calls related to prostitution, gangs and narcotics activity. The motel owner said the charter school unfairly blamed the Palms for rampant crime that police seemed unable to control.


The scenes impressed fourth-grade student Giahnii Brooks.

“I used to see the girls and they were half-naked and getting into people’s cars and stuff,” Giahnii, 9, said. “My grandmother told me that they were girls who sold their bodies for money – because they otherwise.

And with the calls from the police, there were blockages – sometimes two or three a week.

Two fourth graders stand in a hallway at KIPP Empower Academy.

Jaxon Sanders, left, and Giahnii Brooks, fourth-year students at KIPP Empower Academy, recall frequent blockages and hookers associated with the nearby motel.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

In a lockdown, Giahnii said, “teachers will turn off the lights. They will put like any type of paper on the window which is on the door and then they will have to tell us to shut up. So no one tries to come in and thinks people are here.

Palms Motel owner Maoson Young said the school unfairly blamed the motel for widespread crime that police seemed unable to control. He had owned the two-story, 21-unit motel for about 10 years — and it had been in business for at least 40 years.

“Everyone wants to blame the hotel owner,” said Young, who has managed hotels in Los Angeles since the 1970s. “The problem is crime in the community.”

Young said his employees and managers call the police if there are signs of trouble, but it often takes officers hours to arrive. By then, the person wielding a weapon had disappeared. And the officers told him they couldn’t harass an occupier because of multiple visitors – where was the evidence of prostitution? Young said he hired 24-hour guard security.

After the 2021 shooting, parents and school leaders signed petitions, rallied local support from other groups, connected with political leaders, demonstrated at City Hall and alerted the media.

“Over several months, we met with a team of two assistant city prosecutors, a vice detective and a senior officer to report all security incidents related to the motel,” said Joanna Belcher, head of the external impact of KIPP SoCal.

And, starting in early 2022, the reports came in steadily: someone at the motel taking videos of college students; an argument that ended with a driver backing his car into a pedestrian and pinning him against a pole; a man openly using drugs and exposing himself to women who then fought with three other people; a bag containing “a large quantity of white matter” left in a planter; a bottle of wine thrown from the motel property that shattered next to a line of children.

The parents expressed their concerns to the municipal authorities.

“I am a mother of a 6 year old attending KIPP Empower Academy,” wrote Diana Ramos. “My child started crying when I picked him up from school today because he was so scared during lockdown and wanted to come home but couldn’t. It’s time for the neighborhood exchange.

“I’m signing this petition because as a current college student,” Arianna Rodriguez wrote, “I shouldn’t have to see people running/walking to the motel naked.”

KIPP and motel management entered into mediation nearly a year ago. Young said he made a good faith effort. Police confirmed the motel had installed more outdoor lighting and put up signs warning that parking was for residents only and that more vehicles would be impounded.

Neither the promised camera system was installed nor a higher perimeter fence, Officer Cardenas said. It was necessary because the occupants of the motel were throwing objects from the second floor into the play yard: bottles, syringes, condoms. The school erected a 20-foot chain-link fence with a green screen as a barrier.

A principal shows plants to students in a school garden.

KIPP Empower Academy principal Chinedu Udeh talks to kindergarten children in December in the school’s vegetable garden, which sits under a 20ft barrier the school erected to prevent thrown objects from the adjacent motel.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Things were moving too slowly for dance teacher La Tasha Poster-Holbert, who quit in June after six years with KIPP.

“During my period, I have met some amazing people and developed deep relationships,” she said in a parting letter that she allowed the school to make public. But “the neighborhood had a stench. … It was very oppressive and on a daily basis I had to pray and listen to positive messages just to teach.

Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents the area, said he remembers the motel from the 1990s, before he ran for office, as the leader of a community group that put the property on his list “crime magnets” – “properties where if you drew a circle around it, you could correlate violent crime calls to that location.

He has pledged to participate in a nuisance abatement process that could eventually lead to a forced sale.

A deal is made

KIPP officials have been frustrated by a long bureaucratic undertaking with no guarantee of success.

But the pressure was on the motel owners. Young said he felt like the city was against him. He and his partner were ready to negotiate.

Could KIPP afford to buy the motel? KIPP SoCal’s revenue for 2020-21 was $140 million, but those funds were allocated to education services and existing liabilities.

But how could they afford not to?

The parties met somewhere in the middle, agreeing on a purchase price of $4.7 million. The money came from reserves, according to KIPP, which also receives philanthropic support in addition to the funding public schools receive.

Escrow closed on September 9. Demolition of the Palms Motel began on October 28.

Demolition of the Palms Motel in South Los Angeles.

Demolition of the Palms Motel on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles began in late October. KIPP Empower Academy, an elementary school, is behind the motel on the left.

(PPE Construction / KIPP SoCal)

Where the Palms Motel once stood is a neat and quiet parking lot.

Young moved on; he owns other hotels and is active in a local motel association. But he warned that prostitution and other crimes won’t go away with the motel.

On a recent weekday morning, sex workers were pacing the blocks on campus.

The director of KIPP Chinedu Udeh stands in front of a door leading to a parking lot.

The principal of KIPP Empower Academy, Chinedu Udeh, stands at the entrance to a fenced parking lot, where the Palms Motel once stood.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Officer Cardenas called the result the highlight of his career: “When we started this process, I was a bit skeptical about: is it possible? I’m glad I was proven wrong because they did: the community, the parents, the teachers – they all came together and made it happen.

Principal Coleman said the new parking lot was needed, but why stop there? Why not raise more money, dream bigger.

“I’m definitely thinking about underground parking and then having a gym, dance studio, recording studio and offices on the second floor and a grass pitch on the third floor – so we can attract committed people in our school, even those who don’t necessarily have children here. We need to invest in the community.

Los Angeles Times

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