Longtime Calabasas residents and commuters on the 101 Freeway headed south are probably familiar with the Coco’s Bakery that sat next to the highway for many years. It was a fixture in the community until it closed in 2015. The pole sign that once carried the company name is now blank, waiting for a new tenant.
Calabasas resident Bishan Seneviratne hopes to be that tenant.
Last September, Seneviratne submitted an application to the city planning commission requesting permission to transform the former restaurant into a Montessori day care. Seneviratne owns or is involved with 12 Montessori schools and facilities around Southern California, including Montessori of Calabasas and Montessori of the Oaks in Thousand Oaks.
“I’ve seen this particular building that has been an eyesore for years. Nothing has been done,” Seneviratne said. “My whole intention is to actually improve and develop that area to look really nice. It’s going to be a business sooner or later, so why not a school. . . . That seems like a perfect location to me.”
But the property at 4895 Las Virgenes Road stands within 500 feet of the freeway. Calabasas city code requires close scrutiny of proposed day care facilities near a freeway, as car exhaust fumes present a carcinogenic risk.
Seneviratne previously submitted an air quality and noise level study to the commission. The study reportedly stated that the level of harmful chemicals to which the children would be exposed fall within an acceptable range. City environmental contractors agreed with the findings but the planning commissioners still had concerns and tabled the application until a later date.
Opponents of Seneviratne’s proposal say exposure to heavy levels of car exhaust from the freeway is not suitable for children, especially toddlers.
“I have nothing against the day care,” Calabasas resident Joe Chilco said. “I think a day care is probably exactly what the community needs. But that’s the worst possible location.
“I spoke to their air quality expert after the meeting and asked him, ‘Once the pollutants are in the kids’ lungs, when they go in the day care, will air filters suck them out?’ and he said no. That’s the problem in a nutshell. You can’t undo the damage,” Chilco said.
A member of the Calabasas Coalition, a citizens group that monitors development in the city, Chilco said his actions opposing the day care center at the former Coco’s site are not on behalf of the coalition.
Other Calabasas residents submitted letters to the planning commission voicing their opposition to the project for the same reasons. Other letters lauded the idea, saying the city needs another day care center.
Seneviratne said his application is scientifically based. His noise and air pollution data was reviewed by agencies contracted by the city that agreed the location for the day care center would be suitable on the condition that high-quality air filters were installed in the building.
“Yes, it’s a school, but we’re not outside all the time. Any particular kid goes out in the morning for half an hour and then they probably go out in the afternoon for a half an hour, and that’s the only time they’ll be out there, as opposed to some other businesses where you’ll be outside all the time,” Seneviratne said.
“Air quality studies were done, and based on experts and what they’ve been presenting to the city is the only way I came to the conclusion that it’s safe enough,” he said.
The planning commission has not set a date for further review of the proposal.