CITY HALL

Military retailer is Leimert Park's unwelcome neighbor

Leimert Park activists worry that the local military retailer will drag down revitalization efforts

In Leimert Park, neighborhood boosters dream of new markets, cafés and galleries springing up when a Metro station opens there in five years, drawing riders from across Los Angeles to this center of African American culture.

The nearby blocks already boast a vegan café serving up pumpkin rice, a bookshop selling biographies of Malcolm X and Ida B. Wells, and the spiraling marquee of the historic Vision Theatre.

But when passengers emerge from the subway, some residents fear the first thing they will see are the barren walls and blocked windows of Botach Tactical — an online retailer of police and military equipment, including rifles, ammunition, holsters and other gear.

Botach is not an ordinary gun shop: Its Leimert Park facilities are not open to the public, only to active members of the military or law enforcement. It sells weapons and equipment through a website, shipping them to customers worldwide.

Yet its growing footprint has long been a frustration for an African American business district angling for revival. Members of the Botach family and their companies now own four properties in the blocks immediately surrounding the planned Metro stop.

Neighborhood activists complain that its expanding reach has squelched foot traffic and stopped new shops from moving in. With the Metro station in the works — and new plans for Leimert Park bubbling around it — local groups are again raising questions about the military dealer next door.

"We can't have the kind of commercial environment we need with them taking up all this space," said Clint Rosemond, who helps convene the Leimert Park Village and Crenshaw Corridor Stakeholders Group. He called Botach "the Amazon of tactical equipment … a warehouse operation that has absolutely nothing to do with the community."

"It's a legitimate business. There's nothing illegal about what he's doing," Rosemond said of Botach President BarKochba Botach. "It's just in the wrong place."

One of the Botach buildings sits across from the Metro station site. Another is right next to it, with one wall still displaying the phrase "instant cash" from its past use as a pawn shop. And two more are down and around the block.

The blank buildings look nothing like the busy, walkable corridors that Mayor Eric Garcetti has touted through his Great Streets initiative, or the bustling transit hubs that excite urban planners elsewhere. A nearby stretch of 43rd Place is pegged to become a public plaza closed to car traffic — another program promoted by Garcetti — but residents worry about what those pedestrians will be able to walk to.

"You start thinking about what could be here," said Damien Goodmon, who heads the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, "versus what actually is."

BarKochba Botach declined to be interviewed, sending a brief written statement to The Times in response to questions. "All the questions you ask, have been asked, investigated and answered over the years numerous times," Botach wrote.

Under the name Botach Management, the company purchased its original spot on 43rd Place in 1990 — a few years before South Los Angeles was roiled by riots tied to the police beating of Rodney G. King.

Some Leimert Park residents question why Botach is allowed to operate in the area: Neighborhood rules have banned gun shops for a decade. In some areas around the future subway stop, the rules require businesses to have a front entrance for people strolling down the street. In addition, longtime Leimert Park resident and former city planner Carl Morgan contends that the Botach locations are warehouses that should be barred because the area is zoned only for a limited set of commercial uses.

Despite such arguments, Botach has survived repeated challenges. Nine years ago, the city ordered Botach to either get added permits or stop using a 43rd Place building to store or sell guns or ammunition. The company protested that no new permits were necessary and sought extra time to comply with the order, saying it needed federal approval to move some of its guns. At the time, city records indicate BarKochba Botach was planning to relocate the business outside of Los Angeles city limits.

The Board of Building and Safety Commissioners denied Botach that extra time, pointing to the neighborhood rules banning gun sales. Several local politicians — including then-Rep. Diane Watson and City Councilman Bernard C. Parks — joined neighborhood groups in the fight to oust the company.

But it never left. Opponents "rattled his cage," Building and Safety Department spokesman Luke Zamperini said of BarKochba Botach. "But they couldn't move forward because he really wasn't in violation."

Zamperini said the first Botach location is the only one holding weapons or ammunition, and it had been allowed to remain because it existed before the neighborhood rules were imposed. The newer locations were not in violation because Botach hadn't done anything that required a change-of-use permit or that triggered regulations, Zamperini said.

"When it all boiled down, they had the proper Building and Safety permits and there was no leverage from the city to move them," said Parks, whose council district at the time included Leimert Park Village. If the city had pressed ahead, Parks added, it "would have taken us through a major lawsuit that the city attorney said that we would've lost."

Parks said that after the neighborhood outcry, Botach Tactical agreed to not keep firearms, ammunition or explosives at any of its Leimert Park Village locations, but Zamperini said he knew of no such agreement. After the city redrew council districts, the Leimert Park area was shifted to Council President Herb Wesson. Spokesman Ed Johnson said that at Wesson's request, the 43rd Place property was again inspected two years ago and found to be in line with city rules.

More recently, local groups have raised the issue with their neighborhood prosecutor, but "so far there is no basis to take action," said Rob Wilcox, spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer.

Wesson said he felt Botach Tactical was "an inappropriate use at a location where pedestrians and the community congregate." However, "until they do something illegal, there is nothing the city can do to close or remove a legally established ongoing and operating business," Wesson said in a statement.

As neighborhood groups continue to grouse, Botach Management — another company run by Botach family members, who own property across Los Angeles — has repeatedly given political donations to City Council candidates and the mayor, contributing more than $7,000 to local campaigns over the last six years. Records show that Wesson received $1,400 — including a $700 donation in June for his upcoming reelection bid. Garcetti received $2,800 during that time.

Botach Management referred questions about the contributions to a manager who could not be reached for comment. Garcetti spokeswoman Molly Fowler said the mayor and his aides would try to "continue the dialogue between community members and businesses" to see the area "activated to its fullest walkable, livable and safe potential."

With no apparent way to prod Botach out, some Leimert Park property owners wonder whether the company could play a part in revitalizing the area.

Ben Caldwell, founder of community arts center KAOS Network, hopes Botach might lease out more space to merchants after the Metro station is built. (Botach currently leases space in one of its buildings to a bookstore and a nonprofit.) Sherri Franklin, who is involved with the Leimert Park Village 20|20 Vision Initiative, said local nonprofits and individuals are planning to raise money through a community fund that could help them buy Botach properties.

One of the Botach properties on Crenshaw Boulevard has long been on the market for $2.8 million. An online sale listing touts the "many new metro rail projects" nearby. In his written statement, BarKochba Botach did not answer questions about his plans, but said that as Metro construction winds down, area property owners "will make logical decisions on their next steps."

emily.alpert@latimes.com

angel.jennings@latimes.com

Times staff writer Roger Vincent contributed to this report.

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