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Downey Rules Out Wilderness Auto Mall for Now

Times Staff Writer

In a decision that pleased an overflow crowd of protesters, the City Council has decided, at least for now, not to plan an auto mall in Wilderness Park.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to spend up to $10,000 to study putting an auto mall instead on the east side of Firestone Boulevard, with the study to be completed within 60 days.

The decision not to put a mall in the park may not be final, one councilman said after the meeting.

“I don’t think everybody should be given the impression that (building an auto mall in Wilderness Park) is totally out of the question and that’s the end of it,” Councilman James Santangelo said.

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If the study finds that there is not enough available land on Firestone to accommodate all auto dealers who want to move into a mall, the 22-acre park may have to be reconsidered, he said.

250 Protested at Meeting

The proposal to build an auto mall at the park brought about 200 residents to the council meeting Tuesday. Many carried signs that read, “Stop the Auto Mall,” “Save Wilderness Park” and “Keep Cars Off The Grass.”

The city decided to consider the park site, on the eastern edge of town near the 605 and 5 freeways, in an attempt to keep disgruntled auto dealers from leaving town. Many of the city’s dealers, who contribute a total of $3 million in sales tax to the city annually, say they have outgrown their present locations in Downey and may move to auto malls planned in neighboring Norwalk and South Gate if Downey does not proceed with its own auto mall plans.

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One dealer, Louis Frahm of Louis Frahm Honda Inc., who has been in Downey for more than 50 years, has already signed a contract to move to Norwalk.

Downey’s plans for an auto mall have been delayed in the last two years by political and court battles over a proposed redevelopment district along Firestone Boulevard. In April, the council decided to fight a lawsuit opposing the redevelopment district rather than work out a compromise with residents who filed the suit last July.

The council’s decision Tuesday pleased Pauline Speorl, whose backyard borders the park.

“I’m pleased for the time being, but we’re going to stay right on it,” she said, adding that she was suspicious of the council’s future intentions because “they’re politicians.”

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Speorl said that she and her husband, Frank, love looking out their windows and seeing ducks, a pond and trees and that she does not want the view replaced by rows of new cars.

So Speorl, her husband and neighbors gathered 2,000 signatures last weekend opposing the proposed auto mall. The petitions, handed to the council Tuesday night, said simply: “We the undersigned want to preserve Wilderness Park and oppose its use for any other purpose.”

Councilwoman Diane Boggs warned residents that the city faces a possible fiscal crisis if the auto dealers make good on threats to leave town.

“We’re in a situation now where the cities surrounding us are developing auto malls, and they’re trying to get our auto dealers to move,” Boggs said. “We face the risk of enough of them moving to lose $2 million a year. Do you know what that will do to the city budget?

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“Well, it’s our job to see that that they don’t move.”

The city operates on a $35-million annual budget.

In an interview after the meeting, Councilman Robert Cormack said the city has five parks in addition to Wilderness. He added that several residents have told him that they have stopped going to Wilderness Park because it is frequented by “out-of-town drunks.”

“If we lose all our auto dealers, we’ll have no choice but to sell our parks,” he said.

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