For nearly four years, Won Kim's Arco station and AM-PM Mini Market has sold beer and wine on its corner of Vermont Avenue and El Segundo Boulevard, just inside the Gardena city limits.
Now, Charley Chang's Shell station, just across the street and just across the Los Angeles city boundary, is also planning to sell beer and wine. Chang says the step is vital to his survival in a competitive area.
But the situation has created a storm of protest among area residents, who complain that there are more than 50 liquor outlets--including bars, restaurants and liquor stores--within a two-mile radius of the busy intersection. Residents blame the easy availability of alcohol for contributing to the high crime rate in the largely blue-collar community.
"So many people have gotten robbed you can't believe it," said Chandra Landreaux, whose tree-shaded home in Los Angeles is half a block from the 24-hour Arco station. "There are so many (beer) bottles behind my house you could build a glass house. People hang out over there. . . . If you go over there, you're likely to get mugged."
This year, in a two-block section of Los Angeles across the street from the Arco station, there have been 13 burglaries or thefts from automobiles, 8 street robberies, 5 car thefts, 5 residential burglaries, 3 business burglaries and 2 purse snatchings, according to Los Angeles Police Officer Lyle Young, who is assigned to the area.
Gardena Police Chief Richard Propster said officers have yet to complete crime statistics now being compiled for the Gardena side of the boundary. But he acknowledged there has been a "history of crime problems" near Kim's Arco, which often has been singled out in homeowners' complaints.
A series of robberies and other incidents--including a shooting last April in which an AM-PM store employee was injured--have prompted Gardena officials to begin reviewing the conditional-use permit that allows the station to sell beer and wine. An initial review recently found that Kim's Arco is meeting the conditions of the permit, which does not address crime-prevention measures, City Councilman Mas Fukai said.
That may make it legally difficult to revoke the permit, he said, but the council is scheduled to meet on Aug. 27 to discuss other ways of curtailing crime--perhaps by requiring security guards or by prohibiting patrons from eating, drinking or loitering on the station premises.
Fukai, who voted for the permit four years ago in the face of vocal community opposition, said he no longer thinks the intersection is suited to liquor sales.
"If I had to do it over again, I would not approve the sale of beer or wine there," Fukai said. "It was not a good idea."
Meanwhile, residents are fighting Chang's application for a Los Angeles permit, which is scheduled for a vote by City Council members Aug. 21. So far, Los Angeles officials have been divided in that case. In February, a city hearing examiner recommended denying the permit based on the heavy concentration of liquor outlets in the area and the apparent "pattern of drinking, loitering and violence which already exists around the site."
In the same month, the city's five-member Planning Commission took a different position, concluding that liquor sales would comply with zoning laws and represent a possible convenience for many consumers. To discourage loitering and crime, the commission recommended limiting beer and wine sales to morning and early afternoon hours.
Voted to Oppose
Last week, the City Council's three-member planning committee voted to oppose the permit. Aides for City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the area, said she also would recommend denying the permit when the issue reaches the 15-member council.
Even if the council approves the permit, final approval would have to come from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, according to Ann D'Amato, a Flores aide.
The question now facing elected officials is how far each city should go in dealing with the area's crime problem--a matter that could be handled differently on each side of the boundary. Kim's Arco, with an existing permit, stands a good chance to continue selling beer and wine in Gardena, according to Fukai.
But if the Los Angeles council heeds the recommendations of Flores and its own planning committee, Chang's Shell station will remain unable to sell liquor. That would leave him at a serious competitive disadvantage, perhaps threatening his ability to operate, Chang said.
Sales, Crime Link
At the crux of the issue is whether officials can draw a causative link between liquor sales and crime, according to Gardena Police Chief Propster. "I don't know for a fact that you can establish that," he said.
Residents, who say the link is obvious, have won support for their position from Los Angeles police and the South-Central Organizing Committee, a community group formed to fight the proliferation of liquor outlets. Officer Young, who testified at last week's planning committee hearing, told Los Angeles officials that three major youth gangs operate in the area, and that gang members can "usually be seen carrying some type of liquor container."
In a later interview, he also estimated, based on his own observations on patrol, that about half of the crimes in the area are committed by people who have consumed "some type of intoxicant."
Lillian Reagan, an organizing committee member, told city officials, "We just do not need any more liquor stores in the area. We have one on almost every street corner. Everybody in Los Angeles knows what the crime situation is (here)."
But operators of the two stations argued that beer and wine sales have played no part in the area's high crime rate. Arco station manager Young Kim, a brother of franchise owner Won Kim, said he thinks crime would be just as bad without the liquor sales. He also said alcohol was not involved in a 2 a.m. incident in April in which a robber shot a store employee in the head and neck with a .22-caliber revolver.
The employee was in the hospital for a week and is now recovering, Kim said.
"This is just a bad area," he said.
Confusing the picture are several other factors that may invite crime in the blue-collar neighborhood.
Adjoining Kim's Arco to the south is a 104-unit apartment complex that homeowners described as a maze-like escape route for robbers who tend to loiter and then strike just outside the 24-hour mini-market. Gardena Detective Jerry Moser confirmed that a number of crime reports from the area seem to involve the apartment complex.
In addition, the nearby Harbor Freeway is a convenient route for those who attempt a robbery or burglary escape by car, Gardena Councilman Fukai said. Even the city boundary helps create protection for those who prey upon the area, despite a cooperative law-enforcement agreement between the two cities, he said.
A Gardena police car will travel across the boundary to pursue a suspect, but Los Angeles police are expected to pick up the chase as soon as one of their cars is available, Fukai said. The situation can disrupt a chase, he said, adding that many criminals may be aware of the problem.
"I don't think they're dummies," Fukai said.
Another policing problem, which has drawn complaints from area residents, is that only one Los Angeles patrol car is assigned full time to the long sliver of city area between 190th Street and Imperial Highway--the northern half of the Harbor Gateway community, or Los Angeles City Strip. The area's long, narrow shape makes it especially difficult to patrol, Young said.
Police in the Southeast Division, which includes Harbor Gateway and extends north to Manchester Avenue, have written more than 300 citations this year for loitering and other infractions outside liquor stores--more than three times the number in any of the city's other 17 divisions, Lyle said.
"We'd like to give people in the area more protection," he said, "but we can't."
Residents maintain that such circumstances are all the more reason to crack down on beer and wine sales.
"We would like to have this area safe for our elderly, for our kids, for everyone," organizing committee member Anita Craven told Los Angeles officials. She argued that station owners should set aside their sales interests for the long-range good of the community. "Put something there that will beautify our neighborhood. Don't put something there that will degrade our neighborhood."
Fukai said some officials are becoming more concerned over the possible effect that beer and wine sales at service stations may have on the numbers of drunk drivers in Los Angeles County. The Gardena councilman, who also is an aide to Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, said supervisors began putting together a task force last week to study the large number of drunk-driving deaths in the county. All-night service-station markets, which can sell liquor until 2 a.m. under current state laws, are considered a likely topic of debate.
"I'm sure the task force will be discussing this issue," Fukai said.
Meanwhile, station operators argue that beer and wine sales could mean the difference between their stations' success or failure. Kim said liquor sales account for more than 20% of business at the Arco mini-market, creating revenues that are necessary to keep gasoline prices low. "This is a matter of survival," he said.
Chang, a 42-year-old Korean immigrant, said he has borrowed $400,000 to pay for his part of a $1-million renovation at the Shell station, which will add a convenience store and a car wash. Without beer and wine sales, which he expects to represent 15% of his market's revenue, he may be unable to pay off his new bank loan, he said.
"This is my dream, my life," Chang said. "I want to have the tools I need to succeed as a businessman. I'm not trying to make people alcoholic, or criminals--no."