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L.B. Tiptoes Back Into Westside to Get On With Redevelopment

Times Staff Writer

When Joe Santoro and Darrus Spoon come to terms with the city Redevelopment Agency, probably within a month, they will break a stalemate that for 10 years has stymied growth on the industrial Westside.

The agreement to raise a $1-million packaging plant from nine weed-covered lots would be the agency’s first with a Westside business.

And, both sides say, it would mark the beginning of an era of cooperation between City Hall and a group of fiercely independent business owners who fought the city’s grand plan for Westside redevelopment--and won.

Once bent on acquiring the Westside and peddling it to large developers, municipal officials now say they want nothing more than to work with current owners--mostly operators of small family-run businesses--to improve their valuable land west of the Los Angeles River and north of the Port of Long Beach.

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Agency Learned Lessons

“The Redevelopment Agency learned some important lessons,” said Roger Anderman, the city’s chief redevelopment officer. “It learned that it needs to behave in a manner not threatening to the people in that area. We are not going to bring in new businesses at the expense of existing ones.”

Because of past battles, both in court and at heated meetings, it has taken years for veterans of the Westside redevelopment wars to begin to accept that message.

The Westsiders settled a 6-year-old lawsuit against the city in 1981 when the Redevelopment Agency agreed not to use government’s power of eminent domain to force the sale of most Westside property.

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The city subsequently agreed to spend about $23 million to improve roads, sewers and utilities on the Westside, a 350-acre area south of Pacific Coast Highway that property owners say was long considered the “wrong side of the tracks” by city officials.

Progress, however, has been slow as the city and the business owners have gone through what Anderman calls a cooling-off period.

New Approach

By last fall, enough time had passed and enough faces had changed at the Redevelopment Agency to allow a new approach to the Westside, said Anderman, who came to the agency last year.

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“Feelings ran high,” he said. “There was a lot of animosity. . . . (The businessmen) are still asking, ‘Are these guys for real?’ We are for real. We do want to work with these people.”

Ray Baker, 71, who was among the group that sued the agency in 1975, says he is just about convinced that is true.

“I’m satisfied with the way we’re working together now,” said Baker, chairman of the Westside Project Area Committee, a liaison between the Redevelopment Agency and the community it hopes to rebuild.

“We can call City Hall and ask for something and it’s getting done,” said Baker, who, along with others, credits City Manager John Dever with much of the progress.

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Robert Caso, a city planner when the original Westside redevelopment project was approved in mid-1975 and now a Project Area Committee consultant, also thinks the time is right to get on with redevelopment.

“Remember in ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ ” said Caso, “at the end the psychiatrist says, ‘Can we begin now?’ That’s where we’re at.”

The Santoro-Spoon project, which the city sees as a good example of what it can do on the Westside, probably will be the start of that new beginning.

Fast-Growing Firms

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Joe Santoro, who came to the Westside in 1957 fresh out of high school and looking for a job, and Darrus Spoon, a former Downey bank manager, are co-owners of All Service Packaging Inc. and Cal-Coast Packing and Crating Inc., two fast-growing firms whose operations hopscotch the 1500 block of West Cowles Street.

The two companies package for shipment everything from tiny electrical capacitors to large trucks. They say they have more business than they can handle, working two shifts at one company. But they have neither off-street parking nor a loading dock, and on a recent afternoon, two tractor-trailers unloading on the street blocked other traffic.

Santoro and Spoon, both 46, recognize the problems. And they say they are certain more business is there for the taking if only they had a better-working, better-looking, more consolidated operation.

“It would help us a lot if we had something more presentable to show our customers,” Santoro said.

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With that in mind, the two businessmen contacted the city last summer. “We heard rumors the city was open again for redevelopment,” said Santoro, “so we wrote them a letter.”

2 Buildings Planned

The agency agreed to sell Santoro and Spoon nine vacant lots just south of Cowles on which the businessmen would construct two buildings with about 22,000 square feet.

Through a federal Small Business Administration loan package arranged by the city, Santoro and Spoon would provide only $27,000 equity in the $1,063,000 project. On the average, Anderman said, the interest rates on the loans would be slightly lower than with commercial financing.

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Santoro and Spoon said the deal would help them in several ways. It would make available perhaps the largest undeveloped section of Westside land outside the harbor for a minimum down payment and without having to work through a conventional lender. The agency would pay for curbs, gutters and sidewalks.

The deal would also help the city achieve its redevelopment goals. Lots now vacant would hold two tax-producing buildings with high values. In the long run, such buildings would draw investors to improve neighboring property, Anderman said.

Would Add New Jobs

In addition, three of the nine lots would provide off-street parking, which is in short supply on the Westside. The project would also take the packaging companies’ loading operation off a city street. And, according to city projections, it would increase the number of employees at the two companies from 44 to 78 in three years.

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The deal, in accordance with the city’s overall Westside strategy, would also put the Redevelopment Agency in a position to bargain with other businesses. The agency would acquire two lots now owned by Santoro and Spoon and use them to put together another set of parcels suitable for development.

“The city’s been fair. No, cooperative is a better word,” Spoon said last week.

Anderman said he would like to see the agreement “wrapped up quickly.”

Both parties had expected the deal to be closed by now, but detailed negotiations have raised points of disagreement. Still unresolved is exactly how much the buyers will pay for the city lots.

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Engineering Studies

As the Santoro-Spoon project progresses, so will an engineering study that should produce a model for long-term public improvements on the Westside, Anderman said.

The Redevelopment Agency has spent about $3.26 million during the last three years on street lighting, drainage projects and widening Anaheim Street. The agency has committed itself to spending almost another $20 million, Anderman said.

Owners are anxious to see results, said consultant Caso. But even the city’s first steps have enhanced its credibility, he said.

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Installation of 650 street lamps last year “in a subliminal way has convinced Westsiders that, hey, the city is finally going to do something for us,” Caso said. “This ($23 million) is going to make the Westside a very important place (to) the minds at City Hall.”

Some Westside businessmen are awaiting stronger evidence of city intent.

“The city has been telling me for 20-some years they were going to do something on Santa Fe (Avenue), and they haven’t done a thing,” said Oscar Jacobson, a director of the Westside Project Area Committee, at a meeting last week.

Businessman Encouraged

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Eric Snyder, another director and businessman, said that he is encouraged. “We’re beginning to get some response from the city, and that’s what most businesses have wanted all along.”

But, added Snyder, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Recent gains and promised improvements should be viewed in light of Westside history, said Joel Friedland, two-time City Council candidate and operator of a Westside paint company.

The Westside had to wait 50 years for street lights, and street sweepers began operating there just five years ago, he said.

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“We were kind of the stepchild of the city forever,” Friedland said. “We always paid taxes, but we never got any improvements. Then, because we didn’t have any improvements, they determined we were blighted (and suitable for redevelopment).”

Can Be Found ‘Blighted’

With a finding that a neighborhood is “blighted” and formation of a redevelopment zone, state law allows redevelopment agencies to take property from one owner for its market value and sell it to another. (The Westside project was one of the few out of hundreds statewide where property condemnations were halted by court action.)

As property values increase in a redevelopment zone, additional property taxes are diverted to the redevelopment agency to finance improvements or begin new projects.

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Through this device, the Redevelopment Agency had accumulated $26.8 million by July from the entire 1,368-acre Westside zone, which includes about 1,000 acres within port boundaries south of Anaheim Street. The value of developed Westside property, appraised by the city at $1.90 a square foot in 1975, is between $10 and $15 a square foot today, Baker and Caso said. Total assessed value is $574.5 million for 1985-86, said Anderman.

It is with this money that the city hopes to help build a newer, more attractive and economically stronger Westside, Anderman said.

But the Redevelopment Agency will proceed politely this time, he said. “The Westside area . . . is unique. And we’re trying very hard not to use textbook approaches (to it). That may have been the problem in 1975.”

Willing to Compromise

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As if to emphasize the agency’s willingness to compromise, redevelopment officer Hal Duensing announced at a Westside Project Area Committee meeting last week that the city agreed that eight-foot sidewalks and setbacks of buildings from property lines--though required by city regulations--were unnecessary on the small lots in the industrial Westside.

“I’m prepared to talk about how we’re going to modify the standards and how we’re going to make everything work,” Duensing said.

That, said Baker, the committee chairman, was what his group had wanted to hear.


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