City Puts Welcome Mat Out for Business : But Commerce Also Takes Steps to Make Its Residents Feel at Home

Times Staff Writer

Any city bearing the moniker "Commerce" obviously believes that being friendly to industry and business makes both dollars and sense.

The 26-year-old City of Commerce, six miles east of downtown Los Angeles, also believes that it pays big dividends to take good care of its 12,000 residents. This fairly large residential population is in strong contrast to other cities in the Los Angeles area that cater to industrial uses, especially the City of Industry (710 residents) and next-door neighbor Vernon (80 residents).

The 6.6-square-mile city has in process three redevelopment projects aimed at upgrading the quality of life in Commerce, according to Ira Gwin, the city's redevelopment agency director.

"We've always been acutely aware and sensitive to the needs of businesses since our incorporation back in January, 1960," he said. "In the process we've revitalized deteriorating sections of the city and provided our citizens with an unprecedented level of services. Our philosophy has been to discourage roadblocks to business development, ensuring cooperation to create a good municipal environment for everyone."

Commerce certainly offers benefits to anyone living in the city, as well as the estimated 80,000 people who come to work in the estimated 1,500 businesses. The city is home to 10% of the businesses on the Fortune 500 list.

Among the benefits are free bus service to anyone--resident or nonresident--in the city, two indoor heated swimming pools, baseball stadium, four city parks, four libraries, indoor rifle and pistol ranges and no city property taxes.

With all its benefits, this freeway-oriented city--where the Santa Ana (5) and Long Beach (710) freeways meet--is not unlike a heavily industrialized city in the East or Midwest, Gwin said.

"We are doing our best to make the transition from a heavily industrial 'smokestack' center to a modern, service-oriented city," he said.

Business Relocation Program

In keeping with its friendly attitude toward the right kind of business and industry, the city operates a business relocation program out of City Hall, according to Raymond C. Ramirez, economic development coordinator.

The program works in conjunction with local real estate brokers, the city's Fire Safety Bureau, the Industrial Waste Bureau and the Zoning Bureau, among other agencies, he explained.

"Our goal is to lead prospective business tenants through what in many cities is a maze of occupancy procedures and regulations," Ramirez added.

Computerized Matching

The system begins with identifying and locating suitable properties through a phone call to the real estate advisory service in City Hall. Operated by the Community Development Department in cooperation with the real estate community, the computerized service matches property and zoning requirements with availabilities in any one of the 1,300 buildings in the city.

During negotiations between property owners and potential owners or lessees, the city plays an active role to make sure each party engages in full disclosure, Gwin said. At the same time, the department's Pre-Occupancy Committee guides the new occupant through permit requirements and procedures.

Realizing that cities are competing as vigorously for new business as businesses are for customers, Gwin, Ramirez and other city staffers and elected officials waste no time at all to point out the $10 yearly business license fee and absence of business receipts taxes in Commerce, as well as a low crime rate that has caused businesses to relocate from Los Angeles to Commerce.

They also point to transportation bonuses such as the heavy-duty streets like Washington Boulevard, Eastern Avenue and Slauson Avenue, designed to stand up to constant truck traffic without disintegrating; the two major freeways as well as the Pomona (60) Freeway just north of the city, and railroad service by Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Santa Fe.

3 Redevelopment Areas

A look at a map quickly reveals the jagged boundaries of the City of Commerce, and delineating the three redevelopment areas results in even more jagged lines.

"We were very careful to include in the redevelopment areas only those portions that needed redevelopment," Gwin explained.

Project Area 1 is the Commerce Business Park, a major business and industrial project being developed primarily by the Dallas-based Trammell Crow Co., the largest single landowner in the city.

Project Area 2 is centered on the historic Uniroyal plant (originally built in 1929 for Samson Tire & Rubber Co., designed by architects Morgan, Walls & Clements) at 5675 Telegraph Road. Nobody knows whether the design is Babylonian or Assyrian, but the building is the most recognizable landmark in the city. The city wants to convert the huge plant into a 200,000 square-foot exhibit center, a 300-room hotel and a large business-products mart.

If and when it is built, the project will preserve the historic facade, create more than 1,200 new jobs and be home to the third largest exhibit center in the Southland, Gwin said.

Renovating Facades

"We've got to get a hotel developer because the center and the hotel are tied together," Gwin said. "They don't stand alone."

Project Area 3 is a major commercial and light-industrial project encompassing 57 acres along the city's two main corridors, Washington and Atlantic boulevards.

Gwin said that the city is working with 27 local property owners to renovate facades and perform major rehabilitation on Washington and Atlantic boulevard businesses.

"Commerce has traditionally been known for its extensive industrial development, but businesses are clearly recognizing the city's outstanding retail potential," he said, adding that several nationally known restaurant chains are now expressing interest in a city that for a long time has had to rely on lunch wagons.

'Like a Partnership Deal

The welcome that Commerce extends to businesses certainly has impressed Mike Hashim, who recently opened a Burger King restaurant in the city.

"I've established restaurants in other communities, but I've never before gotten the kind of cooperation and assistance that I received from Commerce," he said. "It was like a partnership deal. In the short time I've been here, I've met my sales expectations and am still growing. The people in City Hall are like my family."

Perhaps the biggest success story in Commerce is in Project Area 1, where Trammell Crow Co. has developed more than 550,000 square feet of office and research and development/service center space and has plans to build about as much in the 45-acre Commerce Business Park.

Former Steel Plant Site

Once the site of a U.S. Steel plant where components for the San Francisco Bay Bridge were manufactured, the park is--among other things--home of the biggest concentration of financial institutions east of downtown Los Angeles. Major branch offices of City National Bank, Union Bank, Bank of America and Security Pacific National Bank are clustered around the Slauson and Eastern avenue intersection.

Trammell Crow's total holdings of 327 acres assures that it will be an active developer in Commerce well into the next century, but the major push occurred about three years ago when the firm's Los Angeles office, under the direction of partner-in-charge Hayden Eaves III, erected three mid-rise office buildings at Slauson and Eastern.

Since the beginning of the year, in excess of $20 million in leases have been signed for space in the business park's current total of six office buildings, according to the firm's Kevin Staley.

Among the new tenants in this area--where the landscaping and amenities are of the caliber of Warner Center in the San Fernando Valley or Irvine in Orange County--are Minolta Business Systems, Printing Industry Assn., Los Angeles Cellular Telephone Co. and Transcon Lines.

Offer Retail Services

Moving to cater to the needs of the white-collar workers in these buildings, Trammell Crow has opened a 19,000-square-foot retail building that houses a travel agency, fast-printing firm and The Food Plaza, a complex of 11 upscale fast-food restaurants with both inside and outdoor seating, providing the city with what could be called its first sidewalk cafe.

The complex, distinguished by its blue metal roof and entrance towers accented by yellow canvas awnings and umbrellas, was designed by the Feola/Deenihan Partnership of Glendale.

Next door to the restaurant complex is a Gerber's Children's Center, the first in a business park for Gerber's Children's Centers Inc., Santa Ana. The firm is a division of Gerber Products Co., well known for its line of baby foods.

In contrast to most child-care centers, located in residential areas, the center was placed just north and east of the intersection of Slauson and Eastern to be close to where the child's parents are working, according to Earl Peterson, California regional manager for the Gerber unit.

State-Licensed Facility

"Parents can spend their lunch hours with their children and have the comfort and peace of mind that comes from knowing their children are close by during the work day," Peterson added. The state-licensed facility features an 8,000-square-foot outdoor playground and nine classrooms and will accommodate about 100 children.

The firm's 16 other child-care centers in the Southland are either free-standing or in shopping centers or churches, he said.

Trammell Crow has just announced plans to develop 21 acres at the northeast quadrant of Slauson and Eastern avenues. The new $50-million development, master planned by Leason Pomeroy & Associates of Orange, will include 110,000 square feet of research and development/service center space in two buildings; a pair of two-story office buildings totaling 90,000 square feet and a focal point four-story 80,000-square-foot office building at the corner of the two streets.

"The 21 acres will include a jogging course and walkways linking the buildings with the Food Plaza, an athletic club in one of the existing office buildings and other park amenities, including a helipad," Staley said. The project is scheduled to be under construction this spring, with first buildings scheduled to open this summer.

Development Grants

As if this isn't enough, a three-acre portion of this development just north of Rickenbacker Road will include five new R&D; buildings with a total of 95,000 square feet. They are scheduled to open next month.

Since 1979, Commerce has been awarded four federal Urban Development Action Grants totaling million of dollars, according to redevelopment director Gwin.

The first was a $1.4-million grant for the 140-unit, 26-acre Village Homes project, where the William Lyon Co. built single-family houses on the site of the Great Western Exhibit Center across the freeway from the Uniroyal complex.

There is no question that the city is committed to preserving as much residential uses as a city with nearly 89% industrial zoning can.

"When we incorporated in 1960, we had 2,774 dwelling units," Gwin said. "We now have more than 3,250 and we encourage the construction of new houses and the rehabilitation of existing housing."

Additional Warehouse Space

A second federal grant allocated $6.9 million to help create additional warehouse and office space by assisting in the construction of public improvements and a water storage facility.

The most recent grant, totaling $600,000, enabled Sinclair Paint Co., a long-time Commerce-based business, to relocate within the city to newer and larger quarters. This grant preserved 450 jobs, Gwin said.

Garbage disposal is a problem in most cities, but Commerce is attempting to turn at least some of the solid waste generated in the area into electricity when the first major Refuse to Energy Plant is completed next year behind the site of a former paper factory at 5900 Sheila St.

The state-of-the-art $50-million facility is the first to meet the strict air pollution permit requirements of the South Coast Air Quality Management District and will produce electricity from a daily average of 255 tons of solid waste.

Electrical Output

Output will be 10 megawatts of electricity per day, equivalent to the energy consumed by 20,000 houses, according to Michael Selna, project manager of the Commerce Refuse to Energy Authority.

The authority, with six members headed by Commerce Mayor James R. Dimas, with representatives from Commerce, Downey, Pico Rivera and Los Angeles County, owns the plant and has contracted with the Commerce and county sanitation districts for operation.

"This facility will demonstrate that refuse to energy conversion is an efficient and cost-effective way to provide electrical energy while solving environmental problems at the same time," he said.

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