Frank T. Hennessey chomped on a cigar and rummaged through dusty files. The 85-year-old lawyer, preparing to close his North Hollywood office, recorded probate case numbers on a yellow legal pad, then tossed the old files in a waste can.
Around the corner, Hooper Camera, a 35-year fixture on Lankershim Boulevard, was promoting a moving sale with bannered signs on the front windows. One block up the boulevard, demolition crews were trucking off the remnants of a Woolworth store.
The signs of departure are unmistakable these days in North Hollywood's run-down core. Along Lankershim and its side streets near Magnolia Boulevard, dozens of shops, houses and apartment buildings are being purchased by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency and boarded up for demolition. Many businesses and residents already have left.
The neighborhood exodus continues as the CRA assembles 7.8 acres for a $47-million theater and office complex known as The Academy. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences plans to move its offices there from their current location several blocks south on Lankershim.
The land will be cleared and handed over to private developers by Aug. 1 to make way for a nine-story office building, shops, restaurants, a landscaped plaza and a 10-screen theater complex. The project, situated next to the planned site of a Metro Rail station at Lankershim and Chandler boulevards, is scheduled to open to the public in late 1988.
Hope for Revival of Area
The city hopes The Academy will spark a commercial revival of central North Hollywood. The area bustled with shoppers until the early 1960s, then declined into a hodgepodge of low-rent shops and apartments as large department stores moved elsewhere, mostly to shopping malls that began cropping up around the Valley.
The Academy will displace more residents and merchants than any project in the eight years of the North Hollywood Redevelopment Area--the first in the Los Angeles part of the San Fernando Valley. Thirty-one businesses and 38 households will leave, the CRA says.
The relocation has not provoked widespread anger or organized opposition. On the contrary, most of those who work or live in the area believe it needs a fresh start. They say the CRA has treated them fairly, for the most part, in meeting relocation costs.
State law gives the CRA the power of eminent domain to take possession of properties before a sale price is final. But the agency must pay the market value of property it absorbs. It must also pay moving expenses and buy furniture and fixtures left behind.
Lost Customers, Higher Rent
Nevertheless, shopkeepers worry about losing customers and paying higher rents at new locations, and residents complain that their lives are disrupted and lament the scattering of friends.
"The neighbors used to come over with doughnuts and coffee. It's sad to see these people go," said Frank Rodriguez, the easygoing operator of a Trailways bus station on McCormick Street. Rodriguez, 35, will move from the cramped storefront operation to a building three times larger on Magnolia Boulevard.
Says Treatment Is Fair
Like most businessmen in the area, Hennessey believes the redevelopment agency is treating him fairly. "I just hate like hell to move," he said. The attorney said he did not consider retiring. "I won't quit. They'll have to take me out feet first."
Since 1956, Hennessey has run a law office in a house on McCormick Street. Despite frustration with being forced to leave, Hennessey and his wife, Virginia, said they won't miss the threat of crime that soured their outlook on the area in recent years.
Vandals have tossed beer bottles into their parking lot, the couple said. Iron bars cover the house's windows--a precaution prompted by four burglaries in the early 1980s.
"I always keep the door locked. I'll be glad to get out of here," said Virginia Hennessey, 64, as she filled out Christmas cards announcing the Jan. 1 move to another North Hollywood office.
The knowledge that redevelopment was coming has hastened the area's decline, say CRA officials and residents.
"There's a reluctance by property owners to fix things up when they know redevelopment is coming," said Jerry Belcher, the CRA manager for North Hollywood. "For a while, it really does turn from bad to worse."
The phenomenon is apparent at places such as Valley Community Clinic, where plaster is falling off the ceiling and a receptionist wears a stocking cap and gloves to stave off a morning chill.
Opened in 1970 to provide free or low-cost health care to the poor, the clinic occupies the second floor of a brick building on Lankershim. It lacks heating and air conditioning, the roof leaks and the building probably does not meet city earthquake standards, said Ann Britt, the clinic's executive director.
Clinic officials have been talking to the CRA for two years about relocation and sought private funds to cushion the financial hardship of moving, Britt said. By March, the clinic will occupy a renovated building on Vineland Avenue, just across the street from the CRA's North Hollywood office.
Signs of deterioration abound elsewhere as well.
Transients rest on plastic chairs in front of a deserted fast-food restaurant. They also rummage through storage sheds--doors ripped off at the hinges--packed with furniture and clothes abandoned by apartment tenants. Parking meters stand unused. Boarded-up houses give McCormick Street the appearance of a ghost town.
"It's getting scary around here right now. It's not the greatest of areas anyway," said Sandra Aguirre, a secretary on disability who has lived five years on McCormick. She and her husband, Gary, a glazier for a construction firm, said they spent a lot of time fixing up the interior of their comfortable rented house, painting the walls and building up the kitchen floor.
Sandra Aguirre, 45, said they had planned to stay at the house three more years to save money before purchasing a home of their own. They also liked having her daughter, Jackqui Davis, living nearby in an apartment building behind the house.
The CRA has offered $4,000 toward the down payment on a house in Sun Valley, the couple said, but a bank rejected their loan application. They will ask the CRA relocation adviser handling their case to accompany them to the bank for another loan review, they said.
"It's really upsetting that we have to move during the holidays. I didn't set up for Christmas because we thought we'd be moving this week," Sandra Aguirre said. "We can't go into an apartment with three cars and all our furniture."
Davis, 24, said she pays $315 a month for her single apartment, and is angered that she will pay more elsewhere. "All the one-bedrooms I've seen are worse than the single I have. I don't think they do enough to help you move out," she said recently.
Area merchants have a parallel concern about paying higher rents after they move. One of the principal benefits of running a business in the deteriorating area, they note, has been relatively low rents.
"We've been looking around and the rents are definitely higher, 20% to 30% higher," said Dwight Park, who has been negotiating for his brother, Steve Oh, on CRA relocation payments. Oh runs a smoky, open-air hamburger stand he calls Paradise Alley on Magnolia Boulevard.
Park said the CRA has asked Oh to move the stand by Feb. 13 and that he has been talking to the agency's representatives for three months.
Oh and his family moved from South Korea five years ago. "This has been very disruptive to their personal lives with the uncertainty of providing for their children," Park said.
Oh wants to stay in the area to avoid losing repeat customers, said Park. Oh also wants compensation for lost "good will," the financial value of having a regular clientele.
Complaints About Red Tape
Some merchants also complained of CRA red tape.
One of them, violin maker Robert Cauer, contends that he lost one week of revenue in October because the CRA delayed approving his moving expenses to a converted house in Hollywood.
"It was a hassle without end," said Cauer, 39, who has made and restored violins for 20 years. "We had to bend over backwards for many of the things we needed."
The CRA's Belcher said relocated businesses "can probably make it" if they are resourceful.
"Maybe they pay a little bit more rent, but they get better exposure. I'm satisfied our business fatality rate is fairly low," he said.
To ease the transition for its customers, Hooper Camera persuaded the CRA to delay closing its store until Jan. 17, after holiday shopping. In the meantime, Hooper opened a new building two blocks south of its older one on Lankershim.
"We're trying to sell off the stock here. We've hired some temporary workers while we're running two stores," said Jack Williams, the firm's president.
Williams said his new shop, improved with the addition of a photo-developing laboratory, will stay in the area because "we've been here so long. Our customers know us here.
"We feel that, when they redevelop this area, it will be a viable business community again. I just hope they move rapidly and get the neighborhood up again," he said.