Neighbors Want to Put Brakes on Auto Row

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Morrison and Dotti Matson are nervous neighbors with interlinked concerns. Morrison runs five auto dealerships on Glendale's South Brand Boulevard. Matson lives just behind auto row, where she can look from her front lawn into Morrison's Hyundai service bays.

Competing against spacious suburban auto malls, Morrison and other South Brand dealers need more room to sell and service their cars. The space crunch has forced his employees and customers to park their autos on residential side streets such as Windsor Road, where Matson lives.

"There's a lot of frustration," Morrison said. "Without a different approach, car dealers eventually won't be here."

For Matson, who provides round-the-clock care for her ailing, elderly mother, the neighborhood where she has lived for 22 years is no longer tranquil. The street is clogged with cars, and the air is alive with noise from a nearby auto service department.

"I've seen the employees drive customers' cars like insane idiots," she said. "They yell vulgar words back and forth at each other. They go down the street rapidly and screech on the brakes because they're testing them. They install auto alarms, so those things are going 'tweet, tweet' every so often."

Keeping both the auto dealers and nearby residents happy has been an ongoing, nearly impossible challenge for city officials. But as a first step in a new effort to improve South Brand, Glendale planners have scheduled a public meeting Wednesday to hear complaints and proposed solutions from both sides. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the Glendale Central Library auditorium, 222 E. Harvard St.

The city sent notices about the meeting to about 650 property owners along South Brand south of Colorado Street and on adjacent side streets.

In the notice, city planners said they are gathering information as part of a study concerning "the future needs of the automobile dealers doing business on South Brand Boulevard. We would also like to address any related neighborhood issues as well."

The study was launched after an attorney for the dealers told the Glendale City Council last month that his group had drafted a plan to give the car lots room to expand. Thus far, however, the dealers have declined to make that plan public.

Some homeowners fear the dealers want zoning changes that would allow them to expand onto land that is now designated for housing.

"I've been expecting this, and I've been speaking to the neighbors," said Arthur Segien, president of the South Glendale Citizens Assn. "They're definitely against any expansion into the residential zone. That's what we're going to fight."

Segien, who owns two apartment buildings and a single-family home in the area, believes the dealers instead should build multistory structures to house their showrooms, new car inventories, service areas and employee parking.

"There's plenty of room on Brand Boulevard to go up, but it's less expensive to go into the residential area," he said.

Morrison, a past president of the Glendale Motor Car Dealers Assn., said high-rises are being considered, but the dealers may also seek zoning changes. The association represents Glendale dealers with franchises for more than 30 car makes.

City officials do not take the dealers lightly because new car sales are Glendale's largest single source of sales tax revenue.

According to city records, between October, 1988, and September, 1989, new car sales in Glendale totaled $357 million. The city received 1% or $3.57 million. That topped the $3.4 million in sales tax revenue generated by the Glendale Galleria shopping mall.

Morrison estimated that when used cars, parts and servicing are included, Glendale's auto business sales exceed $700 million annually.

Seeking the lucrative sales tax revenue, newer suburban cities have encouraged construction of large auto malls, where customers can conveniently compare car prices and styles by visiting one dealer after another.

Glendale's older South Brand dealerships opened when the city had fewer people, the car lots needed less space and city planners paid less attention to separating commercial and residential areas.

With city growth, dealers have been unable to keep pace.

"Glendale's a great city," said Morrison. "The demographics are good for auto sales. But we don't have the setup that some of these auto malls do. They were designed from the ground up to be auto centers."

Newer cities such as Lancaster and Palmdale have tried to attract auto dealers with low-cost land and street improvements. But Morrison pointed out, "The city of Glendale doesn't have the same motivation for helping with the expansion of auto dealerships because the income already exists."

In 1985 the Glendale City Council voted down a commercial, auto-related zoning plan that would have made it easier for the South Brand dealers to expand into the adjacent residential areas.

Two years later the dealers again urged the council to help them solve their space problems. But that plea again triggered strong opposition from residents, who favored multistory dealerships over rezoning.

Currently, several dealers are leasing surplus space in the six-story 1,000-car parking structure built by Glendale Memorial Hospital. But Roger Seaver, the hospital's executive vice president, said his center will need to take back those spaces in about five years when an expansion project is finished.

City Planner Jim Glaser said comments from the meeting will be used to help the Glendale staff prepare recommendations for South Brand improvements that will probably be presented to the City Council in the fall.

Morrison, who has Glendale's Nissan, Cadillac, Pontiac, Volkswagen and Hyundai franchises, is uncertain what will come of the current study.

"It's been going on for 15 years, and nothing has ever changed," he said. "Maybe this City Council will pay attention."

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