L.A., Let Magnolia Be Magnolia

"Look Out Melrose! Magnolia Boulevard Is on the Way."

That arresting slogan on a bus stop sign in North Hollywood advertises one of the more controversial civic face-lifts ever undertaken by Mayor Tom Bradley, the Los Angeles City Council and the Community Redevelopment Agency. If the city succeeds, the San Fernando Valley's dowdy old Magnolia Boulevard will be transformed into another Melrose Avenue, L.A.'s world famous street of funky and smart shops, restaurants and theaters.

North Hollywood business people and property owners dreamed up the idea more than a decade ago. Government, they said, should step in and clean up the slums. Councilman Joel Wachs took up their cause and pushed the North Hollywood Redevelopment Project through the council.

It's not cheap. Last year, the CRA spent $44 million to buy land, subsidize developers' construction projects, draw up plans and pay bureaucrats' salaries.

And not everyone thinks North Hollywood is blighted.

Take Eddie Searles, who does occasional work as a movie stuntman, even though he's long past his 70th birthday. The back closet of his house, near Magnolia, is filled with costumes and vintage clothes. The yard is littered with old cars and motorcycles. Hire Eddie's car, motorcycle or costumes and you also get Eddie as a stuntman. He shares the house with his wife, Othelia, who makes wigs. They also raise a few chickens.

The CRA wants their lot for a shopping center. The agency offered the Searles $232,000. If they don't accept the offer, the CRA has said it will force them to sell, using its powers of eminent domain.

"If I lose the place, it kills me," Searles said as we sat in his front room several days ago. ". . . I couldn't get a place like this for $232,000."

The CRA says that the Searles and a few other dissenters are a minority. As evidence, they cite continued votes of confidence from something called the Project Area Committee. Residents elect these 25-member committees in redevelopment areas to give the CRA grass-roots advice.

Searles and the other dissidents contend that the North Hollywood Project Area rigs its elections and is dominated by the North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "I went to vote and presented my drivers' license," one property owner told me. "I always have presented my driver's license (to prove eligibility to vote). This time, they said they needed my tax bills and utility bills."

Two city council members, Richard Allatore and Gloria Molina, have promised to look into the allegations.

What the council members fear is that there might not be support for the redevelopment project. And without that support, a fundamental question arises: Why redevelop Magnolia Boulevard at all?

I walked down the Valley's Melrose-to-be Monday. I parked nearby on Lankershim Boulevard, in front of a plain one-story building housing the West Coast Detectives World Headquarters. It was obvious what the CRA and the business people envision for Magnolia. A tall, sleek CRA-sponsored office, hotel and apartment complex that will include the home of the Academy of Television Arts and Science that already is being built. Farther on is Magnolia Towers, a CRA low-rent development for seniors.

Also on Magnolia, though, Western Surplus was selling guns, ammo and clothes--nothing more fashionable than L.A. Gear shoes. Down the street was the Survival Store, which displayed in its window such books as "The Art Of Getting Even--The Do It Yourself Justice Manual," "Combat: House to House," and "Hardcore Poaching." Down the street were the North Hollywood Billiards Parlor and three stores selling used clothes. A few doors away was T-Wheels & Deals, advertising tires as low as $1.85.

Of course, the real Melrose Avenue wasn't so chic a few years ago. Then interior decorator shops moved east from West Hollywood into Los Angeles. Clothing shops and restaurants followed. Melrose Avenue redeveloped itself, or at least private enterprise did. No tax dollars were needed.

The point is, these neighborhood transformations sometimes just happen naturally in cities. And they work better that way. Melrose Avenue is more fun than the CRA's downtown Los Angeles.

Leave Magnolia alone, and the fashionable people may someday discover Kathy's Vintages and Razamataz, a second-hand clothing store. And nearby, that small used book store on Lankershim may yet attract the literati.

And until that happens, Magnolia Boulevard will still be of value. Where else can you buy a tire for $1.85?

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