Worried about the financial state of the Farmers Market, a group of merchants who do business there and live nearby called on the public last week to support a 2-million-square-foot development at the site.
Their "open letter to the community" was published in local newspapers two weeks before the first public hearing on the proposal to build department stores, offices, a hotel and residential apartments at the corner of 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue.
"The improvement plan will breathe new life into the community and invigorate the neighborhood shops along Fairfax," the advertisement said.
Pointing to the threat of competition from nearby shopping malls and other developments, the advertisement asked supporters to send in a coupon saying, "YES, I agree that the Farmers Market plan makes sense for our community."
The statements of support were to be mailed to "Farmers Market Merchants," a previously unknown group whose address is the same as that of a public relations firm that represents A.F. Gilmore Co., which owns the property on which the project would be built.
"This is a project we worked on with the merchants," said Yvonne Gottlieb of the Braun & Co. public relations firm.
"We'll be developing a list of people who support the project, and as the plan goes through the public hearings at City Hall, this will demonstrate public support for the project," she said.
More than 40 responses were received after the ad ran over the weekend in the Larchmont Chronicle, the Park Labrea News, the Jewish Journal and the B'nai B'rith Messenger.
In interviews this week, several of the 13 merchants listed in the advertisement said that business has been down at the 56-year-old Farmers Market, despite the throngs of tourist who crowd in at lunchtime.
Originally, the site of 16 stalls offering fruits and vegetables, "SUPERMALTS 10" and "Clover Dairy Today's Milk Today," the property is now home to more than 130 food stands, souvenir shops and other enterprises.
"Let's face it, unless there's something new for people to see, they'll stop going," said Michael A. Graves, owner of Littlejohn's English Toffee House, a fixture at the market since 1946.
"It's just going to grow old and stagnate if they don't do anything about it," he said.
Using a yard-long wooden spoon to stir a timpani-sized copper pot full of molten vanilla fudge, Graves praised the Gilmore Co. for its willingness to put up $25 million for traffic improvements at nearby intersections.
Graves, who lives in an apartment about a mile away, said computerized traffic signals and internal streets proposed for the 31-acre site may help the area's chronic traffic congestion.
"It's in (Gilmore's) interest to make it easier for people to get in and out, because otherwise, people won't want to go there," he said.
Philip E. Rice, owner of Phil's Round Up, said he has his doubts about the sheer size of the Gilmore project.
Despite that, "we feel we need something to get people to come back to the market," said Rice, who has been running his deli there for 18 years. "I live in the area, and I feel that if areas don't go up, they go down. . . . It does need some improvement."
Although the proposed development includes three department stores, Gilmore's representatives have said they would be willing to drop one of them, if necessary, to get city approval for the project.
Neighborhood groups, however, are expected to call for a drastic reduction in the size of the project, citing recommendations that came out of a design workshop sponsored by Mayor Tom Bradley earlier this year.
The issue is expected to be decided by the City Council, where the opinion of City Councilman John Ferraro, who represents the district and serves as president of the 15-member body, will carry great weight.
"We have formulated a position, but we're not going to say (what it is) ahead of time," Renee Weitzer, Ferraro's planning deputy, said this week, although she added that a total ban on development was out of the question.
"We feel we've come up with something that everybody can support, that everybody will support," she said.
This prompted David Hamlin, president of the Park Labrea Tenants Assn., to comment that "either something's wrong or (Ferraro) is a genius."
The councilman's position will be made public at the 1 p.m. hearing Oct. 9, Weitzer said.