Shop Stoppers : Rising Burglary Rate on Melrose Avenue Chases Some Stores

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Melrose Avenue, home to cutting-edge boutiques, nouvelle-wave cuisine and affluent post-punk shoppers, has a new trend on its hands: retail burglaries.

From the beginning of June to the end of August this year, burglars broke into stores along the Melrose strip 64 times, up from 19 in the same period during 1990. The burglaries took place on Melrose between La Brea Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard and on Fairfax Avenue from Beverly Boulevard to just north of Melrose.

It is a trend that police and shop owners believe results from the rapid rise in the number of high-end retailers on the avenue.

"Each year the popularity of that area is growing," said Officer Angelo Morton of the Los Angeles Police Department. "Melrose has always been nice, but it's really gotten to the point where it has been catering to an affluent crowd. The shops have begun to sell more expensive merchandise and when burglars know they can get a lot of it, that's when they hit."

LAPD Sgt. Bob Meza said burglaries tend to fall into cycles--"we have a rash of them and then they sort of fade away and then all of a sudden they start up again." Police declined to say whether the problems along Melrose are the work of an organized ring or a series of unrelated burglaries.

Whatever the cause, the increase in crime has forced some store owners to leave because they cannot abide the emotional toll or the skyrocketing insurance bills that the burglaries breed.

"Obviously there's a lack of security. We're very vulnerable," said Ken Fasola, owner of Ecru, which will soon close after three burglaries left Fasola unable to get insurance. "We're not a mall and there's not a strong enough coalition of merchants to have a private patrol. Melrose just seems to be a target that they're able to come back to again and again."

For nearly 10 years, Melrose has been a popular hangout for a blend of tourists, middle-aged suburbanites in search of trendy goods and long-haired youths who favor the Melrose uniforms of all black or perfectly faded jeans, baggy white T-shirts and funky leather shoes.

The shoppers, diners and tourists browse through the avenue's exclusive stores and boutiques for such items as a $1,200 brass brassiere, powder pink cowboy boots and Elvis Presley jeans. For the more conventionally minded, there are mink trimmed leather jackets or elegant beaded gowns costing as much as $3,700.

"Shopping Melrose can be very intimidating for some shoppers because of the price of the merchandise," said Marcus Laxamana of Roppongi, which carries $150 shirts and European designer menswear. "But it tends to make it more intriguing for burglars to want to take it."

Though Roppongi's security system includes an alarm, metal gates and sensors, burglars broke in through the roof in July and took an undisclosed amount of cash and merchandise, Laxamana said. Since the burglary, Roppongi's owners, like many others whose stores have been burglarized, have taken extra security measures.

Other business owners say that multiple burglaries have forced them to leave the avenue.

Bianca Nero, a boutique that sold upscale contemporary clothing for women, recently closed after $40,000 in merchandise was taken during two burglaries, said owner Maria Wojciechowski. The burglaries, in mid-April and late August, were the first since the store opened 3 1/2 years ago.

"I talked to my insurance company and they said my rate would skyrocket or my deductible would be high," Wojciechowski said. "I didn't want to go through it a third time. Two times was enough in four months and I knew I'd fear each night whether I'd be burglarized again." Fasola, of Ecru, an exclusive designer boutique where dresses sell for as much as $750, said burglars hit his shop twice in three days during May, taking 80% of the store's merchandise. His theft insurance was canceled after a third burglary in June, leading to his decision to close his shop and reopen at another Westside location. Fasola, who also operates an Ecru in Marina del Rey, said the burglaries were the first in Ecru's seven-year history on Melrose Avenue.

"We really wanted to stay here. We struggled," he said. "All the stores have gone through a tough financial struggle, but with all that it was too much with all the burglaries too."

Chris Mara, who specializes in Melrose real estate as a broker with Alvarez, Hyland & Young, said he believes factors other than high insurance rates caused owners of Bianca Nero and Ecru to leave Melrose Avenue.

"Both of those businesses, Bianca Nero and Ecru, were having financial difficulties before the break-ins," said Mara, who is also vice president of Merchants on Melrose.

Other shopping areas on the Westside have not experienced the same summertime crime wave.

In Westwood Village, there were only four burglaries reported between June 1 and Aug. 31 by businesses that lie between Gayley Avenue and Hilgard Avenue and Le Conte Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, said Officer Ralph Strand of the LAPD.

"There's a notable difference between the Melrose area and Westwood," Strand said. "Westwood's size, which is eight to 10 blocks is considerably less than the Melrose area which gives Westwood the advantage of more frequent patrol rounds by police.

In the smaller Rodeo Drive business district in Beverly Hills, which encompasses only three blocks, there were only two burglaries and one attempted burglary from June 1 to Aug. 31, said Lt. Frank Salcido of the Beverly Hills Police Department.

"We'd like to think it's our high-profile patrol," Salcido said. "But those shops are also heavily alarmed and they have quite a bit of private security in the area."

Joan Luther, spokeswoman for the Rodeo Drive Committee, which is composed of about 80 merchants and property owners, said she believes a mixture of clean streets, plentiful parking, redevelopment and the Beverly Hills Police Department keep Rodeo Drive's crime rate low.

The solution to Melrose's problems may lie within City Hall, said Richard Jebejian, president of Merchants on Melrose, a 4-year-old organization whose 125 members own businesses between La Brea Avenue and Fairfax Avenue on Melrose.

"It's not that the police haven't been helpful because they have," Jebejian said. "But basically, the police can only help out with additional foot patrols when the money comes from City Hall. In order for citizens to feel comfortable and safe our tax dollars should go for hiring more police."

Jebejian said his organization has discussed hiring its own foot patrol, but that there may not be enough money to make the idea a reality.

"The brashness and hit-and-run attacks by these burglars is like something out of the movies," said Jebejian, who owns an interior design business on Melrose. "You could have bars on your building and the burglars will just pop them with bolt cutters, break the windows and within minutes they're down the street and they're gone again."

The increase in burglaries doesn't come as a surprise to one resident who said she has seen her community change over the years.

"Melrose has become Rodeo Drive East," said Henrietta Manchel, coordinator of the Beverly-Fairfax Community Patrol, an 8-year-old organization of volunteers who comb their community in cars in an effort to stave off crime.

"Years ago there were little neighborhood stores, but all those things are gone now," Manchel said. "Now every time you turn around you see ritzier, trendier and gaudier shops."

A Summer Spate of Crime A rash of burglaries on trendy Melrose and Fairfax avenues has plagued merchants this summer. Here is a look at the areas affected:

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