Not Defensive About Look of His Malls : Riot aftermath: Alexander Haagen bucked criticism in the 1980s when he insisted on 7-foot fences and a security force for the shopping centers he created in South Los Angeles. The measures helped deter looting.


Over the years, Alexander Haagen, the first major developer to build new shopping centers in South Los Angeles since the 1965 Watts riot, has drawn criticism for insisting that his centers be secured by seven-foot-high, wrought-iron fences.

There was a storm of protest, for example, in 1987, when he announced that he would put a fence around Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza as part of the $120-million overhaul that transformed the aging shopping center into a modern, enclosed regional mall.

Community residents said the fence would symbolize the neighborhood’s despair. And merchants at the nearby Santa Barbara Plaza complained that it would choke off commercial growth outside the new mall.


Today, events have proved that the Manhattan Beach-based developer knew what he was doing. Through a combination of good planning, good design and a lot of luck, Haagen’s four shopping centers in South-Central Los Angeles and Crenshaw all escaped major damage in the recent riot.

The “security-oriented” shopping centers, as Haagen describes them, were built in the 1980s, all with the help of city redevelopment money or other public subsidies.

All four are surrounded by substantial security fences and patrolled by a private security force. The largest, Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, has a police substation, and the others have storefront offices set aside for police use.

“We build these centers defensively, fearing for the worst and hoping for the best,” Haagen, 73, said in an interview. “Why were we so fortunate? We were prepared.”

Haagen said he has believed all along that the fences are necessary to reduce customer fear and to attract tenants.

“After the Watts riots, I saw every major tenant pull out of the central city,” he said. “You need to create a comfort level and sense of security that would enable businesses to come back. This is not Beverly Hills. In Beverly Hills you can leave a bicycle on the street, but in the central city you take it into the store with you.”


Haagen said he wanted the fence to look like the one that surrounds the USC campus. “That was my example,” he said.

Despite the recent turbulence, not everyone is convinced that the fortress approach to shopping is the answer.

“You can put up all the fences you want, but it’s still not going to change a damn thing,” said Jess McClendon, past president of Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP and a resident of the West Adams area.

“Fences are an admission of defeat, evidence of failure, not success,” McClendon said. “A fence says to me that the criminals are in charge. Why should I go there?”

Haagen said the barriers and other security measures have made his centers among the safest in the city. And in the recent disturbances, the fences clearly played a major role in minimizing damage.

At Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, only the Broadway store sustained major damage during the riot. It occurred when looters broke through doors opening directly onto Crenshaw Boulevard that were not protected by the security fence. The plaza’s private security guards contained the looters inside the Broadway, preventing them from gaining access to the rest of the mall.


“People complained about the fence being built, but I think it helped us in terms of security,” said Linda Gray, the plaza’s marketing director. “People in the community are looking at that in a different light now.”

Haagen said that, after the riot, Broadway officials asked him to extend the fence to protect the side of the store facing the street.

A similar story unfolded at Haagen’s Vermont Slauson center, where the only business that sustained major riot damage was the J. J. Newberry store--the only shop in the center outside the fenced area.

“The fence was certainly an inhibiting factor,” said Marva Smith Battle-Bey, executive director of the Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corp., the nonprofit company that operates the center with Haagen. The merchants and security guards also made valiant efforts to protect property.

Battle-Bey said the idea of the fence was new to the community back in 1981 when Haagen first proposed it. “We thought a fence would stereotype the neighborhood,” she said. “It did help.”

At the Martin Luther King Jr. Shopping Center in Watts, however, the fence was not enough. Rioters got inside, broke into the stores and looted most of them. There was no structural damage, however, and most of the stores reopened in less than a month. Only the Boys supermarket remains closed. Many of the stores were covered by insurance, which, thanks to the fence, had lower premiums in the center than in the surrounding area.


The Kenneth Hahn Plaza in Willowbrook had only minor damage.

During the riot, Haagen said he was on the phone trying to coordinate security for the centers. He credited the police and the security force with keeping damage to a minimum. “There were a lot of unsung heroes who worked around the clock,” he said.

Though a longtime supporter and ally of Mayor Tom Bradley, Haagen nonetheless criticized Bradley’s response to the riot. The mayor’s appeal for calm at a church on the first night of the riot was insufficient, Haagen said.

“Maybe Tom had some bad advice,” Haagen said. “I think he has been a wonderful mayor, but you know time takes its toll. It is a rough city to run. . . . It is not a comfortable seat to be sitting in.”

Haagen, the son of a show business entrepreneur, was born in Denver and moved to California as a boy. He grew up in Hollywood, took pre-law courses at Los Angeles City College, then lived briefly in New York before returning to the West to work as a welder in a shipyard.

He started building his empire more than 40 years ago by buying and selling real estate. Eventually, he began developing shopping centers, and today he owns and operates more than 30 complexes, mostly in California. He said he has been willing to invest in South-Central and other inner-city areas of Los Angeles because he has known the area for most of his life. For a while in the early 1940s, he and his wife, Charlotte, lived in Avalon Gardens Housing Project in South-Central Los Angeles.

“When we lived there, it was a pleasant place to live,” he said. “But that was 50 years ago. Now it is just a place to warehouse people. It has lived its time.”


Haagen said he believes that poor housing, inadequate education opportunities and the lack of jobs all contributed to the riot. “The promises offered after the 1965 riots were not fulfilled.”

Haagen is proud that his four South Los Angeles centers, built with government loans and assistance, have created about 5,000 jobs.

“The projects pay for themselves,” he said. “What the hell did it cost us? Peanuts! These jobs create a sense of pride. People become taxpayers instead of welfare recipients.”

In the wake of the riot, Haagen remains upbeat about business prospects in inner-city Los Angeles and has scouted other locations for redevelopment.

But looking to the future is difficult for many. John Lee, who sells children’s clothes at his store in the Martin Luther King Jr. center, has repaired the damage and restocked his store, but now he wonders how he is going to keep his lease.

“How can you pay rent when you are not working,” he said. “We received a bill, and it included a late charge.”


Maudine Clark, program director of Parents of Watts, a community organization, predicted that stores will have to pass their riot costs on to the customers. “Prices are going to go up and some businesses may leave the area,” she said.

Richard McNish, who manages the Community Redevelopment Agency’s Watts project, said that, as long as there is money to be made, businesses will be willing to go in.

“There is a captive audience,” he said. “The key now is that the community needs to be part of the ownership.”

Pieces of the Empire

The Alexander Haagen Co. owns and operates more than 30 shopping centers, mostly in California. Four are in neighborhoods that were extensively damaged during the Los Angeles riots. Two are in South-Central, one is in the Crenshaw district and one is just outside Los Angeles in unincorporated Willowbrook:

* Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza: (Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards) An enclosed regional mall, anchored by May Co., Broadway and Sears, with space for nearly 100 other stores. In separate buildings are restaurants, banks and a Lucky supermarket.

* Vermont Slauson Center: (Vermont and Slauson avenues) Jointly operated by Haagen and the nonprofit Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corp.; major tenants include a Boys supermarket, Sav-on, K mart and J. J. Newberry.


* Martin Luther King Jr. Center: (Watts) Major tenants include Boys, Dollar National, Sav-on and Payless Shoes.

* Kenneth Hahn Plaza: (Willowbrook) Major tenants include Boys, J. J. Newberry, Thrifty drugs and Builders Emporium.