Subway Work Hurts Business, Merchants Say

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Business stinks at the Wilshire Copy Center, and manager Jim Mostadim thinks he knows why.

His place of business smells.

Noxious hydrogen sulfide gas has belched for weeks out of a temporary drainage well just 10 feet from the front door of his modest Wilshire Boulevard printing shop.

Mostadim said the gas--which can knock a person unconscious in concentrations as low as 0.2%--discourages the few customers who might otherwise dodge the bulldozers, fences and other obstacles placed in front of his shop by crews building the Metro Red Line subway.

"I swear to you. I haven't taken in $5 today," he said recently, cleaning a brownish gray dust out of his idle copy machines. "I'm really hurting."

Mostadim is not alone. Other businesses in the construction zone--merchants, nightspots and more than a few local residents--have complained that construction badly interferes with their lives, despite the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission's mitigation efforts.

Even religious leaders have joined the choir of protest. In April, 15 ministers, priests and rabbis of the Mid-Wilshire Parish Assn. wrote to the LACTC's Rail Construction Corp. decrying the "destruction of people's lives in the name of the common good."

"While some disruption of daily activity is understandable in any major public works project, this project lacks any built-in accountability . . . ," they wrote. "The process that should be improving our community is hurting it."

The troubles along Wilshire, which followed promises not to repeat the difficulties that downtown merchants suffered during the first phase of subway digging, come at a difficult time for the LACTC. Hollywood merchants are alarmed by the situation along Wilshire and have said they do not want to inherit the same headaches.

If popular displeasure with rail transit projects is allowed to metastasize throughout the county, political approval of new lines may be harder to attain.

LACTC officials said that they are sensitive to disruptions caused downtown in a project they took over from the Southern California Rapid Transit District and that they are using the experience to try to soften the impact on businesses near the second phase.

The second phase includes a tunnel under Wilshire Boulevard from Alvarado Street to Western Avenue and another under Vermont Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood.

To soften the impact of construction, work hours and equipment have been rearranged and the LACTC has offered marketing advice to businesses. LACTC community relations representatives also are trying to make merchants happy by compensating them for lost business and damages.

That pleases some merchants, such as Alexander Hull of Wilshire Tuxedo and Bridal Shop. Hull said he has found the LACTC cooperative and is confident that the commission's insurance company will eventually compensate him for what he says is a 33% drop in business.

But others, such as Mostadim, are frustrated by what they say is a slow and confusing LACTC bureaucracy, angry with construction methods that they believe are needlessly harmful to their businesses.

"I saw some of my customers going to (other nearby copy shops), and I asked them why," he said. "They told me they are scared to walk here while they are lifting with that crane those 75-foot-long steel beams."

Mostadim said there is little point to his coming in to his shop each morning, except to give him the opportunity to wipe fresh construction dust out of his copiers--and to discourage burglars. He said that heavy equipment parked in front of his shop shields potential burglars from passing police cars; one recent break-in cost him $1,700.

That is more than Mostadim's total sales in July. Documents show that the shop grossed $1,100 that month--about half of what he would have paid just for rent, if he could afford to pay rent.

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