The City Council has blocked the rebuilding of a liquor store destroyed in the riots, an unprecedented move that may set the tone for how local government deals with the high concentration of liquor outlets in South Los Angeles.
The decision delighted area residents who had long opposed the rebuilding of Buckingham Liquor in Southwest Los Angeles. But the store's Korean owners condemned the action as racist.
Last month, the Planning Commission voted 3-to-1 to approve rebuilding of the market, despite opposition from the LAPD and area residents who complained that the store was a magnet for crime.
But the council unanimously nullified that vote last week and ordered the store's owner to pay for an environmental impact study on how the store, at 4060 Buckingham Road, affects residents. No deadline for the report was set.
"(This decision) means that the rebuilding process with respect to liquor licenses or liquor stores is not on automatic pilot," said Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who spearheaded the effort.
"It is a recognition that, finally, the over-concentration of liquor stores is a problem and that this city council has a responsibility to do something about it. It essentially says to the Planning Commission that they have more authority in the view of this council (to not allow) the quality of life in South Los Angeles to degenerate. . . ."
King Woods, a business consultant representing store owners Tony and Tai Kang, estimated that the environmental study could cost his clients more than $30,000 and take as long as eight months to complete. Woods said the expense may force the Kangs to abandon the fight to reopen their store, which sold liquor and groceries.
"They're sending a message to Mr. and Mrs. Kang that they really don't want them to rebuild their store," Woods said. "Calling for this study would
pretty much prevent them from rebuilding."
The Kangs said they are victims of the politically charged debate surrounding liquor stores.
"I feel like this is racial discrimination," Tai Kang said. "My store burned down because I am a Korean. Now they're stopping me from going back to rebuild because I'm a Korean. They want to use me as an example. They shouldn't be taking this action at all because we are the victims of the riots. I'm not the one who started the problems, and they're making us victims a second time now."
The Kangs, who owned the 12,000-square-foot store for 10 years, said the riots caused more than $1 million in damage to the market. Since it burned down, Tony Kang has been unemployed and Tai Kang has worked as a nurse to support the family of four.
The Kangs denied that their store was a threat to public safety and said liquor sales accounted for only 15% to 20% of their business.
But area residents praised the 14-0 council vote, which came in the wake of community protests and petitions that described the market as a threat to public safety. In October, LAPD Capt. Garrett W. Zimmon, in a letter to the Planning Commission, said the Police Department protested the rebuilding of Buckingham Liquor "in the strongest possible way."
"The location (Buckingham Liquor) has historically been a great source of alcohol and drug related activity, as well as extremely violent crimes," wrote Zimmon, commanding officer of the LAPD's Southwest division.
From 1990 to 1992, the LAPD recorded nearly 100 arrests at or within a block of Buckingham Liquor.
Area residents who had lobbied against the store for months were elated by the decision.
"We are very happy about this decision because this is the first time that the (Los Angeles City Council) has really listened to us since we've been coming down here," said Mary Lydia, a South-Central resident who is active in the Community Coalition for Alcohol Abuse Prevention and Treatment.
Before last year's riots, there were 723 liquor licenses in the 40-square-mile area that the city defines as South Los Angeles--more than 10 times the number per square mile in Los Angeles County, according to a mayoral task force. More than 200 liquor stores were damaged or destroyed during the civil unrest.
In giving the store permission to rebuild last month, the Planning Commission acknowledged the complaints of residents and the LAPD by placing operating restrictions on the market. The store was required to curtail its hours, hire licensed security guards and increase lighting.
Theodore Stein, president of the Planning Commission, defended the vote and said the city attorney had advised commissioners that they were obligated to approve the reconstruction of all riot-damaged stores.
Ryan Song, executive director of the Korean Grocers Assn. of Southern California, said various Korean business groups are considering filing suit against the city in the wake of the council vote. "It is extremely unfair for those victims of the riots who have to go through the city process," Song said. Woods said the Kangs are also thinking about suing the city.
But Ridley-Thomas said that is a chance the city must take to improve the quality of life in South Los Angeles.
"What we are pursuing is principled and is sending a message in the strongest possible way on this issue," he said.