CRENSHAW : Shopping Center to Rise From the Ashes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two-and-a-half years ago, touring the smoking ruins of the Crenshaw Center shopping plaza in the aftermath of the civil unrest, Richard Heller said the road to recovery seemed too bumpy to consider traveling.

It was indeed a long journey--one that took a year longer than expected to complete--but Heller, vice president of Watt Commercial Development Corp., went the distance and is on the verge of reopening 30 stores that were burned or extensively damaged.

"We waded through a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of red tape," said Heller, surveying the bright new storefronts at Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue last week. "When I first saw stores burning on TV, I thought, 'Oh no.' But we did it. We came back."

The 137,000-square-foot center was the largest shopping plaza to be hit in the riots and one of the most extensively damaged. Toured by then-President George Bush and many others in 1992, it became emblematic of the rage that sparked the unrest and the ensuing destruction that leveled commercial property throughout Los Angeles. Of the 40 spaces housed in the Crenshaw Center, only five--The Boys supermarket, Burger King, Super Trak auto parts, Thrifty Drugs and National Dollar Store--have been operating since the riots.

That will change on Nov. 5 when the center will hold a reopening with all the hoopla that Heller says the $6-million effort deserves. About half the original tenants are returning, and new ones include Union Federal Bank, Subway sandwich shop, Crown Diamonds and a First Interstate Bank home loan office. All tenants got structural face-lifts--new storefronts and improvements such as individual sprinkler and security systems.

Heller said the development corporation's leasing department also reduced rents to attract tenants and ensure that nearly all the stores would be leased by November.

"There was some hesitancy among some people about locating here, but not a lot," he said. "People did good business here before. That business is still here."

Optometrist Craig Carter, whose office on Manchester and Vermont was gutted by fire during the riots, moved his Universal Eye Care Center into the plaza two months ago because he said it was the just community location he had been looking for.

"I've lived in L.A. my whole life. I grew up in the neighborhood," Carter said. "They've done a lot of good improvements here . . . people have been glad to see me move here."

Watt Commercial Development Corp. was the managing general partner in the joint venture with the Slauson/Crenshaw Associates Partnership, a group of local limited partners. With community rehabilitation in mind as well as building refurbishment, Watt hired Curtom Construction, a black female-owned general contractor, and used contractors that were wholly or partially minority-owned.

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