The manager of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, which has struggled in the feeble economy and aftermath of the Northridge earthquake, has resigned over concerns that the mall's parent company was not moving fast enough to upgrade the shopping center.
Joseph Rouzan III, who held the position for one year, said that many plans he had for improving the mall, including organizing the merchants and setting up a volunteer-staffed information center, were not supported by mall owner Alexander Haagen Properties.
"I'm not anti-mall or anti-Haagen, just pro-successful where the mall's concerned," said Rouzan, 40. "I feel like I maximized my potential and couldn't go any further."
Fred Bruning, vice president of Alexander Haagen Properties, said that he was sorry to see Rouzan leave over "communication issues" with the company. He said he understood Rouzan's desire to effect changes at the mall as quickly as possible and indeed agreed with many of his proposals.
"I shared his views," Bruning said. "Joe was an excellent manager, very community-oriented, a wonderful individual. It'll be hard to find someone of that caliber to replace him."
Rouzan was the fourth manager of the 7-year-old mall, Los Angeles' only indoor shopping center in a predominantly African American community.
He took over at the mall shortly after the magnitude-6.7 Northridge earthquake that forced Robinsons-May, one of the plaza's three anchor stores, to close for six months.
The first thing Rouzan addressed was the morale of the plaza's 85 merchants, who he discovered had not met as a group in nearly three years. Rouzan enlisted the help of Eric Wilson, owner of the Coffee Beanery, to organize a merchant's committee that could voice concerns to the Haagen company.
"He really wanted to make things better," said Wilson, who opened his business in December, 1993. "He tried to unite us, which would do nothing but help the mall overall. Merchants who had been here a long time had just gotten into a kind of apathy. He had a lot of energy. I'm disappointed that he left."
Rouzan cited other problems with the Haagen company: the decision to cut the piano player in the courtyard, its refusal to participate in the community's Martin Luther King Jr. Week activities (a decision Bruning now says was shortsighted), and the lack of support for his idea to staff a mall information and gift-wrap center with volunteers from OASIS, a senior citizens center housed in Robinsons-May.
OASIS Director Cynthia Berry said that 25 seniors in the organization signed up to work after Rouzan made a presentation at the facility.
"This community sees things taken away, not given," Rouzan said. "When you walk in and don't see an information booth, something most other malls have and need, that sends a message."
Bruning said that while mall officials may not be moving on such issues as getting more quality tenants as swiftly as some would like, they have put many things in place, including a project to build a multiscreen cinema.
"A lot more chess pieces are in place now," he said. "With the tenants we've brought in, it makes a lot more sense to have the merchant meetings. The next manager will have an easier ride." Bruning said he expects the mall, which is currently 82% leased, to be 95% leased by the end of the year.
Plans for the mall will go forward despite Rouzan's resignation, Bruning said, adding: "Though it'll be a shame Joe won't be around to see it."
Some tenants, meanwhile, lamented Rouzan's departure.
Berry said that Rouzan took an aggressively proactive approach to management that she found refreshing.
"He was the only manager I really had contact with," said Berry, who has been at the mall three years. "He was very gung-ho about finding out who we were, what we were doing. He seemed genuinely interested in not only us, but the whole community."
Ruby Innis, whose Radiance Boutique was one of the first businesses to open its doors at the mall in 1988, said that Rouzan's agenda of change simply clashed with the bureaucracy of the Haagen company.
"He was trying to get things done, but the mall wants people who only say 'yes' and 'no,' and Joe didn't do that," she said. "I've seen him go to battle for other tenants. The manager should be a person who has free range to do things they want, but the mall isn't ready for that."