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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ENTERPRISE : Broadway Drama : Merchants Divided on Redevelopment Effort’s Value

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Firouz Nazarian and most other small merchants along a seven-block stretch of South Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles, business is bad.

Working-class Latinos scrambling for buses stream past his tiny clothing store daily, but they rarely stop in to buy anything. Nazarian whiles away 10-hour days seven days a week in a long, windowless shop 15 feet wide and packed to the ceiling with clothes on hangers.

The last thing he needs, he said, is to pay another $400 in yearly fees to Miracle on Broadway, a business improvement district created a year ago to promote the area and to improve security and cleanliness there.

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Merchants such as Nazarian are being asked to take sides in a battle that could determine the future of the historic core of Downtown Los Angeles. Estela Lopez, executive director of Miracle on Broadway, is fighting to save the assessment district by enlisting merchant support to ensure its renewal when it comes before the City Council in six weeks.

On her side is Ira Yellin, a developer committed to revitalizing Broadway who has overseen the $75-million rehabilitation of the Grand Central Market, the 102-year-old Bradbury Building, the Lyon office building and the Million Dollar Theater Building with its spiffy new apartments.

“The BID is no magic wand,” Yellin said from his second-floor office overlooking a Broadway bus stop. “But it’s an important piece of the puzzle right now. Take out the BID, and it puts us back several steps.”

On the other side is jeweler Herman Cohen, a 38-year Broadway veteran who thinks the city, and not struggling merchants, should foot the bill to revitalize the area.

“The City Council saw a way of not having to pay for anything on Broadway,” Cohen said on a recent morning as his employees were vacuuming the shop before opening. “Now, the city has no responsibility to clean the streets while the merchants pay for it.”

The fate of the assessment district rests in the hands of those merchants: 1,000 mom-and-pop retailers and manufacturers of varying ethnicities--Korean, Middle Eastern, Latino and Jewish families. Their decision could well affect the pace of the city’s redevelopment efforts along a once-major shopping thoroughfare.

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In times past, Broadway--with its seven historic theaters, chain department stores and jungle-motif Clifton’s Cafeteria--attracted shoppers from across the city who would make a day of it Downtown. Over the years, even after the department stores fled, Broadway remained a major shopping district for working-class Latino and African American families, merchants say.

But in recent years, Latino shoppers have migrated to shopping centers in Montebello and other parts of the San Gabriel Valley, and to small retail shops to the west along Alvarado Street and in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Broadway became a chaotic jumble of increasing numbers of unlicensed merchants piling their goods, swap-meet style, onto the sidewalk. Aggressive panhandlers, prostitutes, drug dealers and snatch-and-run thieves preyed on merchants and pedestrians alike.

“It was a street out of control,” Lopez said.

Lopez was brought in by a group of Broadway merchants in 1987 to devise a solution. She was given three years and $400,000 from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency and came up with the idea of forming a business improvement district along Broadway from 2nd to 9th streets. Although it had been used successfully across the United States, including in neighboring cities such as Santa Monica (Third Street Promenade) and Pasadena (Old Pasadena), the business improvement district is a new idea for Los Angeles, Lopez said.

But bureaucratic and merchant resistance drew out the effort, she said. The district finally received City Council approval in July, 1994, and not without a small muster of opposition from Cohen and other merchants.

Creation of the district allowed collection of $420,999 in assessments, ranging from $160 to $12,000 per business. With the money, Lopez opened an office hired street sweepers, got an extra four tons weekly of trash removal, bought bicycles for police patrols, found space for a police substation and persuaded Metropolitan Transit Authority police to patrol the area because of the volume of bus traffic along the street.

The change is evident now. Both Cohen and Lopez say the street has a “festive” air. Merchants say gold-chain snatching has stopped and that the streets are cleaner.

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Yellin hopes the change foretells the beginning of a turnaround. Broadway could become a “real CityWalk,” he said, referring to Universal Studios’ theme shopping mall in the San Fernando Valley. He envisions the seven blocks as a bridge to Little Tokyo to the east and to Bunker Hill above and to the west.

But his enthusiasm contrasts with the worries expressed by the street-level merchants, many of whom are preoccupied with getting landlords to lower their monthly rents to enable them to survive. Eight hundred square feet of retail space, for example, now rents for about $4,000 to $6,000 a month. And a cleaner, safer street hasn’t meant any more business, merchants say.

Under California law, business improvement districts are easily formed but hard to block. Legally, they can be stopped only if merchants representing 50% plus $1 of the yearly assessment funds organize in opposition. Cohen fell substantially short.

So both sides are now busy.

Cohen has gathered about 25 merchants who are engaged in a door-to-door campaign. He argues that the $32,000 Lopez spent getting the office running and the $120,000 that went for staff salaries could have been better spent on the district. He believes that any momentum to defeat the project could carry over later in a successful lobbying of City Hall to pay for district improvements.

But Lopez counters that city officials are struggling with budget constraints and can’t spare the money to improve Broadway.

Morris Aghaei, a stereo shop owner who has been on the street for 18 months, typifies many. He shrugs when asked about the assessment. “I’ll pay it,” he said. “But truthfully, I may be out of business by December. I can’t afford to keep losing money day after day, day after day.”

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