Preservationists in Eagle Rock Fighting Project

Times Staff Writer

Officials at Walgreens say they know best how to operate a nationwide chain of stores. After all, they point out, customers are attracted to their kind of place -- a big-box store that is usually surrounded by ample parking spaces.

Of its more than 3,900 all-purpose drugstores, only two outlets -- both in California -- have gone out of business in the last 10 years because of a lack of business, they say.

But in Eagle Rock, with the help of the community's Los Angeles councilman, area activists and preservationists are fighting to overturn a city planning decision allowing the construction of a 14,000-square-foot Walgreens at Colorado and Eagle Rock boulevards.

Opponents want to save an old grocery store, slated to be torn down, at the site because the building has links to the community's past.

On Tuesday, the City Council is scheduled to consider a motion by Councilman Nick Pacheco, who wants to reverse the project's 3-1 approval in November by the East Area Planning Commission. Pacheco, a onetime supporter of the Walgreens project, now opposes it because of concerns over the building's design.

"Without clear, persuasive evidence from the developer, I can't support it," the councilman said.

For more than a year, opponents have railed against the project, arguing that the big-box proposal violates the area's so-called specific plan, which requires storefront businesses next to the sidewalks, a design that encourages more pedestrian traffic. The plan was enacted with citizen input with the intent of fostering a small-town feel in Eagle Rock.

The Walgreens proposal is "just a bad project," said Joanne Turner, president of the Eagle Rock Assn., the local homeowners group also known as TERA. "It's not what the [specific plan] intended."

At the same time, opponents want to preserve the old Shopping Bag building at the site, which was the onetime flagship of 38 grocery stores that flourished in the Southland from the mid-1930s to 1961. Built in 1951, the structure is the approximate size of the store that Walgreens wants to build.

Historians note that the Shopping Bag chain was established by two Eagle Rock residents, W.R. Hayden and W.D. Rorex.

During the debate, project proponents have dismissed many of the arguments against the proposed store.

Although historical preservation is a laudable goal, "nothing has changed to alter" the company's refusal to reuse the old structure, which was an auto repair shop in the 1990s, said Walgreens spokesman Michael Polzin.

The Deerfield, Ill.-based company also ruled out using the Shopping Bag structure because the firm says the building is too close to the sidewalk. Plans call for the proposed Walgreens to be set back from the intersection, surrounded on at least two sides by about 60 parking spaces.

But Pacheco says the company plans a far different configuration for a proposed Walgreens in Hollywood at Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue. The chain wants to build a 12,000-square-foot store, part of which would be next to the sidewalk on Sunset -- the very layout Walgreens says won't work in Eagle Rock.

"They were able to accomplish it" in Hollywood "when Eagle Rock has been asking for the same thing," Pacheco said. "I feel like I have been deceived by Walgreens."

Representatives of the Eagle Rock project's developer, Rich Development Co. of San Pedro, did not respond to several requests seeking comment.

Walgreens spokesman Polzin could not specifically address Pacheco's concerns but said each outlet is different because "each store location is unique." He added, "We'll lay out a store based on that particular situation."

Regarding the desire to save the Shopping Bag building, Polzin said the company is willing to preserve a historic structure if the firm can also meet its obligations to its customers. But city officials last year refused to extend historic status to the building.

Just last year, Walgreens officials said, the company agreed to preserve a landmark Firestone store slated for demolition in Miami's Little Havana district in order to make way for a new store.

Later, it was learned that the Miami structure, although a local landmark, was not listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Walgreens preserved the building anyway.

The historical aspect in the debate resonates for many members of the Eagle Rock Assn. and others in the northeast Los Angeles area.

A key moment in the development of the community's preservation movement occurred in 1986 when activist Kathleen Aberman climbed atop a treasured two-story Colorado Boulevard building -- slated for demolition to make way for a mini-mall -- seeking to save the structure.

She was promptly hauled off to jail, but her actions helped spark the formation of the Eagle Rock Assn. And she joined the group as a founding member.

Noting the current situation, Turner, president of the group, hints that that brand of activism is still alive in Eagle Rock. "TERA never gives up," she said.

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