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Police station with a dark past is up for sale

For sale: One police station in the middle of Los Angeles. Slightly used.

Looking for an office building with bulletproof windows, mirrored interrogation rooms and a big vault? It could be yours for just $4.5 million. The seller is motivated.

The two-story structure west of downtown is also rather notorious. Among its previous occupants were members of the Los Angeles Police Department’s anti-gang CRASH unit (short for Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), who were accused of running a rogue operation that framed suspects, administered beatings, stole drugs and committed other crimes.

A few officers were fired after investigations, and former policeman Rafael Perez went to prison for stealing cocaine from an evidence locker.

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Now the former station’s longtime private owners would like to let go of it because tenants like the LAPD are hard to come by in the depressed real estate market and an empty office gathers no rent. Perhaps another institution will buy it, they hope.

For most of its existence, the white building at the intersection of 3rd Street and Union Avenue was an outpost of civility in an indisputably rough part of town.

The Rampart Division station a few blocks away was long regarded as one of the toughest assignments in the LAPD, where officers faced a crush of felonies in a neighborhood plagued by poverty and gangs.

“There was a time when Rampart’s murder rate led the city,” department spokesman John Romero said. “It’s a night-and-day difference now.”

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Today the neighborhood is in transition. Across Union Avenue from the vacant police station, a mini-mall is under construction. A hefty, architecturally flashy senior apartment complex is on the other side of 3rd Street. A few blocks to the east is the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, an attractive $160-million public high school that opened three years ago.

Other nearby landmarks include Good Samaritan Hospital and Original Tommy’s World Famous Hamburgers, a 62-year-old drive-in restaurant that has served chili-laden fare to generations of Angelenos.

But fear of crime is still starkly evident in the black 6-foot iron fences that seem to surround nearly every piece of property, including the vast parking lot of the nearby Liborio supermarket. Much of the foreboding fencing sprung up shortly after the central city endured lawlessness, looting and arson during the riots of 1992.

By then, the original occupant of the building, the Los Angeles Federal Credit Union, had had about enough. The credit union built the 19,300-square-foot structure in 1965. At that time the once-upscale Westlake neighborhood near MacArthur Park had already gone downhill as streetcar lines serving the area were closed and white residents abandoned much of central Los Angeles for the suburbs.

Still, in the mid-1960s, the Westlake district was in the path of urban renewal planned by city officials. The decision by the credit union to erect a building there was an act of good citizenship and a bet on better things to come, said President Steven McDiffett.

“L.A. city redevelopment was going to move westward and it would be a wonderful area at some point in the future,” McDiffett said. Mayor Sam Yorty came to celebrate the opening of the credit union, which would serve the financial needs of city employees.

The concrete building had an optimistic mid-century look, with floor-to-ceiling windows facing 3rd Street, glass bricks and barrel-shaped design features on the roofline. Inside was a curving marble staircase leading to the main offices on the top floor.

But signs of rebirth in the area were delayed for decades, and the densely occupied neighborhood grew more unsavory. In the 1980s, credit union employees were held at gunpoint in takeover robberies three times in one year, said McDiffett, who ran the operation then from the corner executive suite.

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The addition of plexiglass barriers in the public banking area stopped the robberies, but by the 1990s the credit union was growing, fed up and ready to go, McDiffett said.

“The building served us very well but it was not the ideal neighborhood for a financial institution. It was deteriorating,” he said. Yet, he acknowledged, “We’d probably still be there if we hadn’t outgrown it.”

The credit union sold the building to Dan Williams and other investors, who soon negotiated a deal with the LAPD to move in. The police had outgrown the Rampart station and needed more room. With some additional fortification that included walling over the windows on 3rd Street, detectives from Burglary, Robbery and Homicide, among others, set up shop in 1995.

Lt. Joe Losorelli, who occupied McDiffett’s former office as the commanding officer, described the building as “not a bad place to work. The only problem was the separation of the police station and the detective squad,” he said.

Then came the Proposition Q public safety bond program approved by voters in 2002, which funded construction of a new Rampart station on 6th Street that opened last year. “I’m much happier here,” Losorelli said.

With the police gone, owner Williams decided to sell. The ex-real estate broker, former surfing coach and current part-time dock worker and restaurateur hopes to find a buyer who wants to move in instead of rent it to someone else. “It’s really suited for an owner-user. It could be a school or a church.”

The commercial real estate market is so rough right now, it makes more sense to try to find a buyer than another tenant, explained Williams’ broker, Mike Dunn of Dunn Property Group.

Rents are fairly low in competing buildings downtown and in Mid-Wilshire, which puts Westlake-area properties at a competitive disadvantage, Dunn said. And if the owner was able to find a tenant, he would have to spend a substantial amount of money turning the building from a police station back into an ordinary office before collecting any rent.

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“We’re better off just to sell,” Dunn said.

And the one-way glass comes at no extra charge.

roger.vincent@latimes.com


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