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MTA project drives out longtime tenants

When Jose Martin signed a lease with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to place his masonry business in Canoga Park, he was informed that he might have to move if the agency ever decided to develop the land on Canoga Avenue.

“We were told it could happen someday in the distant future, with a big question mark,” said Martin, whose MasonryClub sells a variety of natural stone products, boulders and cobble. “Because some businesses have been here for 40, 50 years, we were hoping that possibly it just wouldn’t materialize.”

Fifteen years later, that day has finally arrived.

Martin’s masonry business is among 86 firms along the east side of the Canoga Park industrial corridor that were recently notified they would have to relocate to make way for a four-mile extension of the MTA’s Orange Line busway.

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The busway will use an existing right of way along Canoga Avenue from Warner Center to the Chatsworth Metrolink station.

The $223-million project is due to break ground next month with the construction of a bus bridge and parking lot, said Hitesh Patel, the MTA’s director of construction management. Building in the areas where the businesses are located would begin early next year.

“It’s going to have a terrific impact,” said MTA spokesman David Sotero. “It will provide important linkage with the much larger interurban rail system in L.A. County.”

Sixty-one of the merchants that would be affected by the relocation have leases for businesses such as storage facilities, building material and landscaping products. Most of the 25 remaining business are billboard companies, MTA officials said, underscoring that all the tenants have known for months about their need to relocate.

Thirteen business owners had signed long-term leases before the MTA took complete ownership of the Canoga Avenue right of way in 1992, Sotero said. The MTA will help these business owners find new locations and cover some of their moving expenses, said Velma Marshall, an MTA executive.

The business owners who signed leases with the MTA were not entitled to any financial compensation or special benefits because their contracts stipulated that the transit agency might eventually develop the land, Sotero said. Even so, these businesses have been given 90 days to move, as opposed to the required 30 days’ notice, Sotero added. And Marshall confirmed that “all of them can get relocation referral and advisory services.”

This is little comfort to business owners who must move.

“This couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Martin, who worried that his masonry yard, which generates $3 million to $4 million a year in sales, would have to shut down if he failed to find a new venue large enough to house his products. “What the economy wasn’t able to do, the MTA will do,” Martin said.

Bob Jacobi, owner of Jacobi Building Materials, a family operation on Canoga Avenue that has been in business since 1959, is upset that the MTA wants to encroach onto 24 feet of his property -- an area he uses to store inventory that includes colorful slates, bricks and 70 types of ground cover.

“We need land for most of the products that we sell,” Jacobi said as he gave a reporter a tour of the yard. “We can’t put everything in a building.”

Having less to sell would result in fewer customers and vendors, Jacobi said.

“The way the economy is right now . . . if they take [the land] they want, it will be just a slow death,” he added.

Steve Fawcett, co-owner of Fire Rock of California, near Canoga Avenue and Sherman Way, said he was determined to keep his business alive, “but the question is where.”

Fawcett worried that his 12 employees might not be able to handle a move or be forced to look for new work if he had to shut down his business, which makes and installs volcanic pumice stone fireplaces.

“You would think they would be trying to support the businesses that are trying to survive right now instead of trying to wipe them out,” Fawcett said of the MTA’s eviction plan. “It’s like kicking you when you’re down.”

Bill Galvin, Fawcett’s father-in-law, who owns Galvin Painting, worried over the pending loss of a parking lot at Canoga and Deering avenues that he uses to store surplus inventory.

“The biggest problem is getting rid of all that paint,” said Galvin, who has been based at the location for 15 years. “There’s paint for days out there. No matter what, it’s going to be costly.”

Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis P. Zine, whose 3rd District includes Canoga Park, said he would work with the business owners who must relocate to ensure that they land on their feet.

But he insisted the busway extension would help ease traffic on freeways and area roadways. It would also ensure the cleanup of parts of the Canoga industrial area that have “turned into a junkyard,” Zine said.

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ann.simmons@latimes.com


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