August 30, 1996 - From the August, 1996 issue

Commerce & Homelessness Meet Uneasily on Los Angeles St.

The future of Los Angeles St., which runs through the eastern side of downtown Los Angeles, is in many ways the ultimate test of the Civic Center’s health. The Garment District, Toy District, Flower District, and Los Angeles’ largest concentration of homeless are all situated along a two mile stretch through downtown. 

TPR is pleased to present a public/private panel discussion on the problems, solutions and future of this namesake street.Charles Woo is the owner of MegaToys, located in the Toy District; Tracey Lovejoy is Executive Director for the Central City East Association; Stanley Hirsh is an area property owner in the area and past Chair of the Community Redevelopment Agency; and Sergeants Chuck Mealey and Paula Kreefft represent the Los Angeles Police Department and patrol the area around Los Angeles Street.


Stanley Hirsh: “This street is absolutely critical to the image of all of downtown… It is what the people pick up on—what they see with their eyes when they are driving on the street.”

Sergeant Mealey, begin our roundtable discussion with a description of the urban issues associated with Downtown's Los Angeles Street. What does the LAPD confront when patrolling and servicing this corridor?

Sergeant Chuck Mealey, LAPD: Los Angeles St. is a kind of transition area from the eastside where the homeless and missions are predominately located, and the westside where you tend to have less of a transient population. It is a buffer zone and we are always working on improving it. I have been here since 1981 and overall the eastside area has improved tremendously. The area used to be nothing more than plasma banks and blood banks and it has since been turned into a toy district. 

We work on several problems. We still have street robberies, primarily at night. The robberies usually involve transient against transient. We still have narcotic sales in different locations in the district and Los Angeles St. is no different than other areas. We are working on the narcotics problem in an aggressive way.

Probably the thing that bothers most business people down here are the nuisance-type crimes. We see people sleeping in parking lots; people trying to wash your windows; the drunks, the transients, and the beggars. We see people trying to sell you $2 jewelry for $50, and people playing three-card monte. 

This is what gives the citizens and visitors a feeling of uneasiness. We are trying to work as hard as we can on those quality-of-life type crimes. We have a detail that starts around 4:00 a.m. that consists of four officers and a sergeant. They are dedicated to the area including L.A. St. East. Their primary responsibility is dealing with the homeless problems and working with the missions and establishing liaisons with all the service providers. 

It is a tough problem. The police department is not going to solve it. It looks better than it did a few years ago, but it is still one of our most difficult problems—both legally and in terms of the feelings of the community.

Paula Kreefft: During the day you have a mix of business people, consumers, and the homeless people. During the nighttime hours there is no one but the homeless people. 

Charlie, as a business owner in Central City East and as the Chair of the Central City East Association (CCEA), and Tracey, speaking as CCEA's Executive Director, what would you add to the LAPD's observations of Los Angeles Street? 

Tracey Lovejoy: For the Central City East Association the issue has always been the homeless encampments which tend to be congregated along San Pedro St. and throughout the area. 

Charles Woo: The general problems every business owner and employee working in proximity to Los Angeles Street faces daily are all associated with homelessness, street cleanliness, and security. 

For example, one of the major problems I had was with the Midnight Mission. They allowed people to come out around the Mission's property. It was so irresponsible that I made cleaning up a condition for expansion. How dare they talk about expansion if they cannot keep their existing properties clean.

The Mission's response was to make sure no one stood in front of their store. The homeless just moved across the street. That is typical of the frustration we have in the Central City East area. 

Los Angeles St. is not unique in the Central City East area, except for the fact that it is probably more visible. There is more traffic so the problems are a little more obvious to more people. 

Stanley Hirsh: It is clear that we have an immediate set of problems. I do not hear disagreement on the problem. The question is how we approach the problem, and how the problem is perceived by the larger civic community. We agree that we have a problem. How we solve it creates the disagreement. 

Tracey Lovejoy: The homeless issue is not just a downtown issue. There are homeless people living in the hills of Pacoima and Sun Valley and there are people standing at the freeway exit at San Vicente Blvd. These homeless people were not born here on Skid Row. They come from throughout the County and the United States. This cannot just be a local problem. For example, we have an issue of dealing with veterans on the street. Where is the federal government's responsibility to these veterans? 

Mr. Hirsh, as a property owner/business person in the garment district, and as the former chair of the Redevelopment Agency, you obviously have looked at the impact these conditions have on the development of jobs and the business base along the Los Angeles Street Corridor. How do you see the situation and what can be done? 

Stanley Hirsh: This street as a thoroughfare is absolutely critical to the image of all of downtown. It is not just a street that affects the garment district, the toy district, the flower district, Los Angeles St., or the homeless. It is what the people pick up on—what they see with their eyes when they are driving on the street. The problems on the street in the last six months have been growing, not diminishing. I am greatly concerned.

I have personally started a Business Improvement District (BID). I am the father, the mother, and the uncle of it. I started the California Fashion Association. All of these things were put into place to build a new image and provide a better feeling about renting space downtown, owning space downtown and participating in the tax base. 

We are still dealing with antiquated thinking on how to deal with the situation of homelessness. We are stuck with ACLU issues and all the people who operate businesses that are the tax-free corporate structures and who make a living catering to the homeless. These non-profits are not working with us. They are working for their own best interest. 

The non-profits are also not working with the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) . Most of those who are non-cooperative are business people hiding behind non-profit organizations. They invite, for example, prisoners coming out of prison to use their services as a half-way house to re-enter society. 

We have all types of undesirable situations—rapes and burglaries—in in buildings that do not affect the toy industry. We have situations where a vagrant will walk into a twelve-story building, grab somebody, put a knife to their throat, and it is "Give me your money or your life."

We must turn around the whole image of downtown L.A., and Los Angeles St. in particular. It is a major thoroughfare that connects both freeways into the City. We have a perception problem, and billions of dollars’ worth of advertising will not overcome it. 

Stanley, you mentioned that in the last six months Los Angeles Street has gotten worse. In particular, what has become worse? 

Stanley Hirsh: The population has grown. I go home on that street every night and as I go home the traffic and encampment in front of the Mission's parking lot has grown by six fold. Several food trucks are now appearing every night to feed the homeless. 

We have not either controlled the homeless problem, or made a community decision about how to deal with the problem. Some would question whether it is worth dealing with the problem. I sense the frustration some feel, and some are on the verge of saying: "To hell with it! I am moving out. Take my building for a nickel. I want out."

If the situation gets any worse than it is right now, I will be very concerned. And I will be concerned not just for me, but also as the problem relates to my neighbors and my competitors. If they do not have a better environment, disinvestment will be the obvious result. 

What is going on along Los Angeles Street is not just a local concern, it has to do with the whole City's business/investment environment. If we do not do something about this through the CRA or through the Mayor's Office or with the complete support of the City Council, in consultation with the ACLU and all the other organizations that protect these people (and rightfully so), we are just looking for disaster. The working environment will not improve by itself. 

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The common perception of downtown Los Angeles in the other parts of Los Angeles is that we are still part of what the riot produced three years ago. I'm generalizing now, but the White population no longer wants to work downtown, much less participate in the core of commercial enterprises. 

I do not mean as customers, I mean as employees. Several business owners have moved out. The liquor wholesaler moved out because their employees would not come to work anymore. They moved to Orange County. They loved being in the central core for distribution—it is the perfect place to be; but if you cannot entice well-educated, well-trained employees, who will come to work without fear of being touched or bothered, what is the destiny of our area and our city? 

Tracey Lovejoy: Stan's point needs emphasis. The Mayor has to grab the ring by the hand and make this a Citywide issue for discussion—whether that discussion takes the form of a taskforce or a public debate. We must examine the problem and bring together the City's resources. 

Advocates in South Central are saying that they are not getting enough money in South Central to deal with that community's problems. They suggest that the City is putting all its money into downtown L.A. 

But the issue is much larger than just the eastside of downtown, or South Central Los Angeles. I would love to see this issue be addressed on a much larger scale—the problem is everywhere. 

Many civic leaders, investors and employees in the Central City East area believed that citing the Archdiocese's new cathedral at St. Vibiana's would, with little additional public investment and programs, serve to stimulate reinvestment along Los Angeles Street and help continue to address the concerns expressed already. What are the consequences of not citing the new Cathedral on the St. Vibiana's property?

Stanley Hirsh: If St. Vibiana's doesn't maintain the premises they do maintain now, there is no question that the homeless people will move west. They read the newspaper; they hear what is going on. 

If no one supervises that block during the time it takes to rip it down until somebody decides to redevelop it, the site will be a nuisance. 

Charles Woo: By having an area just west of Los Angeles St. perceived as shut down, it won't take long for homeless people to start going there to hang out. Soon it will be a problem. 

What is the LAPD's attitude about the implications of the cathedral not being on the St. Vibiana's site?

Sergeant Mealey: From what I have seen over the years, the site will likely be turned into a parking lot in the short-term. Generally, the parking lots are well-patrolled and we probably would not have any significant increase in crime as a result of the parking lots. 

However, it is hard to say what might happen. I do not think it would lend itself to a park atmosphere because of the surrounding area. Frankly, I thought that Main St. would clean up a lot faster than it did over the years. But it is difficult to get the business community into the area when they have to deal with the homeless issues.

Elaborate on the potential of St. Vibiana's as the site of the new Cathedral. 

Tracey Lovejoy: It was the ability to be an anchor for development and somehow connect the westside and the eastside of downtown. You basically have this corridor called the historic core that comes between us. No one seems to be able to figure out how to actually deal with this division.

St. Vibiana 's physically and symbolically aligned the westside and the eastside. It is devastating that it is not going to be on Main St. where it has been for so long. The Cathedral's location at least took care of that section between Los Angeles and Main St. 

Charles Woo: The potential positive impact if the Cathedral were sited al St. Vibiana's would come from the visitors. The business community would be excited by the potential visitors and customers. You would see more investment and attention to image.

Changing focus, Tracey, talk about the Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) that the Central City East Association is trying to get started. What your hopes are for it?

Tracey Lovejoy: The Central City East Association is working on two BIDs. We have one in the toy district between Third and Fifth St. and Los Angeles and San Pedro St. which would be directly across from the existing St. Vibiana's site. We also have a larger 36-block BID between Fourth and Eighth St. and San Pedro and Alameda St. which is purely industrial. 

The toy district has more of a retail, commercial element. Basically, we want to impose more cleaning and security in the area. In the toy district we also want to implement a banners program, and a holiday marketing campaign. East of San Pedro St. we expect to spend money on security and cleaning. 

What are the obstacles in starting the BID? 

Tracey Lovejoy: Getting the business owners to believe that the BID will do something is the greatest hurdle. For us the big sell is the homeless issue. 

Businesses feel the City, the County, the state, the federal government has completely ignored and somehow identified this area as the place where homeless are supposed to be. We have a lot of who feel that our implementation of a BID is not going to change that. We keep asking for three years to make it work. The City Council looks at it as more politically expedient for the situation to remain here in a smaller enclave than it is to be in Brentwood, or Van Nuys, or Sherman Oaks, or other places.

Lastly, Stan, you have been down town a long time and you have also chaired the CRA, the agency that is supposed to grapple with these issues. What is the capacity of local government to be a partner in solving these problems? 

Stanley Hirsh: It takes great leadership. The Mayor is going to have to address the subject and create a roundtable of all the business communities. We cannot just make homelessness a central city problem. It is a problem of the greater Los Angeles area. It needs the support of every Councilperson. We have to take the issue out of the political realm of who did a good job and who did not. 

We have got to look at planning the future of downtown Los Angeles. We must resurrect downtown as a place in which you are comfortable and in which you will find a wide variety of merchandise. We must include in this debate the business community, real estate community and retail sales business community—not just the community that exists downtown, but a greater community. It must be just as important to the Mayor's office as adding 3,000 policemen. That commitment would be equally as important a promise to the City, from a tax base point of view, and from a social point or view, as adding the police. 

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