LONG BEACH — Eleanor Smith, 93, shifted nervously in her rocking chair, while half a world away a giant Japanese firm approved plans for the city's next major hotel.
"Lord only knows where I'll go," said the thin, white-haired woman, who lives on the site of the proposed Sheraton Hotel. "Where is there a place for me?"
City Redevelopment Agency appraisers had been to her neat studio in the Watson Apartments a few days before, measuring rooms and taking notes, said Smith, a Long Beach resident since 1908.
"Two boys came in and I talked with one, but he really didn't tell me anything," she said. "I've always been independent, but I'm practically blind, and now I've come to this."
Eleanor Smith's anxiety is shared by dozens of other residents and shopkeepers who live and work on a square block across Ocean Boulevard from the Convention Center and smack in the middle of the 421-acre downtown redevelopment zone.
Jewelers, tailors, weavers and barbers. Coin shops, thrift stores, cafes and girlie shows. The Sheraton block and its people are the Redevelopment Agency's latest venture in the difficult business of eviction and resettlement, demolition and reconstruction.
The agency, which has displaced 268 businesses and about 1,000 residents since 1975 in a billion-dollar redevelopment, is now taking its first steps in a yearlong process that could lead to the Sheraton's construction next spring.
Already there is fear of the unknown, said Harry Ladas, longtime director of the agency's relocation efforts.
"What we have now is an understandable anxiety about what is going to happen and how soon," he said.
Long Aware of Prospect
Renters and owners on the Sheraton block have known for a long time that their buildings would be razed as soon as a developer with big plans and a hefty bank account could be found. Since 1982, Newport Beach businessman Stanley Cohen has been that developer.
Securing extension after extension from the Redevelopment Agency, Cohen has sought financing for a 500-room Sheraton to be joined by an atrium with a 24-story office tower.
Cohen, co-developer of the nearby Crocker Plaza office building, has now found a partner in North American Taisei Corp., a subsidiary of Japan's largest engineering, construction and real estate company. Taisei's board of directors on Thursday authorized the signing of a development agreement with the city and a joint-venture contract with Cohen, apparently clearing the way for construction.
The project--bounded by Ocean, Long Beach Boulevard, First Street and Elm Avenue--would cost $125 million and would be the largest so far in downtown Long Beach. Its expected completion date is 1988.
Roger Anderman, redevelopment officer, said the city supports the Sheraton project. "We aren't aware of any hurdles (left)," he said. "The major hurdle has been financial and (gaining) the involvement of Taisei."
If all goes smoothly, the City Council and Redevelopment Agency will vote jointly on the project by early July, officials said. As the approval process has moved forward in recent days, those of the Sheraton block, their curiosity piqued by the presence of city appraisers, were anxious for the latest word.
Eager for information, half a dozen First Street shop owners emptied onto a sidewalk Tuesday morning to join a conversation about their probable relocation.
J. W. Hinton, a barber since 1941 who still charges $1.75 for a haircut, wondered if he might squeeze in another two years before retirement.
Can't Match Low Rents
Graphics designer Joyce Hutter and television repairman Curtis Harry said there is no way they can match the $100 and $125 monthly rents they now pay. At a corner dry cleaners, proprietor Linda Cho, a Korean immigrant and divorced mother of two boys, said, "Across the street they want $850 a month. Here I pay $150, so I'm very upset. Most of my customers are from Edison Building. I make good living, sure, but now I'm worried. I don't know, sir, where I go, sir."
Tenants in nine stores and four apartments need the cheap rents of her 1933-vintage building, said owner Marge LaBranch. "This is where the little people start small. But if the city wants this building, they'll take it."
But not all who inhabit the block are upset by the prospect of new construction. Christian Kear, proprietor for 27 years of a luxury gift shop now sandwiched between two Spanish-language movie houses, said, "I'm for getting this all cleaned up, and if the new hotel needs an elegant gift shop, I have the experience."
If the hotel is approved as expected this summer, Eleanor Smith, Marge LaBranch and their neighbors will begin hearing from redevelopment officials who will explain relocation benefits. In all, 21 business owners--including operators of the historic Fox West Coast Theater and the residents of 72 apartments in the LaBranch rentals, Watson Apartments and the Biltmore Hotel--will be contacted.