For nearly four years, Won Kim's Arco station and AM-PM Mini Market has sold beer and wine on its corner of Vermont Avenue and El Segundo Boulevard, just inside the Gardena city limits.
Now, Charley Chang's Shell station, just across the street and just across the Los Angeles city boundary, is also planning to sell beer and wine. Chang says the step is vital to his survival in a competitive area.
But the situation has created a storm of protest among area residents, who complain that there are more than 50 liquor outlets--including bars, restaurants and liquor stores--within a two-mile radius of the busy intersection. Residents blame the easy availability of alcohol for contributing to the high crime rate in the largely blue-collar community.
"So many people have gotten robbed you can't believe it," said Chandra Landreaux, whose tree-shaded home in Los Angeles is half a block from the 24-hour Arco station. "There are so many (beer) bottles behind my house you could build a glass house. People hang out over there. . . . If you go over there, you're likely to get mugged."
This year, in a two-block section of Los Angeles across the street from the Arco station, there have been 13 burglaries or thefts from automobiles, 8 street robberies, 5 car thefts, 5 residential burglaries, 3 business burglaries and 2 purse snatchings, according to Los Angeles Police Officer Lyle Young, who is assigned to the area.
Gardena Police Chief Richard Propster said officers have yet to complete crime statistics now being compiled for the Gardena side of the boundary. But he acknowledged there has been a "history of crime problems" near Kim's Arco, which often has been singled out in homeowners' complaints.
A series of robberies and other incidents--including a shooting last April in which an AM-PM store employee was injured--have prompted Gardena officials to begin reviewing the conditional-use permit that allows the station to sell beer and wine. An initial review recently found that Kim's Arco is meeting the conditions of the permit, which does not address crime-prevention measures, City Councilman Mas Fukai said.
That may make it legally difficult to revoke the permit, he said, but the council is scheduled to meet on Aug. 27 to discuss other ways of curtailing crime--perhaps by requiring security guards or by prohibiting patrons from eating, drinking or loitering on the station premises.
Fukai, who voted for the permit four years ago in the face of vocal community opposition, said he no longer thinks the intersection is suited to liquor sales.
"If I had to do it over again, I would not approve the sale of beer or wine there," Fukai said. "It was not a good idea."
Meanwhile, residents are fighting Chang's application for a Los Angeles permit, which is scheduled for a vote by City Council members Aug. 21. So far, Los Angeles officials have been divided in that case. In February, a city hearing examiner recommended denying the permit based on the heavy concentration of liquor outlets in the area and the apparent "pattern of drinking, loitering and violence which already exists around the site."
In the same month, the city's five-member Planning Commission took a different position, concluding that liquor sales would comply with zoning laws and represent a possible convenience for many consumers. To discourage loitering and crime, the commission recommended limiting beer and wine sales to morning and early afternoon hours.
Voted to Oppose
Last week, the City Council's three-member planning committee voted to oppose the permit. Aides for City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the area, said she also would recommend denying the permit when the issue reaches the 15-member council.
Even if the council approves the permit, final approval would have to come from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, according to Ann D'Amato, a Flores aide.
The question now facing elected officials is how far each city should go in dealing with the area's crime problem--a matter that could be handled differently on each side of the boundary. Kim's Arco, with an existing permit, stands a good chance to continue selling beer and wine in Gardena, according to Fukai.
But if the Los Angeles council heeds the recommendations of Flores and its own planning committee, Chang's Shell station will remain unable to sell liquor. That would leave him at a serious competitive disadvantage, perhaps threatening his ability to operate, Chang said.
Sales, Crime Link
At the crux of the issue is whether officials can draw a causative link between liquor sales and crime, according to Gardena Police Chief Propster. "I don't know for a fact that you can establish that," he said.