Melrose Avenue merchants have failed to convince Los Angeles school officials to evict the West Hollywood fair from Fairfax High School, but operators of the popular flea market say a rent increase may drive them out anyway.
The merchants said the market brings unfair competition to the neighborhood on land that could be better used for parking.
The Board of Education on Monday decided not to evict the fair, which takes place on the second and fourth weekends of every month in the high school parking lot. Instead, the board increased the monthly rent for the lot from $880 to $4,860, which fair operators said is almost as bad.
People Who Care Inc., a Los Angeles nonprofit organization, opened the fair a little more than a year ago to raise money to establish a senior citizens center in West Hollywood, according to Bill Moyle, assistant director.
He said the fair will be open this weekend "but it's questionable if we can stay open after that."
People Who Care takes in $20 a day from each of about 70 vendors who sell new and used items. The organization's $1,400 take will barely cover the new daily rent of $1,215, Moyle said.
School district officials said the higher rent is appropriate for a commercial venture. They promised to consider a lower rent if People Who Care representatives can prove that they are using fair money for the causes that they claim.
Moyle said the group's plans to open a senior citizens center will be hurt by the higher rent. He said People Who Care had just broken into the black. "They are hitting us at a time when we had built up the fair to the point where it was considered a success," Moyle said. "This Christmas would have covered our expenses and given us money to (go toward) opening the center."
Papers verifying People Who Care's nonprofit status and financial standing will be given to the school district next week, Moyle said. He said he hopes rent for the parking lot, at Melrose and Fairfax avenues, will be lowered soon after that.
Fair Arouses Displeasure
Some merchants along Melrose Avenue and Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky said they do not want the flea market in the neighborhood.
"I would like to not have them there at all," said Melrose shop owner Renee Schuster. "But at least some action was taken by the school board."
Schuster said the fair is a profit-making venture that does not return as much to the community in taxes as permanent businesses. Because they do not have to pay the high rents along Melrose Avenue and other overhead, outdoor vendors create unfair competition for merchants, she said.
"It's totally unfair business competition," Schuster said. "I'm a merchant who is struggling to pay my rent every month. I need to do everything that I can to see that I survive."
She said walk-in customer traffic is reduced "drastically" every time the fair opens at the high school, eight blocks west of her Melrose Avenue gift shop.
About 50 merchants, many of them members of the Melrose Merchants Assn., sent a petition to Yaroslavsky earlier this year asking that the fair be closed.
The councilman said that he would prefer to see the lot used for parking.
"The only beef the school district had apparently was that they were not collecting enough rent," Yaroslavsky said. "But what I'm trying to do is maximize the public benefit on that property."
He said the city and school district are just beginning work on a 57-space parking lot on another part of the Fairfax campus. The city and school district will split the parking money once the $260,000 project is complete.
Yaroslavsky said he would like to see a similar venture on the lot where the swap meet is held.
"One would think that the school board would be sensitive to what the city and community want in that area," he said. The city cannot enforce zoning regulations on school property, Yaroslavsky said. If it could, the commercial use would not be permitted, he said.
The councilman said the school district should consider more than just parking lot revenues. "I don't like school district officials posturing as if they are just another entrepreneur in the community," he said. "They are not just another entrepreneur."
But school district realty agent Joan Friedman said the state education code allows school districts to rent their facilities to for-profit and nonprofit groups. "We do that all the time," Friedman said. "We want to make the schools available to the community for whatever purpose."
Fair operator Moyle said more people benefit from the fair than would if the lot were used for parking.
"We have hundreds of people in the community who are supporting the fair," he said. "Senior citizens come here to socialize and get out of their homes. They can afford to shop here."
He insisted that, instead of acting as competition for local merchants, the fair actually brings shoppers into the area. "We bring in people who would not be here otherwise," he said.
Moyle said the fair celebrated its first anniversary last month. To remain open for another year, he said, it will almost certainly need to pay a lower rent.