Tunnel of Woe : Metro Rail Already Disrupting Lives of Some on Proposed Route

December 18, 1985|RICH CONNELL | Times Staff Writer

Despite all that has been written and said about and spent on the Los Angeles Metro Rail project, the subway system envisioned to rumble under city streets has remained largely an idea, trapped in studies and drawings and the imaginations of its proponents.

But for a group of small business owners and low-income residents near MacArthur Park, the huge, still-uncertain project leaped off the drawing boards and into their lives nearly a year ago. There, the Southern California Rapid Transit District, which hopes to build and operate the $3.3-billion commuter rail line, has been condemning property and relocating tenants to make way for a station at the western end of the first 4.4-mile segment of the line.

Under its eminent domain power, the transit agency obtained a court order months ago giving it control of needed properties as part of pre-construction activities already approved and financed by the federal government, RTD officials said.

Among those who will be pushed aside--Metro Rail or no Metro Rail--is Chan Oh, who for five years has run a family-owned takeout restaurant across Alvarado Street from the park. "I really don't like it," he said. "I don't know if we'll find (another) place like this. It's very good."

Chan has wanted to replace a vandalized $1,000 awning in front of his shop. But he has been hesitant, he said, because RTD has not said how long he can continue doing business there. "I really worry about this problem. . . . I don't know what to do," he said.

'It's Been Frustrating'

Scott Damschroder, who has owned a men's clothing store on the block for 14 years, said that not knowing how long he will be able to stay has made it difficult to order stock.

"It's been frustrating. . . . We have no date. We don't know because they don't know," Damschroder said, adding that he watches the newspaper each day for news of the subway. "It goes into your life style. . . . It's the uncertainty of it."

As key congressional financing decisions approach and the prospects of beginning construction appear to be increasing, the RTD in the last several months has stepped up efforts to clear the path for the first stretch of the subway, acquiring parcels and easements at dozens of places where the route veers outside of the right-of-way of city streets.

So far, the greatest disruption has been for businesses and residents along Alvarado Street between Wilshire Boulevard and 7th Street, where a large chunk of a busy Latino shopping strip is to be torn out and replaced with a station entrance and bus loading area. In all, 41 merchants and families are being moved.

Tenants of a dilapidated 24-unit apartment building, as well as a few businesses, already have been relocated. But many small businesses--like those of Chan and Damschroder--are remaining on month-to-month leases until the RTD orders them to leave.

In the meantime, the see-saw Washington legislative battle over the project--which only a few months ago was staggering in the face of strong Reagan Administration opposition--has left many of the Alvarado Street merchants confused. The RTD originally ordered the businesses out last July, but, as federal financing decisions for the project dragged out, the deadline was extended.

House and Senate agreement on a $370-billion omnibus 1986 spending bill that included start-up funding for construction of Metro Rail came unraveled late Monday in disputes over the level of defense spending and congressional pay raises. Tuesday night, House and Senate conferees were returning to the negotiating table and some congressional sources said there might be renewed attempts to reduce funds for new mass transit projects, which the Reagan Administration strongly opposes.

Whatever uncertainties existed about RTD's plan along Alvarado, an RTD official said the agency will move ahead with relocations in the next two months so demolition of existing buildings can begin quickly, if and when construction approval is received.

"We need to conclude it and wrap it up," said Henry Cord, who heads the RTD's real estate section. Under state and federal regulations, the RTD is providing financial assistance to relocate businesses and residents. In general, the agency has been relying on the business owners to look for new shops, though several said they have no idea where they will go.

Most of the property owners and merchants are still negotiating with the RTD for damages. Some are bitter.

"They ain't worth a damn as far as I'm concerned," said Eloy Rivera, a shoe store owner who recently moved his shop to East Los Angeles. He said his business is off sharply and he is struggling to cover his overhead, despite about $34,000 in relocation and fixture replacement assistance that the RTD gave him. "They don't even know if they are going to go through with Metro Rail," he said.

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