CUDAHY — It's risky enough to kick a blind man out of his house. But what city government would be so daring as to consider condemning the home not only of a blind man but also of a church, all to make room for a shopping center?
Welcome to Cudahy, a mile-square municipality of 19,700 predominantly Latino residents, a third of whom live below the poverty line amid an urban mishmash of tired buildings that cry for redevelopment.
Indeed, redevelopment has had the Cudahy City Council hard at work for the past two years, fashioning plans to help a private company build a $13-million shopping center at Florence and Atlantic avenues--a busy intersection where the city borders its northern neighbor, Bell.
Plans call for construction of a stylish 83,000-square-foot complex of retail shops and restaurants, anchored by a supermarket to be operated by an affiliate of Vons grocery stores.
"It's really good for the community," development company executive Roger A. Mohrhoff said last week. "It creates 350 jobs, we bring something new to a blighted area" and revenue is added to the city's meager tax base.
Trouble is, the plans don't call for Ted Burkett or the house and used car business he has owned on one corner of the site since 1973. Neither do they call for the nearby Bell Church of God, for a quarter-century a spiritual haven to about 300 worshipers.
Formal Offers in the Mail
So last week, the City Council--acting as the Cudahy Redevelopment Agency--mailed formal offers to buy out Burkett, the church and the 11 other property owners on the 7.7 acres known as Parcel A.
Burkett and church officials say they long ago made it clear that under no circumstances would they sell. For his part, Burkett doesn't want to give up the only livelihood he has known since losing his sight to diabetes three years ago; and he says the city can't pay him enough to compensate for the hours spent learning to move through the halls of his house without endangering himself.
Now, the 56-year-old businessman says city officials seem on the verge of simply taking his property through condemnation proceedings. And city officials reluctantly admit that he may be right.
"With what I'd be losing," Burkett said last week, "I tell you what, I think I'd just die, I need it so bad.
"I need to go with my wife when she bids on (used) cars. . . . It gives me adrenaline, it gives me something to live for, it gives me a goal in life. And what they want to take away is all that."
Burkett emphasized that "I'm not against progress, I want to be part of it." However, he contends that city officials "don't want me to be part of it" and have repeatedly stymied his own plans to improve his land. "This is my property, it's my family's property. We ought to be able to do something with it. We're Americans."
Public Relations Blunder
City Councilman John Robertson says the city never tried to stand in Burkett's way, but he agrees that the saga of Parcel A has been a public relations blunder. However, if it comes down to having to use the city's power of eminent domain to take the land, the councilman says, officials will "have no choice." If the city calls off the shopping center now, he says, the developers could file a multimillion-dollar lawsuit--and probably win.
"It is not a happy situation from my viewpoint," Robertson said. In their race to restore the decaying Parcel A, the councilman believes, city officials forgot to look where they were going.
The drive to improve Cudahy's lucrative Atlantic Avenue corridor dates back to 1983, according to Richard Tillberg, the city's redevelopment director. Officials first sent out 150 inquiries seeking proposals for a central-city site along Atlantic. But of the 10 developers who responded, only one--J.R. Evans Co. Inc.--seemed able to provide what officials wanted most: a major chain grocery. On closer study, however, Tillberg said experts decided that customer traffic in the central city wouldn't support a major store.
Since a Boys' Market already was located on the Cudahy side of busy Florence and Atlantic, on what is now Parcel A, the negotiations with Evans fell through.
In the summer of 1984, however, the Boys' Market closed, leaving Cudahy without a single supermarket. So city officials gave Evans exclusive rights to put a shopping center there. Evans turned to a former employer, Downey Savings & Loan Assn., for financial assistance and eventually handed over the detail work to the Costa Mesa institution's real estate subsidiary, DSL Service Co.
The city planned to buy the property from the 13 separate owners and sell it back to DSL for about $2 million less as a development incentive. To further help the company, Tillberg said, the city also agreed to obtain a $1.5-million federal grant and issue $7.6 million in industrial development bonds.
Unaware of Fine Print