INGLEWOOD — Downtown business activity practically came to a halt for a few hours this week as about 70 merchants closed their shops and picketed a city-owned parking lot in a last-ditch effort to stop construction of an office complex on the site.
"I never thought I'd be fighting to save a parking lot," said Jack Le Van who owns a building at the corner of Market and Queen streets. He said the trend in the Los Angeles area is to replace buildings with parking lots and structures, not the other way around.
The merchants, carrying signs with slogans such as "Give Us Parking or Give Us Death," marched in a circle on the lot at Queen and La Brea Avenue, where construction of the five-story, 61,000-square-foot La Brea Place office building is expected to begin in about two weeks.
Eliminate 80 Spaces
The project, which is part of the city's In-Town Redevelopment Program, will eliminate about 80 metered parking spaces and take another 120 spaces in a city parking structure a block away.
"We can't afford to lose these parking spaces," said Le Van, who has spoken out against the project at several City Council meetings. "The city is just making it easy for the customers to look somewhere else to shop. This could kill downtown."
Although the city has not completed its sale of the $480,000 site, officials say they do not plan to postpone the project. They say the office complex will help downtown business by bringing more people into the area.
"This project is creating a new pool of people who are going to be shopping and eating in the downtown area each day," said Deputy City Manager Lew Pond. "The businesses can't help but profit from this project."
The protesters, most of whom own or work in businesses along Market Street, painted a bleaker picture Tuesday morning, saying the metered spaces accommodate 500 to 800 customers a day. They said business is already slow because of a parking shortage.
"So maybe some of those employees will buy something here now and then. Those sales do not make up for the sales we will lose if our customers can't find a place to park," said Hyun Kim, chairman of the Inglewood Merchant's Assn. and owner of the Inglewood Discount Department Store adjacent to the parking lot.
"So many customers complain. I have people tell me that they shop at the Fox Hills Mall or the Hawthorne Mall because they can never find a place to park near here," Kim said.
Alice Hicks, an Inglewood resident who was buying tennis shoes at a store near the demonstration, said she likes to support local businesses but usually prefers shopping in malls because it's easier to park.
"Downtown Inglewood is nice and all, but parking is such a hassle, especially on the weekends," Hicks said.
A study conducted in May by Loyola Marymount University's College of Business Administration found that most Inglewood residents said they would shop downtown more often if more parking were available.
Kim, who offered to buy the site from the city's redevelopment agency and build a parking garage, said the City Council dealt a "deadly blow" to downtown business by opting for a large office complex with little on-site parking.
The complex will provide roughly 90 parking spaces for primary tenants only. KDG Development, which will build the complex in a joint venture with Broadway Federal Savings & Loan, has leased about 120 spaces at the city parking structure on Locust Street about a block from the site.
City officials are also encouraging motorists who would normally use metered parking at the construction site to use the Locust Street garage, which provides two hours of free parking. Officials say the garage is rarely filled and could accommodate the customers who would normally use the La Brea lot.
But merchants say the Locust Street garage is too far from most businesses.
"People around here are used to shopping at little malls where they park right in front of the store they are going to shop at," Le Van said. "There are not enough meters for customers to park in front of the stores, and if you have to have customers park two, three or four blocks away you start to lose them."
Indeed, the metered lot was full Tuesday morning but only the first floor of the four-level garage was filled.
Deputy City Manager Norman Cravens said he is organizing a shoppers' shuttle bus that will travel back and forth between the ramp and Market Street businesses beginning in mid-November.
"I don't think these merchants realize that the city is really trying to help their businesses," Cravens said.
Some merchants said customers might avoid the Locust Street garage because of reports of purse snatchings and muggings there.
"People are just plain afraid of that parking ramp," said Elene Seals, who owns the Leather Goods and Accessories store on Manchester Avenue. "The city is going to have to do a whole lot to convince people to use that ramp."
City officials are trying to make the garage more desirable and accessible by adding additional lights, security guards and an entrance from Market Street. Most of the parking spaces on the upper levels of the four-story ramp are rarely used, officials said.
"There is no parking problem in downtown Inglewood," Pond said. "The problem is that customers are not using existing parking (in the Locust Street garage) and merchants and their employees are taking up a lot of the metered spaces."
At the city's urging, the Inglewood-Airport Chamber of Commerce is sending a letter to all downtown businesses discouraging employees from using metered parking. Chamber officials, who are staying out of the dispute, said merchants and employee parking at meters aggravates the problem.
Most of the merchants who were picketing Tuesday said they will post signs on their businesses directing customers to the Locust Street garage.