CARSON — If a swap meet is inside, is it still a swap meet? Or is it a covered mall?
The question is not a hair-splitting matter here, where voters in 1983 repealed an ordinance permitting swap meets after opponents claimed they were eyesores. The issue also has figured prominently in City Council elections.
In the current swap meet affair, $150,000 and a possible lawsuit are at stake.
Meet James C. Yu and his Try-It In-Door Mini-Mart.
Located on Avalon Boulevard between 223rd Street and Sepulveda Boulevard, the mini-mart and its problems have occupied hours of city officials' time and led to a tougher ordinance against swap meets that was adopted as an urgency measure in November.
The building itself is an unassuming structure, 76 feet 6 inches by 200 feet. Inside, multiple tenants sell their wares.
Before spending what he estimated as $150,000 in remodeling and legal fees, Yu checked with city officials to see whether what he wanted to do was legal.
"From the very beginning when this whole project started, we told them that this looked like a swap meet," said Adolfo Reyes, redevelopment project manager.
The ordinance in effect defined swap meets as a "business conducted for the purpose of selling new or used merchandise in a drive-in theater or other location not primarily devoted to such use on a daily basis." It did not mention swap meets held inside a building.
Yu was all set to open the Try-It In-Door Mini-Mart when an ad printed in the Daily Breeze on Sept. 4 announced the mini-mart's opening day as an "Indoor Swap Meet." The ad was supposed to have read "Quality at Swap Meet Prices," a mistake the newspaper acknowledged in a letter to Yu.
Nevertheless, city officials saw the advertisement, went to the mini-mart and immediately shut down the facility pending a review of the establishment.
While at the site, community development officials said they found that only one of approximately 30 tenants had a business license to operate, and that Yu and his tenants did not follow the restrictions regarding covered malls.
For example, the officials discovered that the aisles between businesses were not 30 feet wide, as specified in the city's covered mall standards. The aisles are 10 feet wide at the entrance and 8 feet wide inside the building.
City officials also cited covered mall regulations prohibiting folding tables or peg walls that were in use.
Yu, 49, said he was misled from the beginning, especially when he displayed the floor plans to community development officials and was given permission to begin the operation. He said that if he was in violation of the covered mall regulations, city officials should have pointed that out when they saw his architectural plans rather than give him permission to operate.
He said he believed he was abiding by all the city's regulations. He admitted that other merchants did not have business licenses but they all have filed applications.
Asked why Yu wasn't told that his plans violated the covered mall ordinance, Reyes said, "You don't cite every single issue that comes up."
Patricia Nemeth, community development director, said Yu and the owners were in clear violation of the covered mall policy and that the tenants should have known that they could not open for business without a state sales permit or a city business license.
"I think they fully intended to have a swap meet," Nemeth asserted. "When I had the conversation with the owner of the property I told the owner that they would have to meet the requirements of a covered mall."
The property's owners, Hal L. Coskey and his wife, Rhea, could not be reached for comment.
On Nov. 3, the City Council adopted an urgency ordinance to tighten the swap meet law. In addition to drive-in theaters, the new ordinance now bars swap meets in parking lots or "common room or rooms" where two or more tenants conduct business.
City officials, conceding that Yu was technically not in violation of the previous swap meet ordinance, have granted him permission to remain open for 20 months to recover all expenses.
The matter is unlikely to rest there.
Yu argues that 20 months will not be enough time because the city ordered him to perform additional remodeling that cost $32,000 before he re-opened.
"It's really a joke," said Yu, who works as a wood decorator. "It would be impossible for me to make that money in 20 months."
Reyes said Yu can come before the City Council to request an extension if he cannot recoup his expenses.
The Coskeys have their own complaint--because they issued Yu a five-year lease for $450,000 that the city's action affects. Their attorney, James G. Rourke, indicated that a lawsuit filed against the city is inevitable.
"Mr. Yu was clearly operating under a legal activity," Rourke said. "He made all the remodeling that he was supposed to do. He got all the building permits, and he started his business.
"They were really on his back."
A public hearing before the council is scheduled for Monday.