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THE CHANGING FACE OF DOWNTOWN : Government Money Becomes Urban Lifeblood : Innovation and Optimism Thrive on Public Funds in Inglewood, San Pedro

January 04, 1987|DEAN MURPHY and MICHELE L. NORRIS | Times Staff Writers

Three years ago, vacancy rates in downtown San Pedro topped 50% and dozens of storefronts had deteriorated into revolving doors for failed businesses.

"Buildings all over were being boarded up," one property owner recalled. "Everyone was really feeling helpless."

Today, much of downtown San Pedro remains depressed, and some shops are still calling it quits. But vacancies are down, and new businesses are moving into town--and staying. Merchants say new-found optimism has swept through the half-century-old business district.

Scores of merchants and land owners, with the help of Los Angeles harbor-area Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, are leading a revitalization effort that they hope will turn downtown San Pedro into the jewel of the South Bay.

Federal Funds

The group will pump more than $2.6 million in public and private money into downtown over the next year. The money, most of which comes from the federal government, will be used to improve public facilities improvements and upgrade the facades and interiors of dozens of shops along Pacific Avenue and 6th and 7th streets.

The revitalization effort is just one example of how cities in the South Bay are attempting to reverse decay in downtowns by flooding them with government money. Government-sponsored projects are also under way or in the planning stages in downtown Torrance, Manhattan Beach and Inglewood.

The fledgling San Pedro program and the 15-year-old Inglewood effort--which is the oldest and most dramatic downtown renewal in the South Bay--illustrate how two cities have used money and urban planning in different ways to tackle similar problems.

The San Pedro Revitalization Corp., as the agency in that community is called, in 1984 grew out of a committee of merchants, community leaders and city officials that Flores had appointed to look into the problems of the downtown.

Quaintness Important

"The downtown really needed a shot in the arm," said Ann D'Amato, a member of the corporation's Board of Directors and a deputy to Flores. "Keeping the quaint flavor of San Pedro is important to people who live here."

Last year, the corporation was designated to oversee the San Pedro portion of the city of Los Angeles' CARE (Commercial Area Revitalization Effort) program, which funnels federal Community Development Block Grant money into run-down commercial districts in low- and moderate-income areas of Los Angeles. With that designation came $200,000 a year to operate the agency and pay four full-time staff members.

"The purpose of the program is to encourage private money to come in," said LeRon Gubler, executive director of the San Pedro Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, which had originally proposed the revitalization effort to Flores. "It is sort of a partnership. The city uses public funds to entice private funds."

About 20 miles to the northwest of downtown San Pedro, Inglewood city officials have been trying for 15 years to turn around their downtown, once the commercial center of the entire South Bay and now a struggling business district in search of a new image.

Shoppers Lured to Malls

In the late 1960s, merchants in downtown Inglewood faced many of the problems now confronting downtown San Pedro. New shopping malls siphoned customers from Inglewood's deteriorating commercial center, changing demographics wiped out the area's traditional customer base, and before long, "For Rent" and "Going Out of Business" signs filled storefront windows.

The city of Inglewood, in the urban-renewal style of the time, declared the area a redevelopment zone, and began tearing down buildings.

Much of the money came from federal programs aimed specifically at revitalizing central cities, including the National Redevelopment Program, Urban Renewal Grants, Urban Development Action Grants, Comprehensive Planning Assistance, various other grants, including Community Development Block Grants and those offered through the Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration. (In recent years, the federal government has phased out most of those programs and several cities now use federal Community Development Block Grants for downtown revitalization.)

From 1971 to 1976, Inglewood and other government agencies spent about $50 million in local, county and federal money to build a series of new government buildings and senior citizen housing complexes in the downtown, and it offered tax incentives and rebate programs to attract private developers.

"The philosophy was that if the city showed some confidence in its own future, that the optimism would be contagious and have some effect on the attitudes of private developers," said Inglewood City Manager Paul Eckles, who was assistant city administrator when the redevelopment began.

Government Buildings

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