Plaza Del Sol does not aspire to the retailing ranks of the mammoth South Coast Plaza or the flashy Beverly Center.
But the pleasant-looking little mall in the primarily Latino Eastside community of Boyle Heights, close to a landmark Sears store that fairly bursts with shoppers, has a problem that could doom any mall: a lack of customers.
The mall's owner-developers contend that Plaza Del Sol, whose first shops opened 15 months ago, is undergoing a normal break-in period and is beginning to turn around. Some bitter tenants and former tenants charge that the developers promised a first-class mall but delivered something less. Lawsuits have been filed by both sides.
Besides the desire to build a profitable mall, Plaza Del Sol's developers say they wanted to invest money in a needy community. But some community leaders fear that problems at Plaza Del Sol--no matter who is to blame--could cause an unwarranted souring on investment in the Eastside.
"This place is a pit," said Juan Jimenez, who plans to move his photo studio-tuxedo rental-invitation shop out of Plaza Del Sol in the next several weeks because of slow business. "The doors open and the flies--they don't even come in," he said.
"Boy, I've really taken my lumps on this one," said Steaven K. Jones, one of the mall's developers and owners. "We put $10 million of our own cold, hard cash in a community that desperately needs it . . . (and) all we've gotten is to get our little seats kicked in," he said.
Plaza Del Sol appeared on the scene with much fanfare and hoopla. The March, 1985, ground breaking drew the likes of Mayor Tom Bradley, then-Assemblyman Richard Alatorre, Los Angeles school board member Larry Gonzalez and then-City Councilman Art Snyder.
Now the fanfare is long gone, and the shoppers are few. Several empty store fronts dot the mall.
A sampling of shoppers interviewed recently found high marks for Plaza Del Sol's looks but complaints that there are not enough shops open to patronize.
"Some people don't really know about this. . . . I give it a couple of months," said Yvette Borbon, who works across the street at McDonald's and shops frequently at the mall. "It's nice. . . . the prices are good."
Plaza Del Sol's chances of success had seemed good despite the relatively low median income of area residents. A marketing study commissioned by the developers noted that more than 50,000 cars passed the mall's location every day.
Only a block away, the Sears store at the junction of Olympic Boulevard and Soto Street does a booming business. The tall beige tower with the red neon sign has been a beacon to local shoppers since 1927. For many Latino families, the trek to the Olympic and Soto Sears is a weekly ritual.
Includes Respected Builder
What's more, the developers included Roy L. McNeill, a respected builder who was co-developer of the Sherman Oaks Galleria and the nearby 21-story American Savings Plaza, considered to be one of the most successful speculative office buildings in Southern California.
Early press releases billed Plaza Del Sol, which was to fill the long-empty Arrow Chevrolet dealership on Soto, as "the biggest and best shopping area in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles."
Plaza Del Sol would feature Mexican-style architecture, dining courts, skylights and escalators, one press release stated. The 80,000-square-foot mall would have an ambiance "somewhere between the Ports O' Call Village (in San Pedro) and Olvera Street. It will be a tourist attraction as well as a place to shop."
The Plaza Del Sol that emerged is swathed in a pink and aqua interior with brown and beige tile floors--colors more reminiscent of "Miami Vice" than Mexico. It sports a small central fountain and scattered plants.
A lawsuit filed by one unhappy former tenant stated that the developers and others "hailed Plaza Del Sol as resembling nothing less than an oasis in the midst of the stark reality of the inner city." But the plan for Plaza Del Sol--the escalators, skylights, "lush tropical planting" and an area devoted to local artisans--did not materialize, said the suit, which was filed last July by Robert Alvarez, an optometrist who maintained an office in the mall for eight months.
Crowded as a Ghost Town
"The public has stayed away in droves, and Plaza Del Sol is generally about as crowded as a ghost town," Alvarez's suit said. The developers have since sued Alvarez and some other former tenants for back rent and other expenses.
At least three other former tenants have filed countersuits similar to Alvarez's, alleging breach of contract and fraud, among other things. At least one former tenant said he is close to settling his suit. Another group of current and former tenants has hired a lawyer and plans to sue the developers. Some former tenants place their losses at tens of thousands of dollars each.