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Merchants, Officials See New Opportunities : Whittier Optimistic on Rebuilding of Uptown

October 08, 1987|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

WHITTIER — Although a large part of the Uptown Village has been reduced to rubble, blocked off behind barricades and yards of yellow police tape, business owners and city officials say they are optimistic the historic district can be restored.

The effects of last Thursday's earthquake and its aftershocks present new opportunities for the congested area, officials say. They believe the destruction of unsafe buildings will provide space to ease crowded parking, attract new developments and possibly integrate residential housing into the 24-block area.

"I think it can be brought back," said Susan Moeller, the city's redevelopment project manager. "We have to look at the purpose and role of downtown, and see if we can get there now in a different way because of what's happened."

Uptown Village was the redevelopment showpiece of this Quaker-rooted city, a city which prides itself on maintaining a small-town feel in the midst of an urban sprawl. Uptown brings fewer sales tax dollars to civic coffers than shopping malls or automobile dealerships, but its development has assumed symbolic importance because it embodies the community image Whittier seeks to promote.

So, it's not surprising that despite the devastation, most of the area's 300 merchants don't want to leave Uptown, said Lane Langford, president of the Whittier Uptown Assn. The retail vacancy rate in the area had been about 5%. In the week since the first earthquake, Langford said, space has been snapped up by business owners whose buildings were damaged.

"It's pride," said Langford. "Pride in what we spent years building and pride in knowing what we were about then and that we can do it again and do it better."

Business has resumed in the less damaged parts of the district, but the city has indefinitely blocked off a disaster area along Greenleaf Avenue between Wardman and Bailey streets out of concern for public safety. This week, police announced plans to arrest sightseers and souvenir hunters seen stealing tiles and bricks from the unstable disaster area.

At the Hoover Hotel, the 1930s-era Uptown apartment building evacuated after last Thursday's earthquake, tenants returned for their possessions this week. A spokesman said structural engineers declared the building to be sound. About half the tenants say they want to move back once interior repairs are completed in two or three weeks.

Timing of Reopening

When Uptown can be reopened depends on building owners, who are responsible for the demolition or reinforcement of unsafe structures, City Manager Thomas G. Mauk said. The process may be further delayed by out-of-town landlords, some of whom remain unaware of the damage, Mauk said.

One merchant said she had mailed her rent to a post office box for 13 years and didn't know who to contact. Another said his restaurant building was sound, but an adjacent structure owned by an unknown landlord looks shaky.

City officials have estimated 20 to 25 buildings will have to be destroyed. That count is expected to change as structural engineers complete more extensive inspections. Many other buildings will require structural improvements.

At a City Council meeting attended by more than 100 people Tuesday night, a resolution was approved to allow Mauk to bypass the bidding process for demolition contractors so the city could act immediately to remove up to nine unsafe buildings. Demolition could begin late this week.

Other improvements are likely to depend on the speed at which government grants and low-interest loans become available. City officials said the request forms are expected to become available this weekend from agencies such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Small Business Adminstration.

President Reagan has declared Los Angeles and Orange Counties as a federal disaster area, qualifying it for an array of aid programs.

Needs Matching Funds

Federal aid to cities, however, requires matching funds--money that Whittier doesn't have, officials said. However, the city could establish a special disaster redevelopment area that would make the city eligible for grants and low-interest loans from the state for restoring the area. That money could be used to match federal funds, city officials said.

"If we don't get loans, this town is going to go bankrupt," predicted Rick Elias, whose building was declared unsafe by the city. Elias said improvements to his 17-tenant building, where he operates a photography studio and art gallery, could exceed $100,000.

The earthquake struck a decade after the city started its effort to develop an Uptown theme. City officials originally wanted a Quaker theme for the 24 blocks of shops, offices and restaurants, but discovered that Quaker architecture was too plain.

So a Quaker-Latino motif was adopted. Red concrete walkways and crosswalks, vintage street lighting, wooden benches accented with scrolled wrought iron, additional trees and improved lighting were installed.

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