WHITTIER — Before the earthquake reduced a large part of the Uptown Village commercial district to rubble, a city law prohibited mobile trailers from being used anywhere as business offices.
Today, a dozen of the coaches sit on city streets and in Uptown parking lots. Ten more are on order. Before it is over there might be more than 50, filled with businesses forced from buildings crushed or damaged by the Oct. 1 earthquake.
For beleaguered merchants, the trailers are seen as symbols of hope.
"Last week, many of us were worried about what to do. Today, we are worried about getting the telephones installed and what color the carpet should be," said Thomas Theisen, a CPA who has temporarily moved his business to one of the trailers.
It was Theisen who came up with the idea of having businesses move into rented trailers. Theisen, who is treasurer of the Whittier Uptown Assn., and members of the Whittier Area Greater Chamber of Commerce presented the idea to city officials.
Council Waives Ordinance
The City Council responded during an emergency session Saturday by temporarily waiving the ordinance prohibiting trailers as places to conduct business, said City Manager Thomas G. Mauk.
The council also allocated $10,000 to the Uptown Assn., a 700-member merchant association and the chamber of commerce, to help an defray the cost of getting the trailers set up, Mauk said.
Most of the city money has been earmarked to pay for temporary utility poles to bring electricity to the trailers, said Sherry Stewart, assistant to the executive director for the Uptown Assn.
The need for some kind of temporary housing for small businesses, speciality shops and restaurants was obvious, with leased office and retail space becoming virtually nonexistent in the two weeks since the earthquake shook the city.
Mauk said nine buildings in the area are now scheduled for demolition. He estimated that as many as 30 could be demolished before the operation is completed. That count is expected to change as structural engineers complete more extensive inspections. So far, the city has spent $130,000 for demolition.
'Take It and Run With It'
"Everyone is working in cooperation. The law preventing trailers has been part of the city ordinance, but the city is not going to stick us with a technicality now," said Jan Lopez, president of the chamber. "The city said take it (the trailer idea) and run with it," Lopez said.
The Uptown Assn. and chamber members spent the past week, posting information flyers about the trailers on buildings. "Trailers Are On The Way," the flyers announced. Orders were placed through the association with Mobile Modular of the city of Orange.
The trailers started arriving Monday. By Tuesday, 12 trailers had been placed in the village, 10 were on order and it is anybody's guess how high the figure will eventually go, said Marilyn Neece, executive director of the Uptown Assn.
The mobile modulars come in all sizes, from as small as 20-feet long to as large as 60-feet. Most of the merchants have paid first- and last-month rent to the mobile trailer company with no long-term obligations, Neece said.
"This is the first time we have provided office trailers for businesses hit by an earthquake," said Chris Black, sales manager of Mobile Modular. "But this seems to be the perfect alternative for merchants trying to keep their businesses open."
Theisen set up his trailer in the parking lot behind the building where he had run his accounting business, just north of the cordoned off area where the demolition is taking place. Although the building has not been declared unsafe by the city, Theisen said there is visible damage to the building's roof and walls.
Occupying a trailer next to Theisen is Michal (Mike) Dawson, who owns The Copy Shoppe. Her business was in a building that is being demolished in the same block.
Dawson said she has been in Uptown for more than 16 years. Like most of the merchants in the area, she says she does not want to leave Uptown.
"This is devasting. But I will do the best I can to get the business moving again," said Dawson, who has five employees.
She estimates the commercial printing operation has lost $15,000 in business since the earthquake.
Dawson and others in trailers are trying to get word out to their customers that they will be open for business as soon as possible.
"I have a mailing list. I will use it and the telephone to let my customers know where I am," said Evelyn Gould, the owner of Village Needlecraft. Gould, who had been operating her yarn and knitting businesses for about 18 months, said the Greenleaf Avenue building where the business was housed is scheduled to be demolished.
Her trailer is parked at Philadelphia Street and Friends Avenue. She said she has been impressed with the spirit of cooperation.
"All of my vendors have agreed to put off my bills for a month. I received one month free storage from a storage company where I stored my stock," Gould said.