As Mayor Tom Bradley and other Los Angeles officials met Tuesday on Skid Row to formally reopen the gleaming, 58-room Harold Hotel, residents debated how much the $1-million refurbishment project will improve the troubled neighborhood--a gathering point for the homeless.
"It's not going to change the people who hang around here," complained one woman sitting on a bench across 5th Street in crime- and drug-plagued San Julian Park.
But Adrie Smith, a past resident of the nearby Women's Center, sharply disagreed. "If you see enough pretty people coming out of there, you might take a good hard look at yourself," she said. "It will help a lot."
The exchange illustrated only some of the controversy that has surrounded the city's attempts--through its Community Redevelopment Agency and the affiliated Single Room Occupancy Housing Corp.--to reshape the character of Skid Row housing. Four years after launching the program, in which they committed $19 million to buying and rehabilitating residential hotels, officials proudly showed off the Harold on Tuesday as the second to be given new life and the first to meet rigid construction deadlines.
Nine More to Be Worked Over
Nine additional hotels, containing nearly 900 rooms, are due for refurbishment or reconstruction by 1989.
CRA Chairman Jim Wood, who led tours of the three-story, skylighted Harold building Tuesday, said the project shows that housing officials have learned from difficulties in fixing up the nearby Florence Hotel--a 60-room, $1.2-million project that ran seven months behind schedule before being reopened last year.
The delays led to heavy criticism of the city, which kept more than 350 rooms in six hotels closed while running police sweeps to keep the homeless off the sidewalks.
"We learned our lessons," Wood said of the refurbishment program. "We changed our way of doing business so the delays we experienced at the Florence would not occur again."
Wood said the Florence project ran into difficulty primarily because agency guidelines called for the selection of the lowest construction bidder to carry out the work. A contract was awarded for about $600,000 even though CRA officials estimated the job would require more than $1 million in time and materials.
The contractor later defaulted on the work, he said.
"We were a brand new company, and we were starting out in the toughest type of construction there is--the seismic rehabilitation of brick masonry buildings," Wood said of the housing corporation. "Taking the low bidder on the Florence project got us into trouble. . . . Now we are looking at what it takes to do the job."
Although Wood claimed the Harold was refurbished within time schedules set by the agency, he acknowledged that those schedules have been revised since the Harold was purchased for $430,000 in December, 1985.
An earlier schedule prepared by the agency called for the Harold to be reopened for permanent low-income housing by November, 1986, said Alice Callaghan, director of Las Familias del Pueblo, a community center for Skid Row families based on 7th Street.
"I am very grateful it's opening, and I applaud them for opening it," Callaghan said. "But it is not ahead of schedule. They are behind schedule."
Wood acknowledged that some of the criticisms were justified: "I think it's appropriate we should be held accountable." On the other hand, he said, hotels closed by the agency were far below housing standards and easily might have collapsed had the Oct. 1 earthquake been slightly stronger.
The improvements to the Harold not only make it seismically safe, but attractive enough to change the flavor of the neighborhood, Wood said. Occupants will be permanent residents, rather than overnight guests or temporary guests needing emergency shelter. In many cases, Wood said, they will be war veterans or Social Security recipients who need inexpensive accommodations.
Rents will vary from $148 to $190 a month, depending on ability to pay. A few units offer kitchenettes for $15 a month more.
Horace Gibson, 59, a former Florence Hotel resident living elsewhere in Los Angeles, watched the reopening Tuesday and predicted that the community will be changed for the better: "The rent is convenient--not too expensive. I think the places they're opening up here are very nice."