COMPTON — The owner of the city's oft-criticized James Hotel said this week that he would like to reopen the fire-ravaged building and turn it over to a nonprofit group rather than tear it down.
Albert Eisen, a 70-year-old Malibu resident who has owned the downtown hotel since 1953, said he plans to lease the building to one of two interested groups--"Reaching Out," a Los Angeles-based organization that runs eight homeless shelters in the county, or Lynwood's New Life Baptist Church, which would turn the James into a senior citizens home or a halfway house for teen-agers.
"What I want to do is give the building to somebody who is going to use it for a good cause," Eisen said. He said he is willing to lease the property to a charitable group at a low price.
But city officials are skeptical about Eisen's plan, saying that he is trying to force the city into buying a property it does not want.
The 46-room transient hotel, which stands about a quarter mile from Compton City Hall, suffered $123,000 damage in the May blaze, which fire officials say began in a water heater closet. Eisen had been renting most of the rooms to Los Angeles County for $10 a day as a shelter for welfare recipients.
The city's administration has kept the hotel closed since the fire by refusing Eisen the necessary permits to repair it, insisting that he bring the James up to current building standards. That would include increasing the number of parking spaces from 22 to 46, and putting a bath and toilet in every room instead of the two communal shower rooms the James has now.
The City Council voted 5 to 0 last month to uphold the administration's permit refusal.
A Compton police report says crime has dropped 90% in the area since the hotel closed.
But Eisen said the city is trying to force him to tear down the building so officials can then buy the land cheaply for redevelopment.
The city "came out and did an appraisal on the building and the land which said it was worth $250,000," Eisen said. "Then the city turned and offered me $150,000."
But Compton Redevelopment Director Lawrence Adams said city officials did the hotel appraisal only because Eisen had asked for it, telling Adams he was interested in disposing of the property at a low price.
"We told (Eisen) that we were not interested in the property, that it was not within the city's three-year plan (for redevelopment)," Adams said. "But we did say we would always be interested in picking up a downtown property at a bargain. But the numbers were not agreeable to either party and an offer was never made."
The James Hotel, everybody agrees, is in bad shape.
The fire damaged several rooms in the rear of the building and burned through the roof. Last month's heavy rains did further damage to the interior.
Inside, the paint and stucco is peeling from the walls and litter is strewn on the floor. The air is heavy with the smell of smoke and mildew. The furniture in the one-room units is old and dirty.
But David Valdez, the president of Reaching Out, said that his group would be willing to help Eisen rebuild the James. He said the hotel would be a perfect shelter for the homeless.
"The structure is solid," Valdez said. But, he added, "we are not so gullible that we don't think this is going to take a lot of work."
The Rev. C. C. Coleman, pastor of the New Life Baptist Church, said he would turn the James into something that would be "radiant within the community."
"If (Eisen) will cooperate with us, we would like to renovate it and make it decent for use for senior citizens," Coleman said. He said he is also interested in possibly turning the hotel into a halfway house for troubled teen-agers.
But city officials were dubious of the plans.
"There is no way (Eisen) is going to (rebuild). He is not going to invest that kind of money," said City Councilwoman Jane D. Robbins, when told of Eisen's plans. "There was nothing but drug addicts and prostitution there. He should tear it down and start over."
"(The James) hasn't been properly maintained for years and it has been an eyesore to the community," said Councilman Floyd A. James. "I think we have to question this considering (Eisen's) past performance of maintaining his property in the community."
Last June, the City Council closed down Eisen's other Compton property, the Glenmore Hotel, calling it an "open and blatant" haven for drug pushers and prostitutes. The Redevelopment Agency then bought the property for $347,750.