PASADENA — A proposal for a swap meet-style store for Northwest Pasadena was turned down Tuesday by the Board of Directors, which ignored allegations of racism leveled against the city by the store's Korean-American owners.
Instead, the board cited the project's incompatibility with redevelopment plans for the predominantly black neighborhood.
In a unanimous vote, with City Director Kathryn Nack absent, the board upheld negative votes previously given the Fair Oaks Department Store by two other city bodies: the Fair Oaks Project Area Committee and the Community Development Committee.
Although Korean-American pickets marching outside City Hall July 20 in support of the store portrayed the committees' opposition as part of a nationwide trend of strained relations between African-Americans and Korean-Americans, the board Tuesday made no mention of those allegations. Instead, City Directors, acting as the city's Community Redevelopment Commission, focused on the store itself.
City Director Rick Cole characterized the proposed store--with 38 vending stalls at 625 N. Fair Oaks Ave.--as an "open-air market, bazaar, swap meet or mercado. " Such a store, Cole said, would detract from redevelopment goals to upgrade the area.
City Director John Crowley agreed, saying that the Fair Oaks/Orange Grove shopping center, from which the store would operate, needs a "prime tenant" for economic revival.
"Thirty-eight small tenants do not aggregate together to be a prime tenant," Crowley said.
The board held a 3 1/2-hour hearing on the matter last week. On Tuesday, the board toured the building and held a 1 1/2-hour closed session to discuss a lawsuit filed against the city by the store's owner, Korean-American businessman Paul Cho.
"I can't believe the city of Pasadena," Cho said Tuesday after the board's decision. "We just followed the law. I have everything (all required building permits), so I'm going to fight it."
The proposed store, modeled after the Korean-owned Inglewood Department Store and the L.A. Slauson Swapmeet, was embroiled in controversy from the start. Cho, who also runs the Inglewood store, enlisted Victor Harris, a black public relations professional, as one of three partners in the Pasadena venture. That arrangement was criticized by some Pasadena blacks, who accused Harris of misrepresenting the store as a black-owned business.
The city complicated the situation by mistakenly issuing Cho building permits in February and March for $27,000 worth of renovations to the 20,000-square-foot former Thrifty Drug Store. In April, city officials notified Cho that the project was on hold because his proposed store needed to be reviewed by the two redevelopment committees since it lies in a redevelopment area.
In response, Cho filed a lawsuit. Cho's attorney, Douglas Ring, argued that the two committees have no jurisdiction to review the store because it complies with zoning and commercial uses specified for the area. In addition, Ring has said that Cho was singled out for scrutiny that other businesses in the Fair Oaks area have not faced. A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Sept. 10 in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Cho has attributed the community opposition to strained relations between African-Americans and Korean-Americans that exist in many other cities. Korean-American grocery stores and other businesses have been picketed by blacks in cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The tension between blacks and Koreans was also highlighted in last year's summer movie, "Do the Right Thing."
But Northwest residents have denied the allegations, saying they oppose Cho's store because the area needs another drugstore or major retail store.
"We've worked very hard to upgrade our Northwest," said Audrey Brantley, president of the W.D. Edson Neighborhood Improvement Assn. "This decision gives us a lot of hope."