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Center Languishes as Whittier, Builder Argue Store Image, Clientele

March 10, 1991|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WHITTIER — The Whittier Station shopping center project, once heralded as the city's future "western gateway," languishes in weeds and trash while attorneys for the city and the developer battle over costly delays.

Construction has not begun on the center, which has cost more than $20 million and was supposed to be open for business early this year. The 16-acre triangle of land north of Whittier Boulevard lies dormant. Leaves and trash collect along the base of a 6-foot, barbed-wire fence around the tract. Weeds stretch tall through the asphalt pavement and yards of 13 vacated business buildings and 11 residences.

In the latest skirmish between the city and the Encino-based developer, Urbatec, the city's Redevelopment Agency Tuesday unanimously rejected the developer's latest construction drawings.

"This is a move on the chessboard," said Urbatec attorney Mark Novak. "They are not going to concede anything to us. They need to find every fault they can to protect themselves" in court.

Part of what the agency objected to Tuesday was the relocation of several stores. More importantly, the developer included in the plans a Viva market, which specializes in products for Latino shoppers, City Councilman Bob Henderson said.

The identity of that market is the major issue in both the plans and the lawsuit. The city wants an upscale market like the one that appeared in the developer's early drawings. Urbatec says that nothing in its written agreements with the city specifies that the city can choose the market.

Urbatec has leased the space for the market to Quality Foods International, a Highland Park company that operates a number of grocery chains.

At various times, Quality Foods has offered a warehouse operation or a Viva, Novak said. Both target the economy shopper. The city wants Quality Food's Market Basket chain, which caters to higher-income customers. Urbatec has no alternative but to abide by Quality Food's choice of market, Novak said.

"I don't know why the city feels it knows better than a market about what type of market should be there," he said.

Whittier officials said they have been misled by Urbatec President John MacLaurin, who told them that he could bring in the market the agency wants.

"Our demographics say we need an upscale market there," Henderson said. "We want an exact compliance with what was stated to us. Put a Market Basket there and a Sav-On drugstore. And a high-quality restaurant."

If a court determines who's right, the decision could cost the loser millions.

That's because someone must pay the interest on a $12.8-million loan to buy property for the center. The disputed interest has accumulated at the rate of about $125,000 a month since April, 1990. Shopping center earnings were supposed to have paid that bill. The city and Urbatec have said that the other party should pay it, because the other party caused the construction delay.

Also in dispute is who foots a $400,000 bill for relocating utility lines and storm drains.

A May court date is set to hear arguments on all these matters.

Both sides have a steep investment to protect. Urbatec has spent more than $3 million besides the loan. The city has issued $5 million in bonds for site improvements and expects to pay an additional $2.5 million in unanticipated land costs and legal fees, said City Manager Thomas G. Mauk.

Nor has the project proved a triumph in public relations. Local preservationists mounted a campaign to save a historic train depot on the site. An American Indian group protested that site excavation would disturb an Indian burial ground. The city paid for moving the depot to a nearby vacant lot and for archeological digging to show that no remains were endangered.

There are still grumblings among preservationists and other residents that the proposed shopping center isn't worth the trouble, and the development plans should have been combined with efforts to save the historic Whittier Theatre across the street.

With no settlement in hand, the site remains a workplace only for vandals, who have smashed most of the windows in the area's deserted houses and commercial buildings.

And unless the city drops its demand to approve of the market, Novak warned, the issue will go to trial and the costs "would go on and on."

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