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After Many Delays, Auto Center to Get 2nd Dealer at Last : Redevelopment: The recession and the discovery of toxic material on the site slowed the mall project. City officials hope to line up a third dealership within a year.


LA MIRADA — The La Mirada Auto Center, which was envisioned six years ago as a 15-acre boost to the city's economy, finally will get its second dealership this month.

A Volvo and Chrysler-Plymouth dealership is expected to open in mid-March, joining a Chevrolet dealer that has been alone at the mall alongside the Santa Ana Freeway for two years.

One 5.5-acre parcel remains, and officials hope to line up a dealership for the property in six months to a year.

"We are encouraged that the center is, after some difficult steps, becoming what we envisioned it to be," said Tom Robinson, director of community resources for La Mirada.

Under agreements with the city, each dealer is obligated to provide the city with $2.5 million in revenue during the first 10 years.

During the economic boom of the 1980s, city officials began the transformation of a run-down corner of the city with Gateway Plaza, which includes a hotel, offices, movie theaters and restaurants. On the other side of the freeway, in a highly visible spot, were to be acres of new cars to lure customers into town.

But almost from the start, the auto center experienced setbacks.

Delays in getting the project under way prompted one dealer to pull out. Volvo, which expected to move into the mall two years ago, had to postpone plans when toxic materials were found on a portion of its site. A cleanup is ongoing, but the dealership was able to begin developing its property in December.

The national downturn in auto sales hit the mall's sole dealer, Gateway Chevrolet and Geo, shortly after its doors opened two years ago.

"When I first got here, we were at the tail end of a business cycle that was good," said owner Michael Padilla. "But two months later, the recession started, (and it) got worse and worse. I got stranded out here by myself."

Padilla said he has lost money--although he won't say how much--and has trimmed his staff. But he believes better times lie ahead as other dealers move into the mall.

"The more that are there, the better," he said. "It creates a bigger marketplace then."

When he opens in La Mirada, Volvo dealer John O'Neill is teaming with Chrysler-Plymouth dealer C. Charles Royal. They now have separate dealerships in Buena Park.

La Mirada offered breaks in land prices and relocation assistance to get the dealers.

Robinson said the city spent $8 million to $10 million to acquire 20 acres of land, relocate 15 businesses that were on the site and prepare the auto mall property. Aside from the 15 acres devoted to cars, the city used five acres for two manufacturing companies that had to be moved.

Robinson said that Padilla paid $1.8 million for his site, and O'Neill and Royal paid $1.3 million.

Last week, the La Mirada City Council, sitting as the Redevelopment Agency, allocated $240,000 to help O'Neill and Royal acquire the Chrysler-Plymouth dealership from the Chrysler Corp. and move it to La Mirada.

The toxic materials that delayed the dealership were discovered in 1989 on three acres of the site eventually purchased for the Volvo and Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, Robinson said.

Soil contaminated by petroleum had to be removed and replaced. Trichloroethylene (TCE), a degreasing agent, had seeped into ground water that is prevented from reaching drinking water by a layer of clay, he said. Contaminants are being pumped out in a process that Robinson said will take several years. The city hopes to recover the $700,000 in cleanup costs from prior landowners or tenants.

Looking back on the project, Robinson said the city "found that it was a more-complicated process than we had originally envisioned."

But Padilla said it was only a matter of time before the auto mall took off. "It's too good a site for someone not to come in," he said.

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