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Some California Mart tenants are so sick of looky-loos, crime and litter that they may leave a garment district that's already . . . : Splitting at the Seams

January 29, 1993|WILLIAM KISSEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Angie Garcia has no way of knowing that her monthly shopping sprees at the California Mart in the downtown garment district rankle many of the building's tenants.

Each day, thousands of consumers like Garcia search the 1.5 million square feet of selling space at 9th Street and Olympic Boulevard for bargains. Although the 42-year-old Torrance woman lacks the retailer's credentials traditionally required to roam this maze of wholesale showrooms and fashion discounters, she finds the Mart "an easy place to shop, particularly if I'm looking for a name brand."

Such non-trade shopping disturbs some of the building's 1,200 permanent tenants, including Jeff Krinsky, a women's apparel wholesaler. He says it's a nuisance and often disrupts business.

"These cash-and-carry businesses came in because they pay rent, and because of the recession the Mart has an occupancy dilemma on its hands," says Krinsky, who last summer helped organize the 400-member 110 E. Ninth Street Tenants Assn. to address this and other issues affecting the downtown apparel scene.

The recent rise of cash-and-carry outlets in the Mart, the garment industry axis for 30 years, is only one problem facing the downtown apparel industry. The sleek structure, where $6 billion in merchandise changes hands annually, sparkles on the inside, but outside, tenants complain, is rampant urban decay. Vagrants and panhandlers frighten out-of-town buyers, and the streets are filled with litter and graffiti.

In a move that sent a ripple of fear through the city and the industry, the tenant group voted in November to tentatively vacate the building. This is just the latest in a series of events signaling the fragmentation of the local fashion industry.

- The local menswear industry moved its biannual trade show, known as the Men's Apparel Guild in California (MAGIC), from Los Angeles to Las Vegas four years ago.

- In early 1990, the semiannual Action Sports Retailer (ASR) convention moved to San Diego.

- In September, 1991, 125 California-based women's apparel manufacturers set up a twice-yearly trade show under the Ladies Apparel Vegas Assn. banner in Las Vegas.

Bernard Lax, president of the Coalition of Apparel Industries in California, agrees with critics that the Mart has "taken on a bazaar-type atmosphere" and that non-industry people are "very distracting to the apparel trade." But, he adds, it would be a mistake for the disgruntled tenants to leave downtown.

"This tenant's group is using the 'crime and consumer' situation downtown as an excuse for moving, and it's kind of petty," says Lax, whose political action group represents about one-fourth of the state's 6,132 apparel and textile manufacturers. "There is no backbone in that type of argument. It's easier to leave the problem than to fight the problem."

Last summer, Mayor Tom Bradley unveiled a joint public-private effort designed to make working and shopping downtown more palatable. It provided for nine police officers on bicycles to patrol a 30-block area east of Broadway between Pico Boulevard and 7th Street. Local building owners donated $7,500 for uniforms and bicycles and another $8,000 to hire homeless workers and others to assist in a cleanup. The result, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, is a 12% drop in crime in the area.

"They have been very effective in patrolling the area. I don't know how much more can be done. The garment center where people are actually out walking is a small area, and nine guys on bikes can cover a lot of ground," says Fred Postal, a women's apparel sales rep and tenants' group member.

City Council member Rita Walters, who represents the neighborhood south of Olympic Boulevard bordering the Mart, says it's too early to tell if the bicycle patrol is working.

"They're still very new and I'm certain that given a little more time they will be very helpful," she says. "From what I hear, the people in the area are very appreciative, but I think the police still need to serve a wider (area). The problem is getting the money to hire more police."

Sidney Morse, general partner of the California Mart, retired in 1990 and divided his responsibilities between his cousins David and Susan Morse. But he has resurfaced in recent months to mollify the unhappy tenants.

Morse immediately installed former dress manufacturer Ilse Metchek, whom insiders describe as "an old-style, manufacturer-friendly business woman," in a top management position. To entice out-of-town buyers, he launched a rebate system that pays them to shop the Mart. He also lowered rents an average of 23%, cut parking rates 20% and, with other landlords, is organizing a cleanup project modeled on two in Philadelphia and New York that employ the homeless.

Many disgruntled tenants are taking advantage of the Mart's concessions.

Mitchell Hyams, vice president of sales for New Boys Inc., was recently offered a 50% reduction on the company's five-year lease renewal. New Boys accepted, but only on a month-to-month arrangement.

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