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HUNTINGTON PARK : Swap Meet Plans Anger Merchants

March 07, 1993|DUKE HELFAND

A group of central business district merchants said they will sue the city if it approves plans for a retail store with as many as 35 tenants at the closed J.J. Newberry building.

"It will kill all the business in Huntington Park," said Mary Carmen Medrano, who owns 25-year-old Medrano Jewelers, next to the site on Pacific Boulevard. "The people working in the swap meet sell very cheap merchandise for nothing. While they're there, they'll ruin the other merchants."

The building's tenants would operate as independent contractors, with sales recorded under the leaseholder's business license. The layout would be much like a department store, rather than merchants working in "separate spaces," city planning staff said.

But more than 100 opponents say the project violates the city's ban on swap meets and mini-malls in the central business district. Opponents also said that the project--where merchants would be able to work in as little as 300 square feet--will pose unfair competition for surrounding businesses that pay higher rents.

The City Council, acting as the city's redevelopment agency, approved the remodeling plans in January. But the Planning Commission must decide whether the proposed store is grandfathered into a 1986 law, which prohibited central business district mini-malls and later was expanded to include flea markets and swap meets. The J.J. Newberry store, whose subtenants paid their taxes under one business license, existed before the 1986 zoning law went into effect. The commission, acting as the city's Board of Zoning Adjustment, will hear the matter April 7.

The city planning staff has recommended that the project be approved because it is a "continuation of (J.J. Newberry's) legal . . . use" of the site.

In a report to the City Council, Jack Wong, the director of community development, said that all taxes will be handled through the leaseholder's license and merchants will act as contract agents. Wong also noted that subtenants, including a pet shop and bridal store, had operated in the former J.J. Newberry store for more than a decade. He concluded that the "(overall) retail store . . . is entitled to remain."

City Councilman Tom Jackson, who chairs the redevelopment board, said the body approved the remodeling plans in January because it believed that the proposed store is legal under the mini-mall law. "We have tried to make this an appropriate establishment that everyone will agree with," Jackson said. "We're not going to do anything illegal. We're dealing with people's rights here."

Nevertheless, Councilman Luis Hernandez has asked that the matter be placed on the CRA board's March 15 agenda, saying the board "made a decision in haste."

John Connolly, an attorney representing Jung H. Shin, the leaseholder, said the CRA acted correctly in approving the remodeling plans because the prohibition does not apply to the store. The city, he said, should stay out of the business community's debate over competition on Pacific Boulevard.

"The city should look at whether (my client) has a legal right to operate this, not whether he is more competitive," Connolly said.

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