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Fortress L.A. : WELCOME TO THE POST-RIOT CENTRAL CITY, WHERE MANY DAMAGED BUSINESSES ARE BEING REDESIGNED TO BE AS CRIME-PROOF AS POSSIBLE.

June 20, 1993|ROBERT J. LOPEZ

SHOPPING CENTERS ARE SURROUNDED BY iron bars. Windowless department stores have concrete walls thick enough to stop vehicles from crashing through. Rooftops are extra-high in the hope of preventing Molotov cocktails from landing on them. Supermarket loading docks are hidden behind walls and metal doors to deter robberies.

Welcome to post-riot Central Los Angeles.

Throughout the central city, many businesses destroyed in last year's riots are being redesigned to be as crime-proof as possible. These new buildings go far beyond barred windows and burglar alarms to incorporate security as a key element of structural design.

"These concepts are changing the way buildings are designed," said architect Paul Kim. "Ten years ago, you would never have thought these measures would be needed."

Some urban-affairs experts contend that such buildings add to the siege mentality in crime-ridden neighborhoods, although many residents accept them as a sad reality of inner-city life. Business owners and architects say such measures are necessary and that the fortifications can be softened through subtle designs.

"A lot of people get sad about this (trend), but it's just a fact of living in an area of haves and have-nots," said Norman Millar, an architecture professor at USC. "However, these buildings do not have to be ugly."

In Pico-Union, the $15-million La Curacao furniture store will be the "ultimate, high-tech riot-proof" building when it is completed, according to its owners. The new 200,000-square-foot store, which will cover half a city block, will have a $2-million maze of security systems hidden behind a graceful pre-Columbian facade of arches, waterfalls and Mayan statues.

On the second day of last year's riots, a truck rammed through the display window of the original store. Hundreds of looters stormed the complex, carrying away furniture as co-owner Ron Azarkman and his partners watched in disbelief. The building was then set on fire and burned to the ground.

The walls of the new four-story windowless structure will consist of two layers of eight-inch-thick concrete blocks. At night, the glass entry will be sealed by heavy "guillotine-like" steel doors that can stop a tank, said architect Michael Naim. And the building's concrete, glass and metal design will make it impervious to firebombings.

The underground parking lot will be ventilated by narrow metal slats backed by iron bars to stop prowlers. Video cameras will scan every inch of the building, and the automated vaults where the cash is stored will open only during certain hours.

"We are going for the ultimate safety that we know of in every aspect of the building," said Azarkman, who is still arranging financing for the project.

Security is also playing a significant role in the redesign of a Mid-City mini-mall and a South-Central swap meet destroyed in the riots. Vehicles were rammed into the two wood-frame buildings, ripping gaping holes that allowed hordes of looters to enter. The thieves then tossed Molotov cocktails onto the roofs, burning both complexes to the ground.

But things will be different next time, said architect Kim, who is redesigning both structures.

The new mini-mall will be guarded by a 6-foot iron fence, and a gate will seal the compound at night. Its walls will be made of 8-inch-thick cinder blocks, with glass storefronts built above a 2-foot-high concrete bulkhead designed to smash the grills of vehicles that might try to punch through.

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The bunker-like swap meet will be constructed of concrete block, and there will be no windows. Ventilation ducts will be blocked by iron "burglar bars" to prevent thieves from sneaking in, and roll-down metal doors will seal the entryways at night. The parapets of both buildings will be about seven feet higher than normal to block flaming objects from being hurled onto roofs.

The security designs for both structures will cost about $200,000, or about one-tenth of the total price, Kim said. Construction is expected to begin within two months.

"Before, the owners were concerned about appearance. But now they are just as concerned about security," Kim said.

Today's "fortress" designs evolved from the "brutalist architecture" style popularized in Europe during the early 1900s, according to architecture experts. Buildings of that era are characterized by thick, blank concrete walls with few windows.

During the past decade, fortress architecture has spread throughout Southern California. These designs can include the obvious, such as iron gates, to more subtle measures such as prickly vegetation around perimeters to ward off intruders.

Other measures include "pre-graffitied" window covers, which are installed at night to fool taggers into thinking that the building has already been vandalized. There are also wax-based graffiti-proof coatings that are applied to exteriors to make the scribbling easier to remove.

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