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Paradise Lost : Once-Chic Tahitian Village Hotel Has Fallen Far Since Astronaut Days

March 02, 1995|JOHN CANALIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Tahitian Village Motor Hotel, with its bright tiki torches, festive music and glorious swimming pool, was Downey's most fashionable nightspot during the 1960s, hosting astronauts and other celebrities.

Now, beset with problems like exposed electrical wiring, peeling paint, broken windows and wood rot, the once-celebrated landmark is home to welfare recipients, the working poor and the downtrodden.

"I was born and raised (in Downey), and in the early 1960s it was a nice place," said Downey Police Capt. John Finch. "The condition is currently terrible."

Finch headed a sweep in January at the Polynesian-style hotel, which is owned by Resolution Trust Corp., the federal agency that handles properties once held by defunct savings and loan associations. Police found about 700 health, safety and other code violations. Inspectors reported dangerous stairwells, crumbling drywall and missing smoke detectors.

Four residents were relocated to safer rooms. One family's room was so unsanitary that the parents were charged with child endangerment.

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About 50 people still live in the 183-room hotel, which charges daily rates of $25 to $30 or weekly rates of $125 to $130. In some dilapidated rooms carpets are stained and covered with food containers. In others, boards have replaced broken sliding-glass doors, allowing in cold air. Inspectors said heaters in most rooms work poorly or don't work at all.

Many tenants have hot plates and microwave ovens, although city codes do not allow cooking in the hotel.

City officials ordered the hotel owners to fix the problems and evict residents who have lived in the complex more than 120 days, the maximum length of time that a city ordinance allows occupants to stay in temporary lodging. Some residents have lived in the Tahitian Village for years.

Resolution Trust acquired the complex on Lakewood Boulevard at Rosecrans Avenue in 1992 from a defunct Van Nuys lender, Valley Federal Savings & Loan Assn. The federal agency employs a private company, Santa Ana-based Investors Property Services, to manage the complex.

City Prosecutor Martin J. Mayer threatened to take legal action against the government agency and the management company if the code violations are not corrected in "a reasonable amount of time." Resolution Trust and the management firm are the landlords, he said, and must assume responsibility for the property.

"This was a matter dealing with an imminent threat to the public's health and safety," Mayer said.

Since the raid, work crews have started fixing faulty wiring, holes, broken door handles and carpet. And one unsafe building has been condemned and awaits repair, Mayer said.

Mike Fulwider, a spokesman for the federal agency, said the complex has not noticeably deteriorated since the government took over. "The shape it was in is similar to what exists now," he said.

Fulwider said the government began repairing the property upon acquisition but has not corrected all of the problems it inherited. Officials from the management firm and an on-site manager refused to comment.

Some residents, such as Sandra Gardea and her year-old daughter, Twilla, have been given a month to find new homes. Gardea, 37, a welfare recipient who has lived in the complex since June, says she believes many safety problems are exaggerated.

"I think (the city) sort of overreacted," she said. "If something around here breaks, they come to fix it," she said.

The real threat, she added, comes from nightly criminal activity, such as drug deals.

Some residents said the village, which is in a commercial area of south Downey near Paramount, is better than government housing projects and slums in Los Angeles.

"I've been here three years, and the only thing I can (complain) about is the wrongful way they put us out," said one resident who requested anonymity.

But it bears little resemblance to the Tahitian Village frequented by astronauts years ago. The torches no longer burn at night. The pool in which prestigious guests once swam is dirty and closed.

Linda Fairchild, a customer relations officer at Rockwell International Corp., recalls reserving rooms at the complex in the 1960s for several astronauts and others who were in town to work on the Apollo project.

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and the late Virgil (Gus) Grissom were among its guests, and popular bands entertained, she said.

"It was an extremely nice place, the only place in the local area to house the visiting dignitary," Fairchild said.

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