The Los Angeles City Council gave a critical boost to the cash-strapped department that oversees Olvera Street on Tuesday, voting to finance long-awaited improvements to the city's dilapidated historic birthplace.
The council actions are likely to help resolve contentious lease negotiations between merchants of the Mexican marketplace and the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority, the city department that manages the area.
In the last six years, the authority has done little to improve conditions there. Negotiations over long-term leases and the first rent hikes in 11 years have been stymied by merchant demands that termite-ridden trading posts and crumbling buildings be repaired. Monument officials have countered that repairs are impossible without stiff rent hikes. Even then, merchants are not entitled to a say in how the money is spent, the officials contend.
Tuesday's motions, introduced by Councilman Richard Alatorre, will take some financial pressure off the Monument Authority, whose budget comes solely from rents and parking revenue. The council action guarantees 55-year leases, discounts during festivals and other benefits to the merchants, many of them tenants since the street's inception in 1930.
The council set aside $250,000 for debt financing on a new $5-million parking structure. It also directed that any further increase in merchant rents will be imposed only if restrooms are renovated, security lighting installed and the marketplace's historic tile streets repaved.
In addition, the council asked city staff to assess damage to historic buildings and provide an estimate on repairs within 60 days. It also agreed to consider contracting maintenance and parking services to private companies, and created the post of El Pueblo assistant general manager to supervise the tourist attraction on weekends.
"We all have realized that even with bringing the rents closer to market rate, we're still dealing with historic buildings that . . . need to be supported by the city's budget as well," said Hilary Norton, Alatorre's chief of staff. "If the merchants were going to be charged market rate, they needed to be given consideration that was worthy of that new rent."
El Pueblo, a two-block downtown area where 11 families founded Los Angeles in 1781, is regarded as the birthplace of the city. Negotiations over the first long-term leases in the street's 68-year history began last August--five years after they were mandated by a city charter amendment. But the relationship between merchants and their bureaucratic landlords has long been contentious.
After the El Pueblo commission--an appointed body that oversees the Monument Authority--voted in April to impose interim rent hikes on all merchants who hadn't finished negotiating, the City Council stepped in, extending the deadline to today. An amendment by Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg to Tuesday's motion directed the department to seek the council's help if negotiations are still unfinished in 30 days.
Negotiations have been completed with 75% of the merchants, and interim hikes will be imposed on the rest, said El Pueblo interim general manager Frank Catania. Tuesday's council actions addressed a host of issues that his department was unable to address on its own without council approval.
Merchants were optimistic about Tuesday's votes.
"It seems like the City Council is more and more aware, more and more interested and more and more involved," said merchant Albert Gribbel Velasquez. "It's conceivable things could change sooner rather than later."