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Olvera Street Merchants Told to Pay or Pack

October 27, 1998|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than a dozen merchants on Los Angeles' historic Olvera Street have received eviction notices from the city, marking a new low in contentious lease negotiations that have dragged on since last year.

The commission charged with overseeing the city's birthplace began mailing notices last week to a group of merchants who have not paid rent since June. About 30 of the 45 business owners negotiating as a group had reached agreement with the city on rent hikes, but the entire group withheld payments, placing what they consider to be fair rents into a special account until all conclude negotiations.

The rent strike has strapped the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority, which gets most of its money from merchant rents and parking fees. Authority officials have been forced to dip into reserves to maintain the monument.

"As far as we know, they have no intention of negotiating, and we have no intention of allowing the monument to go bankrupt," said Philip W. Bartenetti, chairman of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority Commission.

The merchant group counters that negotiations have been too one-sided.

"When people dig their heels in the sand for 14 months, we get the message loud and clear that they wanted it all their way," said Albert Gribbell Velasquez, co-chairman of the group of merchants negotiating together.

Negotiations over the first long-term leases in the street's 68-year history turned contentious immediately after getting underway more than a year ago. The merchants group charged the commission was being negligent for not repairing crumbling streets and termite-ridden trading posts.

After negotiations stalled last spring, the City Council stepped in, giving merchants until July 1 to conclude negotiations before imposing interim rent hikes.

The street's merchants have long been divided. About 30 opted to negotiate independently, calling the group of 45 too confrontational. Those 30 reached agreement by the July 1 deadline and began paying the new rents.

The 45 merchants who have banded together missed the deadline. Instead of paying interim rent hikes while negotiations continued, they opted to withhold all rent.

"We have waited patiently since July and now we had no recourse but to take the action that we did," said Enrique Legaspi, volunteer negotiator for the monument authority commission. "They have got to start paying or they are going to be evicted."

The 15 merchants in the group of 45 who had not agreed on rent hikes--most of them owners of larger stores or restaurants--were mailed notices giving them 30 days to pay the interim hikes, plus late fees, or face eviction proceedings. The 30 merchants in the group who had agreed to new rents received letters giving them until this week to begin paying. If they do not, they too will receive eviction notices, Bartenetti said.

Vivien Bonzo, owner of La Golondrina restaurant and co-head of the merchants group, said the 30 merchants are willing to pay withheld rents but feel they should not have to pay late fees.

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