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In Koreatown, LAPD Station Still a Dream

Community: Once heralded as an example of interracial cooperation, the project remains unfinished because a nonprofit group has run out of money.

February 07, 1999|PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A community effort to build an LAPD substation in Koreatown--heralded in post-riot Los Angeles as a model of interracial cooperation--has never been completed, beset by dried-up funding, changing neighborhood conditions and a lack of Latino involvement.

After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Koreatown leaders and residents, upset over the lack of police protection in their neighborhoods, took matters into their own hands and collected more than $500,000 to open a police substation in the heart of their riot-torn community.

Bank of America gave them a vacant two-story branch office to house the facility. The Los Angeles Police Department agreed to place up to 30 officers at the site. Koreatown residents pledged to pay for the facility's maintenance. Television news shows and newspapers across the country promoted the project as a symbol of multicultural, grass-roots action.

Five years later, the vacant bank branch on Western Avenue and 18th Street stands instead as a monument to the limits of good intentions, and the problems that can arise when a group of mainly volunteers tries to provide government services.

The Koreatown and West Adams Public Safety Assn. (KOWAPSA), the nonprofit group created to open the substation, estimates that the facility is 85% complete. No money, however, is left to finish the project, which still needs carpeting, paint, parking lot resurfacing and the installation of a computer network for police and community use.

The group's ambitious plans called for the largest substation in the LAPD's network of more than 100 mini-stations, most of which are small, storefront operations. The 6,000-square-foot Koreatown facility would house the Wilshire Division's bike patrol and Korean Crime Investigation Unit and serve as a locker room for some officers. Also, the facility would serve as a community center, a place where diverse groups could come together.

Even if the group finds the additional $200,000 it says is needed to finish the work, there is no money available to maintain the site, which city officials say would cost $12,000 a month.

"It's a great idea. Unfortunately, it's stuck in a quagmire with the funding," said LAPD spokesman Cmdr. David J. Kalish.

As the project languishes, the group's financial problems mount. Large donations stopped long ago. According to an August 1998 financial report, the group has spent about $175,000, or about one-third of the cash it raised, on administrative and operating expenses, and $334,000 on construction. The association asserts that it spent less than 12% of donations on administration, using the $800,000 value of the bank building to reach that calculation.

Arthur T. Park, whose construction company has been doing the remodeling work, has filed a lawsuit against the association, the city, the project's construction manager and Bank of America seeking the more than $36,000 the company says it is owed.

George Richter, who volunteers as KOWAPSA's executive vice president, said the group does not plan to contest the suit, but cannot pay Park because it is broke. "It's a legitimate debt. We're not trying to get out of it," he said.

The station's boosters had expected to finish the project by the end of 1996. What they didn't plan for, however, was the slow pace of obtaining city building permits and approvals for other regulatory requirements. A city official familiar with the project said it took more than two years to clear regulatory hurdles.

Yohngsohk Choe, a KOWAPSA director who has worked extensively on the project, said the delays ate up the group's funds. Its single paid staffer was retained for more than two years instead of one year, and the group had to pay $1,300 a month in rent for its office, which had been given to it rent-free for one year. Choe said he asked several nonprofit groups in the area if KOWAPSA could use space in their offices but was told none was available.

The association also acknowledges that potential donors are skeptical because the station has yet to open. "People are saying, 'I'm not giving another dime until I see something happening,' and that's a fair position," Richter said.

Richter and other association officials said they believe that if construction is finished and the station is opened, donors will again put up money to maintain the facility.

Leaders now want the city to foot the final bill.

The Rev. Leonard B. Jackson, a minister at First AME church who is chairman of KOWAPSA's board, said he was told recently by LAPD officials that "funds have been designated and it will probably be completed in early 1999."

But the group's belief that public funding is on its way is news to city officials.

"I don't know why they have that expectation," said LAPD spokesman Kalish. "As far as the Police Department budget is concerned, there are no funds available."

City Councilman Nate Holden, in whose district the project is located, said the substation is still "an excellent idea."

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