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Some Urban Pioneers Sour on 4th St. Project

They cite safety, maintenance issues. Developer calls the complaints baseless.

July 07, 2002|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the latest experiment in downtown living was launched nearly two years ago, brothers Chris and Peter Black were among those who wanted to be in on the ground floor.

"My brother and I were going to start our own studio, and this seemed like a new frontier," recalled Chris, a 35-year-old studio musician.

But the two native New Yorkers are among the folks who said they have had it with the Old Bank District project.

First, they said, it was the broken elevators. Then, they said, security was scaled back to almost nothing.

"Our ceiling was one of the worst ... that I saw," said Peter Black, 32. "They had people re-tarring the roof [with] big rolls, and they would drop them, and chunks of concrete would fall all over our apartment."

Added Peter's girlfriend, Carrie Vaiano: "We didn't have heat for the first two months we lived there. The place was absolutely filthy. A number of fire alarms went off."

So in March, Peter and Carrie ended their $1,575-a-month lease on a 900-square-foot unit at the Hellman Building at 4th and Main streets.

Chris and his wife also left.

"I feel we were duped," Chris Black said days before moving out this spring.

Project developer Tom Gilmore dismissed the complaints as unfounded. "Anytime somebody had a problem with their apartment, if they went to the property management office ... somebody would go and fix it," he said.

He also denied misrepresenting the amenities available at the three buildings that make up the 240-unit project. "It's baloney ... the whole thing about security," Gilmore said.

To be sure, his buildings have satisfied some tenants.

"We plan on staying here until we can buy something downtown," said Elizabeth, a 31-year-old TV producer, who asked that her last name not be used.

Living in the San Fernando Building has been such a positive experience, she said, that she and her husband were married on its roof by Gilmore.

Another San Fernando resident, Chris McCoy, 36, also praised Gilmore. "Tom has been ... good about making sure this is a community," said the computer consultant who moved in in November 2000.

Still, more than a handful of residents have been critical of the project. Last fall, 70-plus tenants at the Hellman signed a petition complaining about its safety. And in January, according to residents, more than half a dozen tenants moved out of the 110-unit structure.

"I am amazed at the number of people who did not renew their leases or left before their leases were up," said Stephen Grace, who moved into the Hellman last July and moved out in March.

Also a former New Yorker, Grace said he owned a co-op loft in Hell's Kitchen in the mid-1980s. "It's not as if I am naive about living in a city and a questionable neighborhood."

Still, Grace said, he was unprepared for life at the Hellman.

"Had it not been for the tenants pushing issues--whether it is personal safety, fire safety, maintenance--God only knows what would have happened here," he said.

Leading the push has been Patricia Gentry, a child advocate with the Los Angeles Superior Court.

Last summer, Gentry, 47, and Grace were designated tenant representatives. "I started making phone calls," Gentry said.

Her first calls to the city Building and Safety Department were exasperating, Gentry said, because its records showed that the converted office buildings were vacant.

Gentry, however, pressed for answers, exchanging letters and e-mails with city bureaucrats and elected officials. The pestering paid off, she said, after some city inspectors, and top building and safety officials, pressed for corrections. She left the Hellman in February.

Gilmore said Gentry was unreasonable.

"She wanted ... me personally to listen to her complaints," Gilmore said. "And on a certain level, I have to say, 'I am not doing that.' "

Said Gentry: "If he had called and said, 'I want to meet with you,' ... we would have been happy to. But he never did that."

Added Grace: "I think the whole concept of what Gilmore is doing is right on. I just don't understand how they've handled some of these issues.

"I am not willing to risk my safety to make a point that people can live downtown."

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