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Mall Divides, City Conquers?

Santa Ana center is many stores in one. Regulators say that's a violation, but owner says it was approved--and wants it affirmed.

October 22, 2002|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

Set on a gritty boulevard near downtown Santa Ana, the Bargain Discount Mall seems to have something for everyone in Marisol Moreno's family: barrettes, lunch boxes, jeans, shirts, socks, car upholstery, salsa music, a manicurist and hairstylist, and tacos.

Much to Moreno's chagrin, however, the city says the operation has violated city codes since the day it opened 13 years ago and should become one large store or close.

"This is the kind of place that's good for us," said Moreno, a mother of three, as she browsed the booths one day last week. "The prices are low, we can walk here and it's a nice place just to walk around. Why would anyone want to close it?"

City officials say the mall, on 1st Street near Center Street, lacks required parking, setbacks and a permit to sublease to businesses inside. Moreover, they say, mall owner Dale Lee did not get approval for operating what they contend is an indoor swap meet.

Deputy City Manager Cindy Nelson said the move against the mall is the result of a 2-year-old commercial code enforcement program.

Wayne Avrashow, Lee's attorney, argues that the city wants to replace a business catering to immigrants with one that's more upscale. City officials declined to discuss the case in detail, noting pending litigation by the city.

The mall has 55 stalls in a 30,000-square-foot building. Merchants pay as little as $300 a month for a space. On weekends and over the Christmas holiday, the mall teems with bargain-hunting families. The city says the mall should have 300 parking spots instead of 136. The city and Lee dispute how many spaces are available. A study done for the owner showed little overflow parking into adjacent lots -- even during peak holiday shopping.

"This is not Ralph Lauren," Avrashow said. "It's Mrs. Gomez selling fashions.... We believe the city just thinks, 'We can get an upscale business.' They all but said it in a staff report."

The city report states: "Legalizing the indoor swap mall would be a detriment to the inevitable recycling of this site and the surrounding area into a more economically productive and stable use."

Most of the merchants in the mall were unaware of the dispute.

"We don't know anything," said Xuyen Nguyen, who has sold inexpensive pots, pans, lamps and toasters in the mall for 10 years. That the mall could close "scares me."

The dispute began in 2000, when the city issued a citation for parking, setback and permit violations. In 2001, Lee asked for a permit to operate the mall. The Planning Commission will consider his case Monday. City staff recommends that the mall become one retail operation or shut down if the owner cannot address the violations.

But because he didn't cease operations as ordered, the city this year filed a criminal misdemeanor complaint, pending in Orange County Superior Court, City Atty. Joseph W. Fletcher said. Although the mall has operated for years, Fletcher says that does not mean it should be allowed to continue.

"When you get a ticket on the freeway ... you can't say, 'I've been speeding on this freeway every day for the past five years,' " Fletcher said.

The city's other major indoor swap meet, the Bristol Swap Mall, got a variance in 1985 that allowed it to operate without the parking stipulated in city code. It got a city permit.

Avrashow says the Planning Department approved a 1989 plan for Lee's mall, alternately called Bargain Discount Mall and Universal Discount Mall. Avrashow said the use plan clearly showed 37 partitions city officials must have seen when Lee gave it to them.

Avrashow conceded that the mall's original certificate of occupancy said "indoor swap meet is not a permitted use," but the lawyer said his client did not understand the meaning of the term "swap meet."

"The city knew from the start what the business would look like. What did they think when they saw plans for the partitions?" Avrashow said. "They knew it was not going to be a store like Macy's."

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