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Revenue-Hungry City Finds New Use for Vacant Median

Lawndale OKs building of fast-food restaurants along a busy boulevard. Critics see safety issues.

May 19, 2003|Joy L. Woodson | Times Staff Writer

Lawndale has pondered over the years about what to do with the unusually wide median of Hawthorne Boulevard.

The 68-foot-wide median originally was used by Pacific Electric rail cars. When the Red Cars stopped running in the 1950s, officials covered the median with Astroturf. More recently, it has served as a parking lot.

Now, the city thinks it has the solution -- building restaurants on the swatch of land to combat economic hard times.

The city, a little less than two square miles with a population of 30,000, has been experiencing a lag in sales revenue and the restaurants would provide an addition $170,000 in annual revenues.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Lawndale -- An article in the May 19 California section about a development plan along the Hawthorne Boulevard median in Lawndale incorrectly said the Pacific Electric railway line in the city was abandoned in the 1950s. It was abandoned in 1937.

But not everyone believes it's worth it.

"It doesn't have a good element of safety with it," said John Gutwein, a regional planner for Los Angeles County. "Normally in the median it's not large enough that you could have restaurants and parking.... I've never seen such a project."

But Kurt Christiansen, director of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Planning Assn. and Sierra Madre's development services director, said he is intrigued.

With space limited in cities in Los Angeles County, he said, "people are starting to think outside of the box. There are a lot of innovative ideas floating around out there that need to be reviewed and analyzed to see if they work."

In January, the city agreed to move forward with development estimated to cost $2 million, including a Wendy's between 166th and 169th streets and a Starbucks and a Quiznos between 156th Street and Manhattan Beach Boulevard.

Only four of the 15 segments of median in the redevelopment zone will be used for commercial ventures. The rest will continue as landscaped areas and parking.

John Hemer, the city's community development director, compared the Hawthorne Boulevard project with Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, as well as with other developments on medians, including a condo complex along Ramona Boulevard in El Monte.

Lawndale's median offers enough space to build the restaurants and for cars to travel in and out of the area, said Rex Swanson, a consultant for the developer.

"The medians are prime real estate," he said. "Most people have a hard time visualizing something like this."

Indeed, former Councilwoman Virginia Rhodes said the plan seems dangerous, and questions the decisions of the city's redevelopment agency.

"It's out of line and it's outrageous," Rhodes said.

"The city would have full liability if someone jumped over the median" and ran into one of the buildings.

Rhodes and Nancy Marthens, another former councilwoman, are trying to recall council members who support the median project, which they believe should have been put to a vote of the people.

City officials insist there hasn't been an overwhelming outcry among business owners, just a few vocal objectors.

Some business owners and managers along Hawthorne Boulevard worry that construction is hurting their bottom line.

At Manhattan Beach and Hawthorne boulevards, business owners said they understand Lawndale wants the project but are concerned about the mountain of dirt blocking motorists from seeing their stores. The city said the dirt will be removed within 30 days.

Greg Carpenter, a former Lawndale city planner and Long Beach's zoning administrator, applauds the project, saying it will be an example for other struggling cities.

"We were operating outside the box and trying to be creative, Roth said. "If we don't do it, we're taking a step back in economic growth."

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