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Residents Protest State of Skid Row

Changes promised four years ago have failed to materialize, they say. They ask the city to crack down on 'nuisance' hotels.

October 29, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

People who live and work in downtown Los Angeles' skid row area thought they had won a major battle four years ago when city zoning officials declared 11 residential hotels public nuisances and ordered improvements.

Now, neighborhood activists complain that the hotel owners have not made those changes and that crime and squalor are as bad as ever.

At a rally and news conference Tuesday, community members and two City Council members called on the city to begin vigorously enforcing orders to crack down on drug dealing and prostitution, clear trash and properly dispose of needles and syringes in and near skid row hotels, bars and liquor stores.

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents the area, agreed that monitoring of nuisance cases is "sporadic and inconsistent." She said zoning officials have complained that they don't have enough staff to keep close tabs on the hotels. But Perry said a more concentrated effort still can be made.

"This community deserves to be treated like any other," she told supporters at the rally, held at a 6th Street child-care center operated by the social service group Para Los Ninos. "This is a basic health and safety issue. We need clean places for children. They shouldn't even have to ask for that."

One youngster who spoke at the rally, 11-year-old Travelle Robertson, said he is "tired of drugs, fighting and people dying in my community."

Travelle, who lives with his family in a nearby transient hotel that was declared a nuisance, said he frequently encounters drug-tinged needles, used condoms and crack pipes near the hotels while helping to clean up the neighborhood.

"I need a clean place to play," he said to cheers.

Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa also noted the health risk to children and said city officials must develop a comprehensive plan to address blight on skid row and throughout the city.

According to a recent study by USC's medical school, more than 700 homeless children live on or next to skid row, a 50-square-block area on the eastern side of downtown.

Many of the youngsters staying at hotels that cater to transients are exposed to rats, illegal drug sales, prostitution and violent crime, according to the report by the school's division of community health.

Protesters identified the Travelers Hotel, which abuts the Para Los Ninos playground, as a major source of complaints. But Frank A. Weiser, an attorney who represents the Travelers, the Ross and several other hotels declared nuisances in 1999, said the owners have taken steps to improve conditions, such as installing video cameras, and have made $100,000 in renovations.

Protesters complained that the Ross, on San Julian Street, has had its permit subsequently revoked but is still operating.

Weiser, however, said the hotel is in the midst of a lawsuit filed against the city alleging that there has never been credible evidence to back up the revocation and that some of the city's demands are unconstitutional.

"Nobody has ever shown an actual case of someone being arrested in the hotel or crime originating from the hotel," Weiser said. "I think there is a political agenda because these hotels cater to the homeless, and because of downtown development, they don't want the homeless or hotels around anymore."

Eric Moses, a spokesman for the city attorney's office, said investigators are examining the Ross Hotel situation to determine how to proceed.

Meantime, community activists and residents argue that such conditions would not be allowed to fester in wealthier areas of the city. At Tuesday's news conference, community leaders from South Los Angeles, the Pico-Union district and parts of the San Fernando Valley agreed, saying the city was not paying attention to blight in their neighborhoods either.

In his 1999 opinion about skid row, Zoning Administrator Daniel Green said behavior "in and adjacent to some of the nuisance businesses would never be tolerated in Hancock Park, Beverly Hills or most other communities."

Relying on declarations from residents, crime statistics, police surveillance and paramedic reports, Green ordered a massive cleanup of the 11 residential hotels and six bars, restaurants and liquor stores in an attempt to improve the living conditionson some of Los Angeles' meanest streets. Most are on 7th Street between Wall Street and Central Avenue; some are on San Julian and Ceres Avenue.

Property owners were ordered to install video monitoring equipment, hire security guards, increase outside lighting and undergo police counseling on how to deter crime.

Some of the hotels were also ordered to fingerprint and photograph all guests who ventured beyond the lobby and to forbid room keys from being taken outside the building.

In an interview Tuesday, Green said some of the businesses had closed since he issued his original order. Others had been found to be in compliance. He acknowledged that reviews for several hotels were overdue.

But he said zoning officials were hampered because they relied on reports by police, building and safety officials and the community to document nuisances.

"We can reassure the community that if that information is provided to us, we can take the next logical step," Green said. "But if we don't get that evidence, we have no basis for knowing what's going on."

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