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Retail projects don't register with local activists

December 11, 2006|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

For the last 37 years, Laura Gutierrez has lived in Glassell Park, a Los Angeles neighborhood that sits along the city's namesake river and forms a jumble of industrial, commercial and residential properties.

Although Gutierrez likes it enough to stay, she often wonders why her decidedly working-class community doesn't have the amenities that seem to grow on trees in other parts of Southern California.

"Try looking for a Starbucks or bookstore here or a place to work out," Gutierrez says. "We don't even have a bank. As far as a nice sit-down restaurant, the nicest thing we have is maybe Denny's."

Gutierrez is one of many Glassell Park residents fighting what they view as the latest stain on their neighborhood: a Home Depot store proposed on the site of a shuttered Kmart. About 15 miles to the north, the same battle is taking place in Sunland-Tujunga, where the proposed conversion of another closed Kmart to a Home Depot got underway last week.

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Why are residents upset if a big-box retailer already occupied both sites? (It's not like Home Depot is razing an old folks home.)

"Kmart was a general merchandise store that served the needs of the community," said Joe Barrett, who lives in Sunland-Tujunga. "Home Depot is a regional warehouse seller, and they cater to professional contractors and do wholesale and retail that's not called for" in the city's community planning document. Barrett said his community really wants another general retailer, such as Target -- which they currently have to travel outside city limits to find.

In Glassell Park, opponents are taking a different tack. They note that the proposed Home Depot would be the company's fourth outlet along an 8.2-mile stretch of San Fernando Road.

Furthermore, opponents, including Gutierrez, want something pedestrian-friendly to complement a new satellite campus of Los Angeles City College being built across the street.

Most surprising is the vitriol involved in the dispute.

The group Barrett presides over in Sunland-Tujunga has a website that includes several photos of trash piled outside local Home Depot stores. It also contains this succinct message:

"We are more than happy to drive 7 minutes to your garbage dump" -- meaning, store -- "in San Fernando for our home improvement needs! That is, if we can't find what we need at our many home improvement stores in Sunland-Tujunga."

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And what is Home Depot's take?

"We're aware that the community is clearly divided, but our research shows that there is still tremendous local support to build these stores," said Kathryn Gallagher, the regional spokeswoman for the company. Gallagher also said the brisk business at other Home Depot stores along San Fernando Road demonstrates the need for a new store in Glassell Park. And she believes the new stores, with their home improvement classes, will result in residents fixing up their houses.

Gallagher also said the city would profit, noting that the 13 Home Depot stores in Los Angeles together paid about $1.4 million in taxes to city coffers last year. Each store typically employs about 200 people.

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What are the chances that Home Depot will prevail?

Good, although it may not get everything it wants.

In Sunland-Tujunga, the city's Building and Safety Department already has granted the company permits to convert the old Kmart store. Residents, with the support of Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, are appealing the permits decision. They argue that Home Depot is fundamentally different from Kmart and shouldn't be allowed under the city's zoning laws.

In Glassell Park, Home Depot wants to tear down the Kmart and build a bigger store. Council President Eric Garcetti, whose district includes the site, is pushing for a change in city law that would not allow a store larger than the Kmart already there to be built.

Gallagher said that Home Depot will build whatever city law allows at the site.

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And the point of the story?

It remains very difficult to undo planning decisions in Los Angeles made in earlier decades.

That means that Glassell Park, in particular, is probably going to be stuck with a big-box store on the Kmart site unless a big-bucks developer buys the land and proposes something else. And even that would require the developer to sit on the land for months or years and get all the necessary approvals.

All of this explains why Gail Goldberg, the city's planning chief, is pushing her agency to rewrite huge chunks of the city's planning code.

"The current plans don't always reflect the community's needs, and unfortunately we have to follow the plans that are in place," Goldberg said. "We can't control what retailer comes into a building," but with new plans "we can control the scale and the pedestrian orientation of these buildings."

Nine community plans are in the works, and Goldberg wants to rework many others. If the process succeeds -- "if" is the operative word -- it could give residents -- not developers and not big business -- a much larger say about what gets built and where.

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