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Q&A | LOCAL GOVERNMENT

Could Starbucks give Boyle Heights a needed jolt?

October 23, 2006|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Shortly after he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council last November, Jose Huizar moved from El Sereno back to Boyle Heights, the neighborhood where he grew up.

Huizar began looking around at his boyhood haunts and decided that it would be nice if the old business district in Boyle Heights had a coffeehouse.

Part of this was the urban planner in him -- coffeehouses generate pedestrian traffic, which in turn can help bring people back into a neighborhood.

And maybe his new job motivated his interest. After all, Huizar's duties require him to sit through three full council meetings each week and three committee hearings.

In other words, if he were to arrive at City Hall attached to an intravenous bag of coffee, it would be hard to argue.

And that brings us to today's first question ...

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Question: What's Huizar doing about his coffee interest?

Answer: Trying to persuade one of the major chains to put a store in Boyle Heights.

So far there's interest, but no definite takers.

"It's not so much the coffee shop itself; it's the symbolic part of it," Huizar said, walking on a recent day through the neighborhood around 1st and Soto streets. "It shows that this place is ripe for investment."

Ripe is probably not a word that everyone would use. Some might even suggest that trash in the streets and the empty storefronts suggest that Huizar has a powerful imagination.

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Q: Will a chain coffee store roll the dice on such an area?

A: At least two of them -- Starbucks, the chain with the most in the city, and the Coffee Bean -- have told Huizar they will consider it.

Key word there: consider.

It is not exactly a secret that the chain coffeehouses are clustered in parts of town that are more well-heeled. Check out the map that shows the location of Starbucks stores in the city of L.A.

Interesting statistic: The two Westside council districts have 45 Starbucks shops between them, including 11 at Los Angeles International Airport. Meanwhile, council districts 1, 6, 7, 8, 14 and 15 -- which cover much of the northeast Valley, the Eastside, Watts and the harbor area -- have just 17 combined.

Santa Monica has 15.

Hmmm.

It should be noted that Starbucks and The Times didn't agree on how many Starbucks there are within city boundaries.

I counted 140 based on a listing on the Starbucks website's store locator. Starbucks officials said the number was about 100, but also conceded that they weren't sure which communities were part of the city.

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Q: So how does Starbucks locate its stores?

A: Among the criteria are the interest of residents, potential for signage and parking and whether a location allows Starbucks to build a store that provides "the Starbucks experience," said Leo Thomas, regional director for the company.

Thomas said the race and income of nearby residents are not factors.

"We currently have two stores in Compton, we have a store in Watts; we have gone into what we consider to be underserved communities," Thomas said.

He added that Starbucks is looking at Boyle Heights but hasn't made a decision.

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Q: So what are Huizar's chances of succeeding?

A: Starbucks recently began selling doughnuts.

And what's coming soon to the location that Huizar is pushing at 1st and Chicago?

The new Hollenbeck police station.

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Q: Why do reporters need to show up sometimes with a working tape recorder?

A: Because people such as Dr. Ralph Di Libero go before the Board of Supervisors and find strange metaphors to convey their enthusiasm for the county's rescue plan for Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

Hit it, Doc:

The supervisors, he said, are "taking this potential healthcare delivery tragedy and, without hesitating a moment or waiting until the stroke of midnight, [are] turning this broken healthcare pumpkin into a regal carriage before the end of November."

Di Libero added that he hoped that the county health department chief, Dr. Bruce Chernof, "will find himself baking healthcare pumpkin pies come Thanksgiving."

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Q: What happens Nov. 30?

A: The federal government cuts off $200 million in funding for the hospital because of the poor care it provides patients. If that happens, supervisors say, it might close.

Di Libero, by the way, represents the Los Angeles County Medical Assn., a group consisting of private practitioners who might have to treat more uninsured patients if King/Drew doesn't survive.

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Q: Back on the subject of purveyors of caffeine -- what other neighborhoods are calling out for a coffeehouse?

A: Western Heights, just west of downtown.

Attentive readers of this space may recall that's the gentrifying neighborhood that flirted with civil war over the issue of street barriers.

"We have great homes and great people living here and lots of artists, and we don't have a coffee shop within two miles. It's incredible," said Katie Larkin, an emigre to Western Heights from Venice.

She recalled what happened in Venice in the early 1990s when Hal's restaurant and Abbot's Habit, a cafe, set up shop on an otherwise bleak stretch of Abbot Kinney Boulevard: The area slowly started to rebound.

Now she looks out on Washington Boulevard -- notable for its lack of notoriety -- and wonders who will roll the dice on places such as Western Heights.

"If you don't live here, not only does Washington look bad, it looks dangerous," she said. "But it really isn't. I know no business wants to be the first, but I think if someone came in here it would be just like Abbot Kinney. One successful business, and others would come."

steve.hymon@latimes.com

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