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Westchester Awakens From Its `Deadchester' Coma

Commerce rebounds after a decades-long slump. One man gets much of the credit; his daughter hopes to build on the family's legacy.

September 04, 2006|Ashley Surdin | Times Staff Writer

These days, small pockets of Westchester's business district are buzzing. Latte-toting people pass in and out of a coffee shop. Couples sit with their dogs outside a juice joint. The parking lots swell with shoppers.

New signs of life are sprouting along a one-mile stretch of Sepulveda Boulevard where otherwise aging and scruffy-looking 1950s buildings constitute downtown Westchester's nearly 2,000 retailers and offices.

"Now, it's very hip. It's bustling. It attracts people visually," said Didra Browntaylor, who grew up near Westchester and recently moved back with her husband and daughter.

Bill Talbot, the 59-year-old owner of Noisy Toys on Sepulveda, seconds that. After years of struggling to make ends meet, he sees a change: more stores, more people and, in turn, more business for him.

"This used to be a very sleepy post-World War II area," Talbot said. "We've had a lot of new people coming in, and I think that's what led to the recovery."

The changes point to a slow but steady recovery from a 15-year economic slump set in motion by the LAX expansion of the late '60s and, afterward, the opening of the Fox Hills Mall, now called Westfield Fox Hills, in Culver City. The first gobbled more than 3,500 homes and 10,000 residents; the second siphoned shoppers from the district.

"Westchester flourished for many, many years, but as the airport expanded, people did leave the community, and it went from flourishing to decline," said longtime resident Gwen Vuchsas, 59. "People called it 'Deadchester.' "

One business owner, Howard Drollinger, stayed while others packed up shop. Drollinger, the area's largest landowner and developer, believed the area could stage a comeback. So he poured decades and millions of dollars into a two-block shopping center called Westchester Village, lassoed national retailers -- such as Blockbuster, Boston Market and Radio Shack -- and put up a parking garage.

Drollinger learned at a young age to care about Westchester. His mother, Ella, built businesses there in the 1940s, when the area consisted of bean fields and a small landing strip. Her Jim Dandy Market was the district's first large commercial building.

Drollinger shouldered the family legacy until three weeks ago, when he died of lung cancer at 84 in his Playa del Rey home. But in the two months before his death, he offered that legacy to the next generation: his daughter Karen Dial. And Dial, 52, accepted.

"He needed somebody to take over that he could trust," Dial said from her home in Montana. "He said, 'I know you're not going to let things slip away.' "

Dial, who lives half time in Westchester, has become the acting president of her father's business, the 59-year-old H.B. Drollinger Co. on Sepulveda Boulevard. The company has 20 employees who oversee 400 tenants.

As president, Dial will dedicate herself to developing and rejuvenating the still-recovering district. And, she says, she'll do it with a vision that combines her dad's and her own.

Like her father, Dial wants to bring a family feel back the area. She envisions more specialty shops and family restaurants, the kinds of places she visited as a child, ice cream cone in hand, along Sepulveda Boulevard.

Also, like her dad, Dial wants to spruce up the boulevard. Already, she is working with Westchester's streetscape improvement association. And she's participating in talks to start a business improvement district, in which businesses would tax themselves to pay for upkeep.

Of course, her vision isn't identical to her father's.

"My vision would be, spend a little bit more money," said Dial, who would like to see some fresh paint, benches, trees and tiny nighttime lights.

"I'm hoping that if we start improving our buildings, other businesses will follow suit and improve the looks of their buildings."

If they did, Dial said, more residents, travelers and college students from nearby Loyola Marymount University would come downtown.

Christina Davis, executive director of the Westchester/LAX-Marina del Rey Chamber of Commerce, which represents the area's nearly 2,000 businesses, said the business community has welcomed the next Drollinger.

"Karen's presence has been very strongly felt for the last couple of years," Davis said. "For those of us who knew Howard and knew the Drollinger family, there is no fear. This is going to be a long-lasting relationship."

Dial learned her dad's business ethics early on. As a 4-year-old, she tidied the ladies' rooms of his office buildings for his weekly inspections. Later, when she could write, she took notes as he dictated.

As an adult, Dial set out on her own, working as a secretary and office manager for companies in L.A., Boston and Arizona. Then, two years ago, after marrying and having two children, she returned to her dad's side.

She watched the way he pulled figures from his head and remembered the names of every business owner -- a talent he inherited from his mother.

She also watched as he lowered rent for tenants when they struggled, and how he beamed when his ideas became reality, such as the parking structure he finally saw to completion when he was 81.

"I didn't know how his soft side would surface in the business area," Dial said. "That's what I had to learn from him."

Despite its apparent awakening, the business district is far from the flourishing retail center it once was.

Further LAX expansion remains a threat. Not all property owners share the zest to pay for a face-lift. Mom-and-pop stores, such as Pizza Napoli, struggle to survive among national chains.

Still, Dial is hopeful. Her grandmother stood by the district when times were good. Her father, when times were bad. Now, Dial plans to stand by it whatever comes next.

"I could never fill my dad's shoes," but if "I hadn't stepped in," Dial said, "there would be no more development, no more spiffing up of the buildings.

"Things work out in an unbelievable way."

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