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Feeling pain of King's cuts

The Denny's in Kenneth Hahn Plaza is among several businesses losing customers after many services at the nearby hospital are eliminated.

August 31, 2007|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

Days after Los Angeles County began its most recent round of downsizing at Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, Yong Tai Kim, the 73-year-old owner of a Denny's restaurant across the street, said he could already feel the squeeze.

Lunchtime crowds were smaller. Hospital workers were missing, and the families of patients were not filling his booths as they did in the past.

"If it continues like this, I don't know if I can continue," Kim said. "We have 30 people, and I may have to let some go."

There are other signs of trouble at Kenneth Hahn Plaza, the shopping center across the street from the Willowbrook hospital. Lines are shorter at the Starbucks; even the fast-food restaurants don't seem as packed. The owners of the dry cleaners, who blame their downturn on the hospital's downsizing, posted a going-out-of-business note thanking customers, wishing them good health and listing a phone number to call to pick up clothes.

Adding to Kim's distress, the entire 165,000-square-foot-plaza -- anchored by a Food 4 Less, Rite Aid, Factory 2-U and General Discount Center -- is up for sale by Kimco Realty Corp., a real estate investment trust specializing in shopping centers anchored by supermarkets.

Much has been made of the healthcare failures of King-Harbor -- and the community that must cope without the full services of its historic hospital, treasured as a symbol of hope and progress when it opened in 1972. But little is known about the potential economic losses caused by the reduction of services, and the transfer of more than 1,600 jobs and numerous patients. An estimated 48,000 patients passed through the hospital last year.

The situation is considered bleak, even though the hospital will maintain a large segment of outpatient services.

"It will be catastrophic," said Oscar Neal, president of the Greater Watts-Willowbrook Chamber of Commerce and the owner of Jordan's Cafe, less than a mile from the hospital. "That is a big chunk of our economy, another slice of the pie taken away."

Nowhere is the impact expected to be greater than at the Kenneth Hahn Plaza, which was built in 1992 with the expectation that it would be supported by a vibrant hospital.

"That center will be hard hit," said City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district includes nearby Watts. Hahn was the marketing and advertising developer at the plaza when it opened in 1992 -- named after her father, the late county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.

At the time, a family-style restaurant was considered one of the key ingredients needed in a community that was no stranger to economic hardships.

"If you want to sit down and have a nice meal we don't have a lot of options," said Katherine Williams, president of the residents association at Nickerson Gardens, a nearby public housing project in Watts. "We have a lot of fast-food restaurants -- and fast food is not what we need."

Denny's was one of the few choices available when developers looked for a national restaurant to lure to the plaza. At the time, residents complained that the nearest chain restaurant was a Sizzler, about four miles away in Compton.

The Denny's "N" the 'hood, as it was called, opened in 1992 shortly after the riots and was the first full-service, family-style restaurant to open in the community since the 1965 Watts riots. At the time, it was the only black-owned restaurant in the Spartanburg, S.C.-based chain of nearly 1,500 eateries.

"I see a hospital across the street with 2,000 employees, a shopping center with 400 employees and a community with no place to sit down and eat," said entrepreneur Donald J. Bohana, who borrowed $800,000 to build and open the restaurant.

His Denny's would be different. Windows in the 150-seat restaurant were fortified with bullet-proof glass. And the owner deviated from the regular menu, offering soul food dishes: collard greens, chitterlings, oxtails and sweet potato pie.

Business was booming.

Then came the bust. Bohana was stripped of the franchise nearly two years after the opening for failing to make payments on his loan from Los Angeles County. (In 1998, Bohana was convicted of second-degree murder in the drowning of the ex-wife of Jackson 5 member Tito Jackson. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.)

By 2003, Kim had purchased the restaurant, and sales continued to increase until the Denny's started to encounter a series of difficulties -- a supermarket strike, an MTA strike and the shrinking of the hospital.

Kim says he has had few problems running the restaurant. He's had to clean up graffiti, and he had to pay $6,000 to replace scratched bulletproof windows. And he's learned to not make an issue with those who visit the restaurant only to use the restroom, not to eat.

"That's a problem," he said. "But it really isn't. I have to serve the community."

Kim, a pharmacist by training, attended UC Berkeley when he moved to California from Seoul in the 1960s. But because of a shortage of funds, the young father was forced to work in the restaurant business.

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