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In South L.A., hope rises along with concrete, steel

A county building going up in the blighted area could house 1,000 workers who would use restaurants and services.

September 28, 2007|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

From outside his ailing dry-cleaning store, Badie Korouri sees the new four-story building going up across Vermont Avenue in South Los Angeles and thinks one thing: new customers.

The office building at the corner of 83rd Street with the colorful tile artwork on its parking structure is expected to house as many as 1,000 Los Angeles County government employees. For Korouri, they could be just what he needs.

"Our business is so bad it's hard to afford the rent," said Korouri, a co-owner of Park Lane Cleaners. "Right now it is very hard for us."

The commercial district along Vermont where his store is located has yet to fully recover from the 1992 riots triggered by the acquittal of officers in the videotaped police beating of Rodney G. King.

Several buildings there were torched during the violence, dotting the landscape with vacant lots.

"The area has floundered for years," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, who represents the district.

Now, local residents and business owners hope the new county building will attract more retail shops, other commercial operations and, especially, customers to the long-suffering business district.

The commercial blocks near the flash point of the infamous riots are still a patchwork of small businesses such as New Fashion Wigs and Baja Auto Body Parts. Storefront churches and medical clinics are common, and most properties are fortified with pull-down grates or spiked fences.

On adjacent residential streets, nearly every house or apartment building is protected by its own front-yard fence, creating a mismatched wall of steel and iron along the sidewalks.

Some who live near the new project are disappointed that they are getting an office building instead of a shopping center, Burke acknowledged. The fact that one of the tenants will be the Department of Public Social Services, which provides help to some of the region's most needy residents, was also an issue.

"No one wants poor people," Burke said.

The owner of Tires 'R Us, also on Vermont, has heard similar complaints.

"Some of my customers think we need more shopping or restaurants," Jose Daniel Ocampo said. "They say we don't need more social workers."

But Burke and others point out that the building will bring hundreds of workers to the area -- people with steady jobs and spending power.

"It's going to be a magnet for potential customers," said Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "It should provide a solid customer base."

In addition to the Department of Public Social Services, the lineup will now include the Child Support Services Department, the Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Mental Health.

The 220,000-square-foot project is being built by ICO Development. It will also include three small stores -- probably two restaurants and a bank -- intended to serve occupants and nearby residents, said Stephen Reinstein, a senior vice president at ICO.

"We hope this will be a one-stop office for county services," Reinstein said.

Downtown Los Angeles-based ICO specializes in building properties for occupancy by public agencies; it also operates public buildings in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

ICO will own and manage the Vermont Avenue building for the next 30 years while the county pays rent of about $2.88 per square foot per month, or about $7.2 million a year. Payment will climb to $3.07 per square foot in the second year of occupancy, but the rate is still within range of what other Los Angeles office landlords charge, said William Dawson, acting director of real estate for the county.

Federal and state funds for social services will cover some of the costs, and under terms of the lease the county will own the building after 30 years, Dawson said.

The building designed by the architecture firm Gensler also includes tile photo murals costing $415,000 that the developer was required to provide as part of a public art program.

When it comes to development in South Los Angeles, "there has probably been a disappointing amount of activity" since the riots, Kyser said.

Among the handful of retail projects since then are Chesterfield Square at Slauson and Western avenues and a neighborhood shopping center anchored by a grocery store at Slauson and Vermont avenues.

Although there are still gaps on commercial streets left from the riots, it's difficult and expensive to put together contiguous large parcels of land for large-scale development, Kyser said.

"People in the community are very anxious for higher-quality retail, but you still need to find the sites," he said.

One other large project planned near the building is a $100-million housing and retail complex to be built by the City of Refuge Ministries church and a Santa Monica developer on land the church owns around 85th and Hoover streets. Construction is slated to begin next year.

When the building opens in November, Korouri plans to draw county workers with fliers and discount certificates to his dry-cleaning shop, which employs 40 people in two shifts doing laundry, cleaning drapes and performing other services.

Korouri, 58, is a dapper former physician who gave up his dermatology practice in Iran 14 years ago and moved to the U.S. at his family's behest. He and a childhood friend bought the cleaners almost seven years ago. Korouri works six days a week.

Korouri would be less anxious if business were better, but he doesn't regret his decision to move to the U.S. "My children are happy now. My wife is happy now. Here there is freedom."

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