Farmers market merchants say Work on the grove hurts business

At 25 acres, The Grove at Farmers Market is one of the biggest retail centers to rise from the ground in the last 20 years. And when it opens in 2002, anchored by a Nordstrom, several movie theaters, 50 retail stores and tons of office space, it will be one of the fanciest.

But as busy workers level buildings, bulldoze the ground and tear up streets, construction at the new Farmers Market is putting a dent into many of the businesses at the old Farmers Market.

Disgruntled merchants who have been at the landmark Farmers Market for years say that sales in recent months are off anywhere from 10 to 40 percent.

The number of parking spaces has been cut and then added. Traffic jams on some days have made it a challenge to get to the 67-year-old market at all. And plywood fences thrown up around the construction site give the area the look of an abandoned eyesore.

Despite the fact that green-and-white banners are hung declaring that the old Farmers Market is open, many customers and tour buses have been steering clear of the venerated tourist attraction, where people come to pinch the produce, chew the fat (both literally and figuratively) and glimpse a movie star or two.

"My business has been thrown off by 25 percent," complained Bob Arranaga, owner of El Hijo del Granjero, a Mexican restaurant inside the old Farmers Market.

Indeed, when construction began on The Grove in September, dozens of parking spaces were eliminated to the east of Farmers Market, creating a number of frustrated patrons. Months later, however, scores of parking spaces were added to the north when several old buildings were torn down.

"Merchants have been telling us they have been experiencing some degradation in their sales because of the construction activities," said Hank Hilty, president of the A.F. Gilmore Co., the family-owned company that owns the land occupied by the historic Farmers Market and The Grove. "It's been mostly because of the changes in the parking in the market."

Hilty said he and his staff have made every effort to let customers know there is plenty of parking. While they have advertised in local publications and hung bright yellow-and-black banners around the market to point out the location of new parking spaces, Hilty admitted, it is hard to change people's habits.

"People get accustomed to things being a certain way and change takes a while to accommodate," he said.

Parking disruptions

Indeed, merchants complain that even a few weeks of parking problems have thrown a pall over business because it takes months to get frustrated patrons to return.

"Parking (to a retailer) is like water to a farmer," Arranaga observed. "If you take water away from a farmer, his crops die. They are drying us out."

Parking, which will fluctuate in 2001, is not the only problem. Construction will heat up early next year, affecting traffic on Third Street, which in November saw traffic jams that stretched for blocks.

"That is really going to be a pain in the butt for us," said Scott Bennett, whose profits at Bennett's Ice Cream are down about 10 percent.

"It has been disruptive," agreed Bob Tusquellas, who started working at his father's Farmers Market meat market 47 years ago when he was 11. Now the gray-haired businessman owns three retail stores there: Tusquellas Seafoods, Tusquellas Oyster Bar, and Bob's Coffee & Doughnuts.

While Tusquellas noted that his business has declined slightly in recent weeks, he believes it is due more to the slowing economy and distractions caused by the presidential election. "People have had to park in different locations than they are used to," he said. "But Farmers Market people are very loyal. Some of my customers have been coming to me for 20 to 30 years."

Stephane Strouk, who operates three stands at the market, noted that his business has been disrupted since construction began. But he prepared for a slowdown by launching a Web site in October where customers can order food from his Mr. Marcel's Cheese Shop or Mr. Marcel's Grocery. He also owns the French Crepe Company. "It is going to be tough for everybody," Strouk said.

It's already been tough for Ursula Russo, who owns Tony's Pizza & Spaghetti. Her eatery is located on the western end of the market where gates have been closed due to construction. Business, she said, is down 40 percent and she has had to lay off one full-time employee and one part-timer.

Long-term benefits

While retailers agree that 2001 will be a challenge, they almost all agree that The Grove, being developed by Caruso Affiliated Holdings of Santa Monica, will be good for business in the long run. Some are concerned that the new regional shopping center will provide competition for them. But most note that The Grove will draw thousands of people and is an entirely different concept than the historic market.

While The Grove will have Nordstrom, a flagship Banana Republic and Crate & Barrel, the old Farmers Market will keep its historic charm, which is a rare commodity in modern L.A.

The Farmers Market started in 1934 when a collection of farmers pulled their trucks on to the empty expanse of land and paid 50 cents a day to sell their produce. The trucks gave way to wooden stalls and expanded to restaurants that attracted tourists. The market is relatively unchanged with its open-air patios, wooden walls and funky metal and wooden folding chairs.

To encourage business between the old and new, a trolley will shuttle customers between the historic Farmers Market and The Grove. And many more people will likely be shopping in the neighborhood than before.

"I can't wait," Stephane Strouk said. "It's going to be a great addition."

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