Rodeo and La Brea: From Fires to Retail Destination

Mixed Messages 10 Years After The Riots

Staff Reporter

The parking lots are jammed with cars. There's enough business to sustain not only two large supermarkets, Ralphs and Albertsons, but also a Rite Aid, Sav-On and several mom-and-pop shops offering everything from baked goods to tennis shoes. There's also a Del Taco, KFC and McDonald's.

These days, the corner of La Brea Avenue and Rodeo Road could scarcely look more different than during those terrible days 10 years ago, when looting and fires destroyed so much of the area's retail community.

"It (always) was a shopping corner but it wasn't as vibrant as it is today," says Danny Sonnier, a 17-year resident of nearby Baldwin Hills Estates. "As you can see, it looks like any other shopping mall in the city of Los Angeles."

There are a few gaps. A 13-acre lot takes up the northwest corner soon to be developed as a Sav-On drug store and across the street, a large building that used to be Frank's Place restaurant is now empty. But by most everyone's account, the business mix is better and some of the old buildings destroyed have been replaced by larger, more attractive structures.

"I didn't think it was going to happen at all," said Carolyn Woods, who grew up in the area and moved back in 1996, when she still found the intersection "barren, scary." But she has been surprised by the changes.

Standing in front of the Rite Aid with a shopping basket full of grocery bags, Woods said, "It looks better, much, much better."

For those who remember the intersection a decade ago, the change is even more striking.

On his first visit to the Baldwin Hills Shopping Center after April 29, 1992, developer John Karubian was accompanied by some of his center's armed guards. What he found at La Brea and Rodeo was destroyed and damaged buildings, vandalized cars and broken glass and trash everywhere. People were still milling around to see if there was anything left worth taking from the already looted stores.

"I remember there were kids about 10, 12 years old running around with hammers and crowbars trying to break into things," Karubian said.

The center suffered $8 million worth of damage and owner Baldwin Hills Investors LCD had to offer tenants rent holidays and other concessions to help them get back on their feet. "We still had faith in the area," Karubian said. "(Leaving) was never really an option."

Profitable center

Today, the smoldering heap of wood and ashes that once was a Thrifty Drug store has been replaced by a 10,000-square-foot building with a Payless ShoeSource and a dry cleaners.

The destroyed Wherehouse music store has been rebuilt and houses a One Price Clothing Store. The Security Pacific Bank building that burned down has been replaced by a bakery, medical center and Pacific Bell store.

And the Baldwin Hills Shopping Center, which takes up the entire block on the intersection's southwest corner, finally became profitable about five years ago, said Karubian.

While Wherehouse Entertainment and Thrifty Corp. soon promised to rebuild their stores at La Brea and Rodeo, it has taken years for local merchants, residents and city officials to erase the marks left on the area. Cleaning up and repairing the damage was not enough to make people forget the images of looters and burning buildings. Concerns about crime, safety and other issues made some national chains and other businesses reluctant to invest in the area.

When the Newberry's department store chain declared bankruptcy and closed all its locations, including one on the southeast corner of La Brea and Rodeo, the space sat empty for years.

"We didn't have a lot of interest," said Richard Heller, vice president of development for Watt Commercial Properties Inc., which owns the properties on the intersection's southeast and northwest corners. "The rents that tenants were willing to pay weren't really what we were hoping for."

Curtis Fralin, a first vice president for CB Richard Ellis, said his business doubled after the riots because the supply of available spaces had been reduced by all the damage. But he found it difficult to attract national chains to the area.

History of retail

The intersection, made up of two major thoroughfares near the Santa Monica (10) Freeway, has always been a commercial center for the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw area. The community was once home to a significant Jewish population, much of which fled to other areas after the 1965 Watts riots.

The Baldwin Hills neighborhoods that overlook La Brea and Rodeo became home to many affluent, black families. The intersection was a "mecca for the black middle class" in the 1960s, according to Paula Woods, author of two novels set in the area.

But many of the community's middle-class residents started shopping elsewhere and the intersection began a steady decline. Chain stores, for the most part, stayed out while small, mom-and-pops moved in to serve the densely populated around it. Then came the riots.

"It raised the level of discomfort that retailers had in terms of coming to that location," said Ken Lombard, president of Earvin "Magic" Johnson's Johnson Development Corp.

To get Bank of America to return to the intersection, a letter-writing campaign was launched. L.A. City Councilmembers Nate Holden and Mark Ridley Thomas, whose districts meet at Rodeo and La Brea, worked to expedite projects by facilitating the permit process and assigning staffers to assist developers.

The effort required some convincing. The riots left the intersection looking more like a war zone than a commercial district. "The only way I have to describe (this is) you'd have to look at one of these movies that depicts anarchy," Sonnier said.

But what turned the tide was a simple economic reality: the area was home to lots of consumers.

Though he didn't oversee the Albertsons deal, Fralin was among those who worked to attract the supermarket chain to La Brea and Rodeo. Albertsons finally opened a 50,000-square-foot store on the Thrifty site in 1998. Rite Aid Corp. and Laguna Hills-based Del Taco Inc. also have opened stores there.

"They're all reluctant," Fralin said of national chains. "Sometimes you gotta apply political pressure...(or) you just have to give them great deals."

He emphasizes the area's high density when talking to commercial clients, hoping to make them see that less spending can be offset by higher sales volume. "We might not have the same median income (as other areas) but we can certainly buy just as much because there's more of us," he said.

That's what Martin Tepper, president of Inglewood-based Treasure Hunt Inc., discovered when he opened one of his discount stores three years ago at Rodeo and La Brea (replacing the old Newberry's). The 18,000-square-foot store has become the small chain's best sales store despite having the smallest average purchase amounts.

Even Sept. 11 failed to hurt the Rodeo store's sales. While sales at the other Treasure Hunts dropped, the South L.A. location saw an increase, Tepper said.

"It's absolutely incredibly crazy," he said.

Community effort

Some of the businesses made it through the riots unharmed, thanks in part to the efforts of their neighbors.

When Baldwin Vista resident Joyce Perkins heard about the disturbance and stepped out onto her porch to see what was happening in the area, she was greeted by huge flames and clouds of smoke.

"I cried when I saw it and it shocked me," she said. "When you've worked so hard in an area to bring in business and upgrade it, to see that kind of devastation happen overnight, it is just, what can I say, it's tragic."

So Perkins, president and founder of an area block club, gathered with others at the shopping center on the southeast side of the intersection and formed a human chain to protect the Clark's Drugs, Newberry's department store and Boys Market, the neighborhood's only large market at the time.

"We were just determined that we were not going to let that one burn, too," Perkins said.

Such displays of solidarity were common during the riots and businesses that stayed at Rodeo and La Brea found support among a lot of community members, as did retailers who moved into the area afterward. But whether the intersection has made a full recovery remains to be seen.

"It takes time to overcome (the stigma) and I recognize that," Perkins said. "It's constantly trying to make the sale to people."

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