During the four years Chalino’s bar existed in a desolate 38th Street neighborhood across from Exposition Park, the stench of vomit and urine spilled from its entrance along with the sound of brawls and gunshots, neighbors and city officials say.
Patrons were frequently arrested for prostitution, gang activity and possessing and selling drugs. One night, customers allegedly set fire to a pair of cars parked on the street.
“Nearly every morning I would see broken beer bottles and glass on the sidewalk in front of the bar,” Elizabeth Olivo, a tenant who lived above the bar, said in a deposition. “I, as well as the other tenants in my building, did not feel safe going outside in the evenings, even before dark, due to the clientele the bar attracted.”
It took more than a year of complaining for neighbors to get the attention of city officials and another two years for them to succeed in shutting it down. Chalino’s owner, Mario Escobedo, took advantage of a lengthy appeals process.
It’s a scenario quite common in parts of Los Angeles. The many-headed bureaucracy that regulates various aspects of a single business’ activities everything from police to firefighter responses to food and beverage permits has little coordination among its agencies. And an appeals process set up to ensure that business owners get a fair shake is routinely played to maximum advantage by unscrupulous owners.
“This is a major problem in my district,” said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who is using Chalino’s as the poster child for two proposed ordinances she’s introducing to increase the city’s power to go after nuisance businesses. “It’s something we should have done long ago.”
Escobedo, who could not be reached for comment, started Chalino’s by converting a longstanding family restaurant called Tarasco Caf & #233; into a bar, using the original state alcohol permit that allowed him to serve beer. The bar is in a mostly industrial neighborhood with numerous sweatshops across the Harbor (110) Freeway from Exposition Park.
Soon after its opening in 2000, residents began complaining about loud music keeping them up until the early hours. In her deposition, Olivo said she would lay awake at night listening to the street fights, screeching cars and gunshots outside her window.
Tenants complained, but it took a while for Perry, city bureaucrats and the police to determine that the location was a nuisance. Even then, with its problems well documented and the bar lacking several permits, Escobedo’s appeals delayed the revocation of the permits it did have.
Then, when the city finally succeeded in closing the bar, Escobedo tried to reopen it under another name, according to Perry, in whose 9th District the establishment was located.
Perry, who is frustrated by businesses that continue to stay open after their license and occupancy permits are revoked, has proposed an ordinance that would give building inspectors and police new powers when trying to close problem businesses. The measure cleared the Planning and Land Use Management Committee last week.
The second motion, which Perry’s office expects to file by January, would allow the city to fence off, board up and padlock businesses refusing to cease operations.
Under the proposed ordinances, if a business refuses to close, city inspectors can shut off utilities and declare it unlawful to be on the premises. Both proposals are under review with the City Attorney’s Office.
Other council districts have their share of problem businesses whether it’s a strip club without permits on the Westside or motels renting rooms by the hour in the San Fernando Valley.
In Tujunga, the Bubblebath Carwash, a self-service carwash on Foothill Boulevard, was closed a couple of years ago when police found the business was an alleged front for a drug operation. Workers would offer to dry patrons’ cars, and while cleaning the interiors, they would allegedly open the glove compartment, pick up cash stashed inside, and leave behind drugs.
Or there was the Northridge homeowner who started an ostrich farm of 800 birds on his six-acre lot. The operation was shut down because feathers and dried bird droppings would become airborne and blanket the neighborhood.
Still, it’s south of downtown, in the districts of Perry and Councilman Bernard Parks, who is co-sponsoring the motions, where illegal businesses sprout like weeds through cracked pavement.
Vacant lots have become used-car dealerships and the site of spontaneous swap meets. Auto body centers become chop shops for stolen cars, and motels and liquor stores become home to drug dealers and prostitution.
In places where a problem business has been shuttered by the city, new operators move in without permits to set up shop.
“Even though they have been closed, people go in there illegally and run their business because they have lights and water,” said Perry. “These (measures) would give broad powers to prevent that.”
The Russ Hotel is one business being targeted by the councilwoman. Located a few blocks south of Skid Row on San Julian Street, the hotel had its occupancy and hospitality permits revoked about two years ago.
Yet it remains open, exposing tenants to an array of drug addicts, thieves and thugs who prey on them. According to police records, arrests and citations totaled nearly 200 since 1997 more than 50 of them after the hotel’s permit was revoked. The hotel’s owner, Edward Wong, didn’t return calls.
Another complication is relocating residents if a nuisance hotel is closed. Perry has proposed having the city pay the relocation costs and recouping the funds by placing a lien on the property. “We have a responsibility to protect those peoplse who use the property for legitimate purposes, whether legally or not, as a place of residence,” she said.
The proposals would also create a citywide database of businesses cited as a nuisance, list the problems at the location, and allow police to continuously update city officials monitoring the businesses as problems arise.