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Kent Hagan likes the fact that his business, Toyota of North Hollywood, is visible from the Ventura (134) Freeway. It’s the cranes, dust and debris engulfing his car dealership that drive him crazy.

“That great big crane turns it invisible,” said Hagan. “(Business) would be much, much better if construction was not there.”

Hagan is not alone in his assessment.

Since Metro Rail construction began down a stretch of Lankershim Boulevard in March 1994, North Hollywood businesses have been plagued with construction-related problems. And relief isn’t quite in sight the work is scheduled to run through the year 2000.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials say they are aware of the problems and have spent about $450,000 on newspaper advertising, roadway banner displays, new signs, grants and other aid intended to help businesses cope with construction.

But MTA officials acknowledge that relief is often slow in coming because of the approval process set up by the agency.

“(The mitigation) agency is new…but we’re learning and getting a little better,” said Steve Pippen, public affairs officer for the North Hollywood Metro Rail project.

“For a merchant who wants something right now, I could understand their frustration, ” Pippen said.

Business owners say the assistance has fallen far short of the need. “All I know is when I ask for something it takes months,” said Brian Sheehan, who owns the Eclectic Cafe at 5156 Lankershim Blvd. “It’s a joke.”

Sheehan said he inquired about getting grant money, but backed away after learning of the long waits. He ultimately sought assistance from the Valley Economic Development Center, which helped him get a $110,000 loan.

“It’s a crime that they make us go through this process,” said Sheehan. “Why should we have to borrow money for damages they’ve caused?”

Meantime, he said the continued dust, debris and street closures related to the tunneling have caused some of his patrons to go elsewhere.

Hagan was hit with a double whammy by Metro Rail construction he also owns Midway Ford on Vermont Avenue, which has been disrupted by construction along the Hollywood leg of Metro Rail.

Hagan said he was forced to close down his Mazda of North Hollywood dealership on Lankershim Boulevard last year, and convert it to a used car lot after the MTA installed a crane in front of the property.

“To produce revenue I made the (former Mazda store) a function of my Toyota store,” said Hagan, by stocking it with Toyota used cars.

Mazdas industrywide have not been selling nearly as well as Toyotas, said Hagan, and the freeway-visible Toyota sign for Hagen’s new-car lot now serves double duty by drawing customers to his used-car Toyota lot as well.

With the subway construction, his former Mazda dealership’s revenue had “dropped to nothing,” he said.

“There were days without seeing one customer in parts, services and sales.” said Hagan. “People were quitting. They had families to support.”

His former business went from bringing in $40,000 in monthly profits to losing $30,000 a month.

Hagan also said he had to let go of more than 40 employees, including salespeople, mechanics and customer service personnel.

And the big construction crane remains. “It’s brutal in front of that Toyota store,” said Bob Bruncati, who owns the Metro Ford dealership down the street.

The travails of North Hollywood businesses are similar to those suffered by businesses in downtown L.A. and Hollywood as subway construction tore up those communities in years past.

Pippen said the MTA recently hired another person to work with him in North Hollywood to help merchants deal with the problems of Metro Rail construction.

The MTA’s response comes after some 1,200 local businesses and property owners filed multiple lawsuits. In early 1996, 28 of those cases were consolidated into a single $2 billion class action suit.

The suit asserts that Metro Rail construction has damaged buildings, cracked sidewalks and destroyed profits by obstructing businesses from potential customers’ view, making accessibility difficult by blocking off streets, and making the general area customer-unfriendly with huge dust clouds and noise.

James Cragin, an MTA board member, said a number of cases are legitimate but that in some cases, damage was caused by the Northridge quake and not subway construction.

“Some people deny that and say their damage was caused by (construction),” said Cragin. “We know better.”

Bruncati of Metro Ford said all he can do now is borrow more money to stay in business. “We’re tied to leases, we can’t just walk away.”

Bruncati says his dealership, which made a profit of $300,000 last year, is nowhere near its earning capacity.

“After 17 years of being a dealer, to have to just sit back with my hands tied behind my back and not be able to help my business is terrible,” said Bruncati. “You can’t fight City Hall.”

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