Monday, December 21, 2009

Downtown Toy District In The Dumps

Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times picks up where the Downtown News left on the story of the long term decline of the Downtown Toy District and why its Business Improvement District was not renewed by the property owners. He also explains how the current already messy end situation is about to get a lot worse.

The BID expires Dec. 31, but the trash problem has been growing worse for weeks. The reason is that the Central City East Assn., the nonprofit organization that manages the BID, has been trying to husband the district's dwindling funds.

That means sticking firmly to its contractual duties -- hauling away pedestrian trash, not commercial trash such as discarded cartons, which is the landlords' and tenants' responsibility. As a result, garbage is already piling up. Come New Year's Day, when no one will be responsible for emptying corner trash cans -- watch out.

All private security currently paid for by the BID also ends that day and the already growing numbers of tents in the District at night are already making parts of Los Angeles Street almost impossible to walk along after dark.  There were also now be one less set of eyes to watch over the homeless and protect them from those who prey upon them at night and one less group of people trying to encourage them to accept the services and help they need.

Now the underlying reasons for the current problems in that area are due to a lot of changes in both the national and the international toy - and other - wholesale markets.  And those markets are never going to come back the way they were - and Toy Town is not going to be the place where they will be primarily coming back since since there are already places where it is easier and cheaper to service wholesale buyers.  If anything, the area will continue to decline into more of a lower quality and  lower priced swap meet alternative to the also declining Broadway retail district than return to being a true wholesale market.

The only good news is that this area is already starting - at its edges - to be incorporated into the adjoining Historic Downtown Business District as Historic Downtown slowly, store by store, expands down towards Los Angeles Street.   And, to a lesser extent, functions of both the Fashion and Little Tokyo business districts will eventually move into the Toy District.

But even though I am quoted as saying the Toy District has a long term brighter future - I - and everyone else in the area agrees it's going to get a lot worse in Toy Town before it gets any better.

Other downtown pros say the Toy District's overall future is uncertain. Brady Westwater, who works closely with the downtown historical district, thinks eventually it will be swallowed up by healthier adjoining retail districts where space for expansion is already in demand. "Its long-term future is bright, but not as a toy district," he says. That transition depends on its remaining clean and safe, however, which may not be in the cards. 

"It's going to be a mess for a while." 

Others say predictions of its death are premature. Pouya Abdi, a district landlord who favored renewing the BID, says the district needs concessions from the city, such as a relaxation of parking regulations. 

"This is an area where a Third World mentality thrived," he says. "Then the city started enforcing rules. A customer would buy items that cost 50 cents and get a $35 ticket for loading. So he wouldn't come back anymore."

The collapse of the Toy District BID illustrates one of the real drawbacks of providing municipal services on a block-by-block basis. The health of the entire downtown depends on cleanliness and safety, but one cluster of strapped or recalcitrant property owners can rip a hole in the fabric. 

Unfortunately, in Los Angeles providing trash pickup and security patrols through BIDs is a necessity, because Proposition 13 has left the city without the resources to deliver specialized services to downtown neighborhoods without special assessments. 

But creating and funding a BID requires a majority vote of its property owners. Downtown executives say that BIDs are a hard sell for some property owners even in good times and in upward-bound neighborhoods. 

"Unless we can prove that we're increasing property values and rents, it's hard to justify those additional assessments," Smith says. 

In districts where rents are on the downward slope, owners start to see the BID as just another revenue drain. 

"Our cash flow is very bad," says Saeed Farkhondehpour, the largest property owner in the Toy District. He says he opposed renewing the BID because "the work they were doing wasn't making a big difference." Farkhondehpour, whose under-construction Medallion project will be partially within the Toy District, told me his portion of the BID's roughly $500,000 annual budget came to $150,000. He believes he can get trash collected for less. "We're going to handle it internally." 

But unless he can get his fellow landlords to come together, there still won't be services for the whole Toy District. 

The landlords as a whole haven't shown themselves to be the most proactive bunch thus far. Many tenants occupy spaces without access to commercial trash service or even basic sanitary facilities. Some say their landlords tell them to dump their stores' refuse in the nearest pedestrian trash can. 

"The tenants don't have a clue," says Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Assn. "That's a multilingual, multicultural area. Some of them have been told by their landlords that we are their trash service. We ended up being the de facto commercial refuse service simply to keep the area clean because if we didn't we'd have a vermin infestation and worse." 

The city hasn't been very proactive either. Jan Perry, whose City Council district encompasses the area, says she steered clear of the efforts to renew the Toy District BID because these districts are "a form of self-governance, and it's not appropriate to exert undue political influence." 

She says it's "shortsighted" for the property owners to let the BID expire, and that come Jan. 1 she'll seek a special detail to keep the district clean, but it will be "a full cost recovery operation," meaning it will be paired with stepped-up code enforcement -- and fines. 

In other words, an answer to the Toy District's future isn't on the horizon. But the broader question is how to find a solution to the city's powerlessness. "This is the system working as it should, in sort of a perverse way," Lopez says. "It is up to that community to decide for itself where it wants to go."

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