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|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
The scene is so L.A.: a line of red-tile roofs covering tidy stucco houses, most painted off-white or ochre, with an occasional pistachio green or bubblegum pink tossed in for fun. The windows are arched, in mock-Spanish style. A few — only a few — sport black iron bars. Each front yard boasts a carefully trimmed postage-stamp lawn; some include inflatable plastic pools that are filled from the garden hose to give children relief from 100-degree summer afternoons.
Here on LaSalle Avenue the street is lined with willowy Chinese elms. A couple streets over begin the famous rows of tall palms, extending west toward the beach and north to the freeway.
Take LaSalle to the end and you’re on Florence, where things are a bit less tidy. Storefront churches mingle with auto repair shops, and much of the commercial strip consists of intriguing but empty and ramshackle 1930s streamline buildings. This area could stand an infusion of new business. Charles Williams wants to give it some — he is planning a 58-unit motel for his vacant lot at the corner of Florence and LaSalle.
“There’s a great demand here for nice clean rooms,” Williams explains. “When you get out to Inglewood you start seeing the Marriott and places like that. People staying here deserve the same things that people in Gardena and Inglewood have.”
“Here” is Manchester Square, in the middle of South Los Angeles. Williams’ lot on Florence sits five blocks west of the spot where Reginald Denny was dragged from his truck and beaten on live TV in the midst of the 1992 violence sparked by the Rodney King verdicts. This area, already devastated by gang killings and drug dealing, was further traumatized by the rioting that burned out small shops and continues to scare off investors and builders looking for places to open new businesses.
While the rubble still smoldered, neighborhood activists organized to make sure the crime magnets that made life dangerous for people just trying to get to school or work would never reopen. First on their list were liquor stores. Second: Motels. Residents of the neat stucco houses and leaders of the storefront churches are now working hard to make sure Williams’ new motel never gets built.
“A motel in this neighborhood becomes a center for prostitution,” says Pastor Roger Smith of the Southwestern Church of God. “It’s a breeding ground for it. Along with this prostitution comes the drug dealers. The alcoholism.”
South Los Angeles is known for its motels, and it’s not because the area is a tourist attraction. Many of the tiny lodgings were built in the 1930s and have never been upgraded. Rooms often rent by the hour. Women wearing revealing dress and the desperate looks associated with drug addiction can be spotted in front, usually at night, but often in broad daylight. A few miles to the east on Figueroa, notorious for its prostitution, motels have been hit with city nuisance abatement orders and even injunctions, but the illegal activity persists. For a few years, the city had a moratorium on building new motels. But that just increased demand for the older, troublesome lodgings.
A new variety of hotel/motel sprung up on Western Avenue near 41st Street several years ago. At that corner sit three massive, fortress-like structures, with no windows on the street. One of them sports an American Automobile Association symbol. But even there, on a recent Saturday, a woman in a tiny skirt and revealing tank top stood outside in full daylight, beckoning to any male driver who cruised by.
A check of directories shows 37 hotels and motels within a three-mile radius of Florence and LaSalle. No major visitor attractions are in the area, although Hollywood Park and the Forum are not far. Motel density is higher in Hollywood, downtown and Santa Monica, areas more traditionally associated with tourism.
Williams, a real estate agent who owns two Magic Carpet Motor Inns in South L.A., first presented neighbors with his plan for a new three-story Magic Carpet nearly two years ago. It didn’t go well.
“There was just howling and screaming,” Williams says. “One lady said it was going to block the sun. Another one said it was going to block the view. The meeting was that kind of tone. They kind of fed on each other.”
Williams says no one in the community has shown any interest in listening to his explanation about his motel, how it will meet a great demand in this part of the city for clean rooms and show investors that new business can thrive in South L.A. “I don’t want those girls out front wearing skirts that you can see half their butts,” he says. “We don’t allow hanging out. My motels are on the order of a Best Western or a Quality Inn. But they don’t listen. They just don’t want a motel.”
City Councilman Bernard Parks has attempted to quell the fears of residents by promising to insist upon the type of motel that will be able to earn a “five-star” rating from the American Automobile Association. He tried to sway residents at a June community meeting by telling them NFL football would return to the Coliseum — and that people coming from out of town for a game would need a place to stay. In fact, if you draw a line between the airport and the Coliseum, you come pretty close to the corner of Florence and LaSalle.
“I think we have to look at ways in which if we’re going to go out and solicit a multimillion-dollar enterprise in our community, then we have accommodations that allow people to come in and live just like any other community,” said Parks, who sits on the Coliseum Commission.
The meeting was run by the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment, which led the effort to rid South Los Angeles of the glut of liquor stores that activists say continues to tear at the fabric of the community. The coalition has enjoyed remarkable success — but closing liquor stores that even city officials agree are crime magnets can take 10 years or longer.
“Our organization has been working on this motel issue for 13 years,” coalition director Karen Bass says. “And, see, that’s the problem, because once they open there’s nothing that you can do. So the idea of a new one coming in, that’s what’s so upsetting.”
Lisa Harris lives a few doors from the motel site and attended a neighborhood council meeting at which Parks reiterated his insistence on a “five-star” motel. But she said the councilman, who served as an LAPD officer and then as chief for 30 years, ought to know that any motel can attract prostitution.
“You are not going to get someone from out of town flying into LAX and saying, ‘I think I’m going to go and stay at the Magic Carpet motel on Florence and LaSalle,’” Harris says. “You’re not going to get that. It’s ridiculous.”
Roger Smith, the Southwestern Church of God pastor, agrees. “We know better,” Smith says. “I don’t have relatives that’s going to come from out of town for an NFL game and live here where there’s trash on the streets. If [Parks] believes that then I would have a lack of respect for his intelligence. It’s incomprehensible that he would believe that. I don’t foresee anyone wanting to come to a motel that’s directly in the inner city.”
Williams says he has no intention of applying for the Auto Club diamonds that Parks demands (the AAA now uses diamonds instead of stars). But even if he did seek diamonds, he would never get five of them. The AAA’s 2003 Tour Book lists only five five-diamond hotels in Los Angeles County — the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey, and Raffles L’Ermitage, Beverly Hills Hotel, Four Seasons and the Peninsula, all in Beverly Hills. High-season room rates at these hotels start between $300 and $400, and top out at $3,000 at the Peninsula. The five-diamond distinction is only awarded to properties that “reflect the characteristics of the ultimate in luxury and sophistication,” and “meticulously serve and exceed all guest expectations while maintaining an impeccable standard of excellence.” If the Bel-Air, the Biltmore and the Bonaventure can’t get five diamonds, neither will a 58-unit Magic Carpet Motor Inn on Florence.
Parks hedged at a recent neighborhood council meeting, saying he insisted on five stars in part because he knew Williams could never meet the standard. But he also says the community just doesn’t get it.
“You can’t keep telling developers absolutely ‘I don’t want things of any type’ and then have vacant lots and make complaints about having vacant lots,” Parks says. “We will not support a motel that supports prostitution. But this community is in an ideal situation to recoup some of the entrepreneurial spirit if you get a football team. And why wouldn’t you want businesses to come in to support that kind of operation?”
Outside a zoning hearing last week members shouted a list of demands for the property. Build 24-hour day care, they urged. Build a “drop-in work center.” Build senior housing. “Five star, three star, we don’t care, we don’t need another motel,” they shouted, although the rhythm wasn’t quite right and the chant quickly petered out.
Inside, the hearing went poorly for Williams. First a Community Redevelopment Agency representative said the motel design failed to meet CRA standards — although he admitted he had never gotten around to sharing his decision with Williams or allowing him to amend his plan. Then Parks’ aide David Roberts surprised the 80 or so motel opponents in attendance by announcing, for the first time, that the councilman believed the Magic Carpet was not of the proper caliber. If it couldn’t make it in Beverly Hills, Roberts said, it wasn’t welcome in South L.A.
Based on Williams’ failure to meet the previously unknown CRA objections, zoning administrator Nicholas Brown denied the permit request, leaving the Magic Carpet Motor Inns developer to redraw his plans. But Brown also warned that “when you don’t have the support of the council office you’re treading on dangerous ground.”
Williams says he needs a few weeks to figure out his next move. Senior housing, he notes, was a backup plan, but he is in the motel business. For the near future, his lot on the corner of Florence and LaSalle will remain a vacant lot. It is one of many in South L.A., used during the daytime as a backdrop by vendors selling Laker T-shirts to passing motorists, and at night, now and then, by prostitutes who complete their business at any one of a number of nearby motels.