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It Ain't Pretty

Photos by Ted Soqui

A peculiar sculpture sits in the traffic island in North Hollywood where Burbank and Lankershim boulevards intersect with Tujunga Avenue. It’s a bronze ball about 4 feet in diameter on which an iron chair is balanced. Atop the chair stands a phoenix, its wings poised for flight.

Dedicated April 3 at a ceremony attended by Mayor Hahn and other dignitaries, the statue cost $100,000, paid for by city and federal funds, as well as money from the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and the Rotary Club. According to the NoHo Arts District’s Web site, the figure represents the area’s “resurrection from neglect and decay” and its future as a “destination center.” Unfortunately, its teetering, jerrybuilt appearance also offers an apt metaphor for the hazards of the corridor directly to its east, an unpleasant stretch of Burbank Boulevard choked with auto-body spray-paint shops.

The area’s mix of a renewal district with lofty aspirations butting up against a traditionally industrial corridor that runs parallel to dense residential pockets has cooked up a strange and, some would say, toxic stew.

“They should call this NoHo’s Love Canal,” says Carl Crew, who, with business partner Robert Ferguson, operates the California Institute of Abnormal Arts, an alternative museum and performance space on Burbank Boulevard, in the heart of NoHo’s prized, but tenuous, arts district. “We’re here so much we’re exposed all the time. I could never open during the day, because of the fumes. It’s cut my business in half.”

Crew and Ferguson claim they’ve suffered due to prolonged exposure to paint fumes from Oxnard Auto Repair next door, as well as from other spray-paint shops. Crew says he spent a month in the hospital for an eye infection that caused temporary blindness and says three pet dogs of his have died suspiciously. Ferguson was diagnosed with cancer in his lower left eyelid last year and underwent surgery to remove skin there. He provided paperwork documenting his illness. The spray booths are poisoning him, he believes.

“There’s a connection,” says Ferguson. “These fumes come in waves from morning till night. It’s worse than any fingernail salon. We called AQMD (Air Quality Management District), but it was a real merry-go-round, being referred from one place to another. It went nowhere.”

Crew and Ferguson are not the only ones raising their voices, though they have helped revive long-smoldering grievances. Myrna Garcia and Lori Bartoshevich are among those who believe the auto shops are hazardous to residents’ health. They live on the same plot on Martha Street, with Garcia’s family occupying the house in the front and Bartoshevich a smaller one in the rear. Bartoshevich’s bedroom window is five feet away from the back of a busy welding shop. She seals it with thick plastic to block sounds and smells. Following years of complaints from Bartoshevich, the shop recently put up iron sheeting to shield the residences behind it. But she’s still worried.

Sign of times

“We’re too close to this shit,” says Bartoshevich, referring to the industrial corridor. “I don’t want to get cancer. I’ve considered moving, but I can’t afford it.”

Garcia, from Guatemala originally, has lived on Martha Street for 10 years with her husband. They have a 2-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl. Her sister’s family lives next door. Both families are tormented by fumes and noise.

“My nephew has terrible asthma,” she says. “It’s so bad, the paint in the air. My sister has a swimming pool in the back of the house next door. All the dust, smoke and paint goes under the water, and you can see a big, thick layer of dust and metal at the bottom. We vacuum it up before we swim in it, but the point is that if it’s there and we’re smelling it, we’re inhaling it. You can feel it in your eyes.”

Garcia says her son was born with neurofibromatosis, a syndrome that often leads to learning disabilities and brain tumors. “I don’t know where it came from, or if there’s any connection. The doctor called it a ‘new mutation.’ We have to do some genetic testing to find out. This residential area being back-to-back to the spray-painting is not good. Why can’t we move them someplace where there are no kids? I have nothing against them personally. They’re doing their job, making their living. But they’re in the wrong place.”

Her sister Blanca Gesell added that she too suffers from asthma, a condition she claims has persisted for the last 13 of 15 years of living on Martha Street. She showed me her pool, the deck of which overlooks an auto-body shop’s back lot filled with cars. A petite woman with an especially sunny disposition, she keeps several birds in a cage outside her house. She believes she’s lost at least six to the fumes from the nearby auto-repair shops. “You just wake up in the morning, and they’re dead on the floor of their cage,” she sighs.

 

Spray-paint shops are as common as taco and burger stands along Burbank Boulevard from North Hollywood to the Verdugos, but their concentration is especially dense where Lankershim and Burbank connect. Here, in about a two-block radius, at least eight spray-paint booths are operated by businesses such as Lankershim’s Sunrise Metro Ford, which has two, or Burbank’s Oxnard Auto Repair, which has one.

A word of explanation: Spray-paint booths filter overspray from paints containing a number of toxic substances. According to regulations set forth by L.A.’s Department of Building and Safety and the South Coast AQMD, these booths are actually pieces of equipment that must operate within another enclosed structure. That’s because paints and other substances used by automotive refinishers contain diisocyanates, “the leading cause of occupational asthma,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site, not to mention solvents, like toluene and xylene. Toluene and xylene are not substances you’d want to breathe deeply. According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), they may induce headaches, dizziness, hearing and vision loss, birth defects, breathing difficulties, even death. On the bright side, ATSDR does not link toluene and xylene directly to cancer. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health does, however, list some forms of diisocyanates as potential human carcinogens.

In the recent past, a small percentage of automotive coatings have also contained hexavalent chromium (chromium six), made infamous by the film Erin Brockovich. Chromium six has been linked to cancer in humans by the EPA, as well as to asthma, kidney and liver damage, ulcers, nosebleeds, etc. High levels of chromium six have led to birth defects and reproductive problems in lab animals. In 1996, the South Coast AQMD prohibited the use of automotive coatings with hexavalent chromium. Statewide, the California EPA has given businesses a December 31 deadline to stop using the substance.

All of which concerns air quality along this stretch of Burbank Boulevard. Residents and business owners whose apartments, houses and businesses are near auto-body shops complain of noise and spray-paint smells, blaming the latter for everything from ear infections and asthma to temporary blindness and cancer. They cite instances in which shops have been spray-painting in the open, after hours, and without proper permits. Even when these auto-body shops comply with myriad state, regional and local regulations, they say the air they breathe is noxious.

For 30 years, Maria Fant has owned property on Martha Street, a tree-lined residential cul-de-sac running parallel to a string of auto-body shops on Burbank. She lived in her three-bedroom house there for two decades, until her doctor advised her to move because of her asthma, which she attributes to the area’s poor air quality. The semiretired actress now lives in Agoura, and rents the property when she can get a tenant, a process she says is difficult because of the nearby auto-body shops.

“It’s a nice property,” she laments. “I put a lot of money into the house, but it was impossible to live with that constant purgatory of scent. You can’t believe how bad it smells some days. I have to explain to tenants that the business is there legally. Last time, it took me a year and a half to get the property rented.”

Fant, vice president of the North Hollywood Residents Association, says she’s been fighting auto-body shops ever since they began moving into the neighborhood in the ’70s. She has letters from Martha Street residents dating to 1989. The letters complain of noise and pollution and assert that the auto-body shops belong far away from residents, a view Fant shares. “A lot of my neighbors have died from complications from breathing and heart problems. All these body shops should be in an industrial area, not mixed with residential. There’s no way we can have an arts district and an industrial area together. They’re not in harmony.”

It might not be a harmonious union, but it’s apparently legal. Jon Perica, a zoning administrator for the city, explains that the area is classified C-2. C-2 allows new auto-body repair facilities to exist alongside residences as long as they obtain a conditional-use permit through a hearing process, thus proving they are not a nuisance. But many auto-body shops predate such regulations, which Perica says began in the ’80s, and may have a grandfathered status.

“Common sense would say zoning next to residential should not allow auto repair,” says Perica. “But in older areas of the city, this kind of mix is common. There are clusters like this in Koreatown and the east Valley. Newer areas would have conditional use, and if adjacent to residential, we might not approve it.”

Perica admits efforts to upgrade the area over the last decade have begun focusing attention on a long-neglected problem. He suggests making the area’s zoning more restrictive. But relocating existing shops to a more industrial area would be unlikely without a massive outlay of capital and political will.

The concerns and complaints of Crew, Ferguson, Fant and others moved Perica to deny a conditional-use permit being sought by Alice Tajerian, landlord of 11323 Burbank Blvd., where an auto-body shop known as VAZ Auto and Body did business up until last year, and where an auto-body shop called Car Paradise has operated since last September. When Tajerian applied that same month for a permit that would allow Car Paradise to spray paint, Crew and Ferguson presented a videotape at the hearing showing workers at Oxnard Auto Repair and other Burbank Boulevard businesses painting in the open or in unenclosed spray booths without protective gear. The tape shows overspray clouds flowing from open doorways. Workers are seen smoking or using gas torches near flammable paint. The tape helped sway Perica toward denial of the permit.

Perica’s decision noted complaints that Tajerian’s past tenants had sprayed outdoors, “only 30 feet from single-family homes,” and pointed to an order to comply issued July 15, 2002, by the Department of Building and Safety to Tajerian and VAZ for outdoor spray-painting and an unpermitted spray booth. In handing down his decision to deny Car Paradise’s permit application, Perica warned against the environmental hazards presented by the area’s auto shops.

 

The potential and real risks from adding more auto repair and spray-painting at the site are issues so significant the City should inspect all such uses on Burbank Boulevard along this one block area first and determine . . . whether the combined “impacts” from all such local auto repair and spray-painting in the cluster are simply too much of a health risk to add any more.

 

Ferguson and Crew complain that since Car Paradise was denied permission to spray paint, business has increased next door to their studio at Oxnard Auto. Oxnard Auto only recently moved its spraying operations into a contained booth after being ordered to do so by Building and Safety. Ferguson and Crew say paint fumes can still be smelled coming from Oxnard Auto, and also allege that some spraying continued illegally at Car Paradise even after Perica’s denial. Ferguson and Crew videotaped one occasion where it appears that overspray at Car Paradise is escaping into the atmosphere. The tape shows a fire truck arriving at the scene and then the lights at Car Paradise going out. North Hollywood’s Fire Station House 60 confirmed that it issued a warning on December 21 ordering the business to stop spraying.

Noubar Kyoutounian, a pudgy, somber fellow who identified himself as Car Paradise’s owner, says he was only cleaning his business when the Fire Department stopped by on that date. He says he was not issued a warning and that no spraying has taken place at his business since October 1, 2002, shortly after Perica’s permit denial.

“They can come in and check. I’m not doing any painting,” he insisted during an interview in his tiny, wood-paneled office. “I’m losing a lot of work over this. I can do body repair, but I have to have the car towed to another business for painting. I don’t want any problems with the neighbors, but I’m getting too much attention. I’m working, paying my taxes, keeping my family. I support my mother and father, my wife and two kids. It’s not fair.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Kyoutounian’s landlord, Alice Tajerian, and her sons Ardem and Hovan. When I met with them at Denny’s on the corner of Lankershim and Burbank, the family explained that they wished to follow the law, and were surprised by the opposition to their application for a conditional-use permit.

“These businesses are thriving here,” said Hovan. “The market is supporting it. What are we going to do, have no auto-body places in L.A.? Where are these places supposed to go?”

The Tajerian family emigrated from Syria to the U.S. in 1977. They used to dwell on property adjacent to Car Paradise’s present location. Their neighbors’ beefs are blown out of proportion, they argue. They lived in the neighborhood for seven years and now live in an area of Van Nuys where there’s a similar grouping of such businesses, and have no ill-health effects. They grumbled that they detected an anti-immigrant bias at the permit hearing when Crew made comments they considered derogatory.

“Carl kept making references to ‘these people,’” said Ardem. “Saying ‘I don’t know how they do it in their country, but we have laws here.’ Perica should have stopped that sort of language and maintained focus. All we wanted was a fair hearing. We felt ambushed.”

Crew admitted he referred to “these people,” but said he was talking about the owners and operators of Oxnard Auto, who he asserts are in cahoots with the owners of Car Paradise. Perica denied that anti-immigrant sentiments influenced his refusal. He pointed out that many of the folks who showed up to oppose the Tajerians’ application were immigrants.

Albert Bouzaglou, who owns the properties rented by both Oxnard Auto and the California Institute of Abnormal Arts, admits that some auto-body shops along Burbank cut corners, but not Oxnard, or at least not since they put in their new spray booth. He wondered who he’d rent to if the auto-body shops were forced to move, and said such a move would cost L.A. millions.

“Who is going to build an apartment building there?” he asked. “I’m giving you a point of view of most of the area’s business owners. They pay the most high taxes, and they employ about one to seven persons each. That’s a lot of people out of work if they close.”

Despite such sentiments, breathing the polluted air along Burbank Boulevard is enough to give you pause. One is struck by the number of children and mothers with strollers passing through the area in the late afternoon. Eventually there will be more, with an elementary and a high school being built a few blocks away. Could the concentration of such auto-body repair shops increase the risk of cancer and other illnesses for residents, workers and schoolchildren?

The AQMD says such questions could only be answered by sophisticated analysis and it is not equipped to do any such studies. Spokesperson Sam Atwood said that the agency depends on the public to call 1-800-CUT-SMOG to report breathing problems, visible emissions or noxious odors.

“Our regulations are aimed at minimizing smog-forming pollutants,” says Atwood. “That minimizes odors, but there’s no guarantee there might not be odors even if a shop is in compliance.”

The ball seems to be in the court of local officials with more direct influence over land use. Bill Mason, the CRA’s NoHo project planner, says his agency considers the Burbank corridor “blighted.” He spoke at the hearing against granting the Tajerians conditional use and says he would do likewise at any such hearings for others in the future.

According to Mason, the CRA needs to decide “what we want that area of Burbank Boulevard to look like.” He suggests that such businesses may require their own industrial zone, and that perhaps the city can enact some sort of minimum “distance factor” for them.

Mason has been influenced by the activism of people like Carl Crew, Robert Ferguson and Maria Fant, and he’s not the only one. In a classic example of the squeaky wheel getting the grease, City Council Member Tom LaBonge, whose 4th District includes the Burbank Corridor, has taken action to address neighborhood complaints by requesting an AQMD sweep of the area. In late January, the AQMD inspected 15 businesses in that area of North Hollywood. According to spokesperson Atwood, most businesses were in compliance with AQMD regulations, but two facilities along Burbank Boulevard, Golden Touch Auto Body and Belagio Auto Body Shop, were found to be operating spray booths without proper AQMD permits. Four other auto shops were issued “orders to comply” by the AQMD.

Though Atwood says Golden Touch and Belagio subsequently applied for and received the proper permits, the results appear to support the legitimacy of complaints from activists that some auto-body shops are skirting the rules. Since then, LaBonge’s office has drafted an interim ordinance to restrict any expansion of auto-body shops in the area, an ordinance still awaiting council approval. But what if the auto-body shops extant are in compliance and the residents remain unsatisfied?

“We have to live within the law,” says LaBonge. “Zoning allows it. It’s not an illegal use. But it must be done properly. I promise we’ll work together to find solutions for everyone.”

Because of the way the area is zoned, the status quo is unlikely to change dramatically. Increased enforcement of existing regulations is certainly a plus, but it will not placate the most vocal activists.

“As a business owner, I want to breathe clean air,” says Crew. “I’m an artist, not a political activist. I don’t like doing this, but I will fight for my air.”

Less strident is Joe Hacker, an accountant who has lived on Martha Street for 26 years. In 1998, a mole on his chest was diagnosed as melanoma. This later metastasized to his brain, and he’s since undergone gamma radiation, brain surgery and chemotherapy.

“It’s certainly possible that there’s some linkage to my illnesses,” he says. “But the people in those businesses have families. They’re trying to earn a living. I don’t want to see them driven out. If you move them out and they’re what’s making people sick, they’ll just make people sick somewhere else. The main thing, I guess, is to get them to follow the law.”


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