The gas station at 1691 W. Adams Blvd., at the corner of Normandie Avenue, first opened in 1937, where it served people for 70 years. In 2007 it was bought by a company headed by Benjamin An. The plan was to convert the old building into a minimart. The station was then closed for the next nine years. It has been on our list for blight many times. Finally, this year, a buyer appeared who wants to refurbish the station and build a new 7-11 on the property. He has had nothing but headaches, but finally got a major step forward when the South Los Angeles Area Planning Commission approved the project on December 6.
Long-time blight location
The derelict station since 2007 has been surrounded by construction fences covered with tarps, heavily graffitied and sporting hand-made signs advertising amateur plumbers and promises to exterminate bedbugs. The owner cut long vertical slashes in the tarps every few feet to make graffiti more difficult. This mostly magnifies the air of abandonment.
When he was still on the City Council back in 2008, Ed Reyes proposed that the city buy the property to build senior housing. But it is illegal to build anything but a gas station there as long as the underground gasoline storage tanks are in the ground. Removing them costs about $75,000, but then there is a nightmarish process of determining if the soil is contaminated, with the approval process to move ahead often taking years. The City Council rejected the idea.
The shuttered station quickly became an amplifier for local crime. The central attractions were a liquor store in the building across the street to the south, and a marijuana dispensary in a second gas station diagonally across the intersection. But the dark abandoned gas station encouraged loitering and street robberies.
A high crime area
In 2013 then-LAPD Senior Lead Officer Tracy Banuelos looked up the crime stats for the area around that intersection for the first five-years after the station closed. There had been 2,304 arrests. More recently, in the one year from October 2015 to October 2016, for just the thirteen blocks closest to the gas station, there were 19 car thefts, 15 assaults with a deadly weapon, and 5 rapes. So, the nearby community has been seriously concerned to see something reopen on that corner and restore something like normalcy there.
Early in 2016 the local block clubs first heard there was an offer to buy the property. David Shamtoub, who owns several gas stations, planned to install the latest fume-control equipment, demolish the unfinished building, and build a 7-11 against the east wall. At a large meeting of the Adams-Normandie Neighborhood Association in April, attended by people from three other block clubs, there was strong majority support for the project. One dissenting voice should have warned us this would not be as easy as it seemed.
Richard Parks, a leader of the West Adams Neighborhood Association, had been a central figure in a long fight to restrict the operations of the Freeport-McMoRan oil drill site at Jefferson Blvd. and Budlong Avenue, a cause widely supported in the community, including by this report. From that experience, however, he had become opposed to any new business related to oil or automobiles in the neighborhood. He persuaded his block club and his church to support him in this. So the community became divided on this issue.
Zone change request
A Planning Department hearing November 17 before Hearing Officer Michelle Singh took up the project, which required a zoning change. The original zoning was C1, light commercial. During the years the station was closed, zoning requirements changed, only permitting gas stations in a C2 zone. The land had to be rezoned for the gas station to reopen.
The large majority of the speakers, most of whom came from Richard Parks’ church and block club, were opposed to the 7-11/gas station. Mainly they said that gas stations are a toxic danger to nearby homes and there were enough existing stations. As for the blighted location, they argued that a better offer would come along. Speakers on the other side stressed the high crime, the many years of blight, the absence for many years of any other investment in the adjacent commercial corridors, and the innocuous nature of gas stations, of which there are more than 2,000 in Los Angeles.
Michelle Singh’s later report approved the zone change and reopening the gas station, but opposed the new owner’s request that it be allowed to be open 24 hours a day, granting only from 7:00 am to midnight.
The key step in the approval process was a December 6 meeting of the South Los Angeles Area Planning Commission, held at the City Council District 8 Constituent Service Center.
The threat of vandalism and 24 hour operation
The limited hours proved to be more serious than it appeared. Gas stations have no fence that can be gated at night. Vandals can and do come onto closed gas stations. They etch glass surfaces, tag walls, but worst, cut the pump hoses. Pollution-minimizing vapor recovery hoses with nozzles cost $300 to $400 each. The new gas station would have 10 pumps, with potential damage of thousands of dollars in a single attack.
While it is nominally not allowed in the zoning code, the great majority of gas stations in high crime areas are granted exceptions to stay open 24/7. I had planned to testify at the hearing, as the president of the Van Buren Place block club, across the street from the station, and for Southwest LAPD’s Community Police Advisory Board. I checked the hours of the nearby gas stations and found that all 14 within 2.5 miles of Adams and Normandie had been granted 24/7 operating hours. This is mainly for security. I sent a list to the developer, who had it blown up on a large board.
At the hearing, LAPD Senior Lead Officer Lu Aceves and Deputy City Attorney and Southwest LAPD Neighborhood Prosecutor Alvan Arzu spoke in favor of the renewed station and for the 24/7 operation. A real estate appraiser reported that over the last 10 years only 8 commercial properties had been put up for sale within a half mile of the gas station. Not a single one of them sold. This suggested that no other offer was likely to come along, especially if it was for a non-auto-related business, which would require removing the underground tanks. Other supporters included Mario Chaverria, vice president of the Adams-Normandie Historic Preservation Overlay Zone Design Review Board, which had unanimously supported the project.
Some 30 people spoke in favor of the project and for 24/7 hours. The opponents sent only about 5 people, probably because the Hearing Officer had already recommended accepting the gas station.
Of the five members of the Area Planning Commission only three were still there for the vote. They unanimously approved the project, including 24/7 hours. They added a condition that the new owners hire a round-the-clock roving security company.
The Area Planning Commission submited its report to the City Council in mid-January. It ruled that the zone change was not appealable. It will now go to the Planning and Land Use Management Committee. From there, the PLUM recommendation will go to the full City Council. The new owners expect to break ground in July.