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Crenshaw shops weigh challenges, promise of new train line

Marlene Sinclair Beckford runs the popular Ackee Bamboo restaurant in Leimert Park. She's owned the place for over a decade and sees big changes ahead with the nearby metro station coming.
Marlene Sinclair Beckford runs the popular Ackee Bamboo restaurant in Leimert Park. She's owned the place for over a decade and sees big changes ahead with the nearby metro station coming.
Dorian Merina/KPCC

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As a long-awaited train line nears the Crenshaw corridor, local residents and businesses are eyeing the changes with a mix of hope and anxiety while coping with daily construction woes.

"I do see the change, I do know it's coming and I welcome it," said Marlene Sinclair, owner of the Ackee Bamboo restaurant in Leimert Park. Sinclair has run her small Jamaican restaurant for over a decade and, like other business-owners on Degnan Blvd., hopes that a nearby trains station will bring more foot traffic and steady customers.

"We've been up and down and up and down and I'm just looking for growth," she said. "To see all the new faces and the support, I think it's just going to mean really great business for a lot of us."

But after 11 years in the neighborhood, her lease is now month-to-month, she said. She's worried that once the train line is completed, which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority says should be in three years, small businesses like hers may be pushed out, forced to leave a neighborhood they helped to build.

Challenges during construction

The eight-and-a-half mile Crenshaw/LAX line will run from Exposition Blvd to the 105 freeway. Along the way it crosses Martin Luther King, Jr Blvd., historic Leimert Park and Inglewood, site of the new NFL stadium.

The $2 billion dollar track still has three years to go before opening. But in the meantime, residents and businesses along the line are dealing with the day-to-day challenges of construction.

"The sidewalk was blocked, meaning there was no pedestrian access to here," said Adriana Cortes, manager of Delicious Southern Cuisine, a soul food restaurant that faces Leimert Park on Crenshaw Blvd. Soon after construction began in 2014, a chain link fence sprung up right outside her patio, cutting off the main flow of customers from the street.

"Even from the businesses next door, they couldn't walk here. They had to [go] from the back, the alley maybe. It was very hard for anyone to walk here, even from across the street," said Cortes.

The business took a hit. She estimates a 10-20 percent drop in sales during the first six months. That's tough for a block still trying to recover from the last recession when many stores left.

"We've seen Starbucks leave this corner. We've seen a bank leave this corner – literally the bank was next door. A lot of businesses here were closed," said Cortes, who opened her restuarant five years ago with her father, Vidal.

Programs to help local businesses

Metro says it's aware of these kinds of challenges and has made an effort to take a cue from the people who live and work along Crenshaw.

"We're knocking on doors, sitting in living rooms, going to restaurants, sitting in the dining rooms, morning day and night," said Anthony Crump, community and construction relation manager for LA Metro.

"Any construction project is disruptive," said Crump. "If you're remodeling your house or redoing your kitchen, you've got to go through some pain in order to get the benefits of it."

To help shops stay open, Metro has rolled out several programs, including grants for those directly affected by construction. The agency's Business Interruption Fund offers up to $50,000 a year for local businesses.

Adriana Cortes' restaurant, Delicious, was part of the first wave to get the grant, though she said the store got "about three-fourths" of the total grant amount. The funds helped to avoid lay-offs and boost advertisement so residents know the store is open during the construction. And she hopes that lasts.

"It's not yet quite where we want to be, but definitely improved," she said.

Cortes' restaurant is one of dozens to get the grant so far, according to Shalonda Baldwin. Baldwin oversees a variety of pilot programs for business as deputy executive officer of project management at Metro. Since Feburary 2015, 104 businesses have received the grants. All but eight located along the Crenshaw corridor, according to Baldwin.

"This program is focused on helping small mom-and-pop businesses," said Baldwin. "Those are businesses of 25 or fewer employees."

Baldwin said the total amount dispersed so far is just under $2 million, with more grants still in the application process. Metro's Board of Directors has authorized $10 million annually to be used to implement the fund, according to the agency that handles the applications.

'The only income they have'

As construction on the Crenshaw/LAX line moves south, it's already meeting similar concerns from residents in the Park Mesa Heights neighborhood.

At a recent public meeting at the Employment Development offices near Crenshaw and 57th, over 70 people packed a small room and repeatedly interrupted a Metro presentation to voice their concerns.

Many of them asked about public safety and parking during construction in the blocks just south of Leimert Park.

"That's the only income they have," said resident Ricky Dumas of those who work at the small storefronts that line Crenshaw. "And they have their regular customers and that's going to detour the regular customers to go somewhere else because they're not going to want to go through all that construction."

Tamitra Clark, also at the January 28th meeting and director of a local senior center, said she worried about how seniors with disabilities would navigate the disruption on the street and whether her center would get food truck deliveries on time. That concern about traffic flow was also raised by a local mosque preparing for Friday prayers and a primary school dealing with dropping off and picking up children.

Metro says another meeting is scheduled for the end of February to address some of the concerns, and to update residents on the construction. 

"The communities in which we're building are vibrant communities to begin with," said Metro's Anthony Crump. "It's our hope and our belief that adding new transportation options will make them even stronger communities."

To hear the segment, press the blue play button above.