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Game Over 

An interminable time-out at Santa Barbara Plaza

Wednesday, Oct 13 1999
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October’s summer coda is over, the holidays loom and the millennium threatens, but for an array of long-suffering Crenshaw merchants, development watchdogs and concerned citizens, time continues to stand eerily still.

The future of the Santa Barbara Plaza, the largest and, not long ago, the Crenshaw area’s most promising of retail projects, remains shrouded in uncertainty. This, despite many points in its favor: overwhelming commercial need, community support, location in a city redevelopment zone, and, most of all, the high profile and sterling popularity of Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who is a principal in Johnson/MacFarlane Partners, the entity developing the project. But the plaza has also had much conspiring against it, including major retailers’ skittishness about locating in Crenshaw, a fluctuating financial picture, spiraling public costs and — perhaps most significant — the calculated apathy of 8th District Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. Crenshaw observers say that Ridley-Thomas, who last year openly opposed Johnson’s efforts because of Johnson’s public rejection of the councilman’s ill-fated campaign to bring pro football back to the Coliseum, has been killing the project with indifference ever since. (The councilman did not respond to interview requests or faxed questions for this story.) The net result is that merchants at the aging plaza are suffering the most while its fate hangs in the balance.

"What’s happening around here? Zero," says restaurateur Frank Holoman, whose Boulevard Café is one of the plaza’s oldest and sturdiest businesses. "We’re dying on the vine." Says Crenshaw construction and development activist Nareshimah Osei: "Santa Barbara Plaza has really thrown everybody in a bad spot. People have been waiting a long time."

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Certainly no one figured redevelopment of the massive plaza would be quick or easy — in spite of its middle-class profile, Crenshaw is still regarded as the inner city, where retail projects are notoriously hard to come by. But no one was expecting it to take quite this long, either, particularly given the fact that Johnson’s partnership has had exclusive development rights at the plaza for the past three years. So what gives? The answer is as piecemeal as the plaza itself, which at last count had some 250 tenants and 37 property owners, but one clear pattern of political lack of interest does emerge. For Johnson’s most ambitious L.A. retail project, his partnership has spent much time tussling with the usual development issues — namely, trying to settle on a workable financial package for investors, the city and the plaza stakeholders — but it has also run into resistance from Ridley-Thomas, resistance that is hard to quantify because it essentially means that while the councilman may not be actively sabotaging the project, he is certainly not working on its behalf. In an urban-core district the absence of strong political advocacy can do in a project.

"Things begin and end with Mark — things happen or don’t happen because of him," says Michael Anderson, a Crenshaw architect and developer whose company built new townhouses on Vernon Avenue last year. "Local leadership simply hasn’t created a situation conducive to big retail development. There’s a lot of conversation but no road map, no larger plan."

The Santa Barbara Plaza appeared to be on the verge of great progress as recently as July. According to Don Spivack, deputy administrator of the Community Redevelopment Agency, two anchor tenants had committed — Home Depot and Wal-Mart — and CRA was on the verge of sending an official developer’s agreement to the City Council for approval, a move that launches a development in earnest. But then Wal-Mart, which had also been considering locating in the vacant Macy’s at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, suddenly pulled out of Crenshaw negotiations altogether, and when that happened, "the whole financial structure collapsed and the probable need for public participation [moneys] increased," says Spivack. "It was kind of like going back to square one." At a subsequent community meeting, some participants were so irate over delays that they recommended that the CRA consider tapping other developers for the project, ending the Johnson partnership’s exclusive rights. "That doesn’t mean that we stop talking" to Johnson/MacFarlane, says Spivack. "It just opens things up." The CRA board of commissioners is scheduled to vote on a motion to possibly end exclusivity pending a full report and recommendation from Spivack’s office. "The primary thing is making something happen now," he says. "This project has been in limbo a long, long time."

This might sound like a neutral stance, but it’s not: If Johnson/MacFarlane lost its exclusive, it would essentially lose the deal, because, as one veteran city planner put it, "No potential tenant will talk to any developer who doesn’t have full control of the property, particularly in Central Los Angeles." Johnson/MacFarlane refrained from comment, saying that myriad negotiations — among current and future tenants and property owners — were too much in flux at this point. But others cited the dearth of council support as the chief culprit in the plaza standstill. "Deals like this simply don’t get done without the involvement of the councilperson, period," said a source close to the negotiations who asked not to be named. "The most Mark has done in this case is say, ‘Look, I won’t help you, but I won’t get in your way, either.’ Politically, no such thing is possible." While a project can succeed without the support, added the source, "It’s not likely. But if [the Johnson partnership] had even a quarter of the effort Mark had been putting into the Coliseum thing, they’d be in a very different spot."

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