By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Since the Weeklyfirst publicized the Ridley-Thomas–Magic Johnson tiff in June 1998, the progress of Santa Barbara redevelopment has gone from stagnant to, well, stagnant. At that point, the friendship between Johnson and Ridley-Thomas had clearly soured over the football issue; Johnson/MacFarlane was feeling stonewalled and hoped that the bad PR for the councilman would mean that Ridley-Thomas and, by extension, the CRA would make the plaza a priority. In the wake of all the news stories that indeed painted Ridley-Thomas in an unflattering light, the councilman asked Johnson/MacFarlane for certain concessions — for example, that project manager Ken Lombard step down as the plaza’s spokesman — to which the company tacitly agreed. But the concessions appear to have been for naught. "The bottom line is, the way this project happens is that Mark goes into council, goes into the CRA boardroom, and says, ‘I want this thing done,’" says a city planner. "He’s never done that."
The Johnson partnership would certainly welcome the help. While Johnson Enterprises has a successful, much-lauded track record in building movie theaters in underserved neighborhoods nationwide (including Crenshaw), and constructing innovative partnerships with chains like Starbucks that are bringing more retail amenities into said neighborhoods, Santa Barbara Plaza is its first effort at building a large shopping center from the ground up. In a Weekly story earlier this year, Johnson admitted that he didn’t anticipate the heavy politics development often entails, and a year and a half ago seriously considered walking away from the project altogether. Now, with the additional time and money invested, the Johnson partnership is loath to go, but in some ways loath to stay.
It’s somewhat ironic that people are complaining about the lugubrious pace of progress; up until three years ago there wasn’t a single developer in sight willing to execute any progress at all. When it secured developing rights in ’96, Johnson/MacFarlane was the only outfit to bring as much money to the table as it did — $50 million secured from CalPERS, the state public employees’ retirement fund. This was a godsend to the plaza, and that the Johnson partnership was black-owned, by no less a luminary than local basketball hero Magic Johnson, made things even more auspicious. But not even Johnson could completely offset the effects of political antipathy that have aggravated delays and, over time, driven up costs as prospective anchor tenants locate elsewhere, and construction and other costs are re-assessed. The Santa Barbara Plaza was announced as a roughly $80 million project — now the estimate is more than $100 million; the availability of "gap" money provided by the city, which it once estimated to be about $20 million, is uncertain, and in light of the CRA’s ongoing budget crunch, not about to gel anytime soon.Local developer Anderson says the delays are costing more than money. "The plaza is a big project, but the lack of enthusiasm, of progress, is making everybody back off," says Anderson, who has proposed several ambitious Crenshaw developments to Ridley-Thomas’ office. "You’ve got to do it quickly, or not at all. You can’t waste three years to get stuff off the ground, unless you stand to make millions, like with Playa Vista. The city is in a position now of having to completely secure moneys for the developer, like Alexander Haagen did with the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza." No one in Crenshaw likes to invoke Haagen, the Manhattan Beach–based mall developer who built the neighboring plaza, which is now struggling.
Anderson and others criticize Ridley-Thomas for being preoccupied in recent years with advocating the Coliseum deal, to the detriment of other parts of the 8th District, but particularly Crenshaw. They say the councilman focused on the Coliseum as a development legacy and possibly as his steppingstone to the Mayor’s Office; in the wake of the failed NFL deal, that preoccupation angers people more. ("He was pretty much tied up with the Coliseum thing the whole time," says one source close to Ridley-Thomas for years.) The announcement this past summer of a new, $53 million shopping center going up in the 8th District at Western and Slauson avenues, called Chesterfield Square, has added insult to injury, especially the fact that it will boast tenants like Home Depot, and it is apparently being built at warp speed. (It’s scheduled to open late next year.) "That," says the source close to the negotiations, "was clearly a slap in Magic Johnson’s face."
But resentment over Santa Barbara Plaza in fact runs deeper and further back than Ridley-Thomas. Critics say that all political black leadership is to blame for the economic inertia painfully represented in the Crenshaw area, the last majority-black area of the city. "I’ve been in the plaza 20 years, and nobody’s been as bad as Mark," says Frank Holoman bitterly. "In the old days it seemed that we weren’t prejudiced against ourselves, that we helped our own community. Our elected officials today have no concern in terms of getting people together. Mark is smart enough, able enough. But he’s not willing enough."