Jordan Downs was built in the 1940s to house temporary workers building weapons and whatnot for the war effort. In the 1950s, it was converted into public housing. Now the Watts housing project is due for a major redevelopment, which would double the number of residential units, nearly triple the number of acres and add a community center, park and retail space — including a much-needed supermarket and a sit-down restaurant.
"Shit, we haven’t had a sit-down restaurant in Watts in decades," says City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents Watts.
Buscaino is known for being almost comically nice; it's not every day you find him cursing to reporters. That's because he's pissed.
Last month, for the second year in a row, Jordan Downs failed to become a finalist for a $30 million competitive federal grant that Buscaino says would have gotten the ball rolling on the estimated $700 million redevelopment project, which the city has been planning since 2008.
Buscaino says Jordan Downs also missed out on state money from the cap-and-trade program. And last year, the entire region of South L.A. was left out of a $36 million federal Promise Zone anti-poverty grant, which went instead to a less impoverished part of the city.
"The people of South Los Angeles have been promised this stuff over and over," he says. "Why are we not seeing significant progress in seven years? That’s the question I’m asking — demanding."
A few weeks ago, Buscaino wrote an op-ed in the L.A. Times calling for the mayor to fire Doug Guthrie, the head of the Housing Authority, which is the department responsible for the grant application:
We know what the source of the delay is — the ineffectiveness of the Housing Authority (or HACLA). This city agency simply hasn't made the Jordan Downs project a priority.
Mayor Eric Garcetti released this short and rather bloodless statement in response to Buscaino:
We appreciate Councilmember Buscaino's concerns. The mayor is currently in the middle of conducting performance reviews of all his general managers. Using a data-driven process to analyze outcomes and deliverables, he will take Mr. Buscaino's feedback and weigh it against key accomplishments delivered by HACLA for Watts, and the entire city, under Mr. Guthrie's leadership.
Buscaino reportedly was less than impressed with the mayor's "data-driven" promise — although he denies any sort of rift.
"I have a great relationship with the mayor," Buscaino says. "He’s a brother to me. He said he takes my frustration, he respects my insight in this."
For what it's worth, HACLA chief Guthrie isn't internalizing the criticism, either.
"In this job, you can’t take those things personally," he says. "I was a little surprised. We have a really good working relationship. He’s just a little impatient, and everyone's frustrated with the grant application we were competing for."
Guthrie blamed the grant failure on two things: First, HACLA somehow managed to leave out of its 600-page application a required letter from Mayor Garcetti. ("We still don’t know how it happened," Guthrie says.) Second, the Department of Housing and Urban Development claimed that Jordan Downs was disqualified because the city of Los Angeles is involved in an ongoing Americans With Disabilities Act lawsuit.
"Which I’m calling bullshit on," Buscaino says. "We’re already getting block-grant dollars and Promise Zone dollars. Why didn’t we qualify this time?"
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Guthrie insists that the project hasn't been delayed by the setback.
"Although important, it’s not slowing us down," he says. An industrial site adjacent to Jordan Downs has already been purchased, and the city is in the process of cleaning up some industrial waste, as well as suing the previous owner over the cost of the cleanup. In late 2016, the city will begin extending Century Boulevard, which currently dead-ends at Grape Street. Next, the retail space will start going up. Guthrie expects the $700 million to come from a mix of private, public and philanthropic sources.