Bamboozled in South L.A.

A long-awaited project going up on Vermont Avenue that should be cause for celebration in the community is increasingly cause for concern, especially as it becomes clear that those supporting the project are putting their own interests — political, financial — above the objections of residents who say South-Central deserves something different. The county Department of Social Services (DPSS) facility slated to be built at 83rd Street and Vermont has drawn heated protest from a contingent of homeowners since they became aware of the plan last fall. Pleas to local officials to locate the county building elsewhere and bring retail or commercial activity — something the residents have lobbied for since ’92, when entire buildings along Vermont were leveled in the unrest — have fallen on deaf ears. Eighth District Councilman Bernard Parks and county Supervisor Yvonne Burke have been impervious to criticism, pointing out that they’ve hosted enough community meetings and gotten enough support to justify going forward with the project. Strikingly absent from the debate is the voice of Maxine Waters, the powerful congresswoman who represents the Vermont corridor and who has had plenty to say about development in the past. It is certainly no coincidence that Waters’ husband, Sidney Williams, a businessman and bond-writing consultant, is working for the developer, ICO, as a community-relations consultant on the DPSS project. Williams could not be reached for comment. Waters says she’s officially neutral on the matter because of a potential conflict of interest. Beverly Hills–based ICO also contributed to Waters’ last re-election campaign. “I’m out of it,” she says. “I’m not involved.” The notion that the famously vocal Waters would stand on the sidelines of any hot-button issue in the black community is almost incomprehensible, especially on an issue so close to home. The DPSS building is most strenuously opposed by residents in Vermont Knolls, a historic middle-class neighborhood where Waters herself lives when she’s not fighting battles on Capitol Hill. Over the years she has stood with her neighbors and been an outspoken advocate for private investment in the area, insisting that commercial and retail development is not only viable, but necessary; she once brought Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan down to riot-razed Vermont to see the opportunities for himself. Her silence now, at a crucial moment in Vermont’s economic-development history — if you can call it that — is disheartening at least. Conflicts of interest should always resolve in the constituents’ favor, but by Waters’ own admission, that is not the case this time. “Maxine was always so enthusiastic about private development, this is a complete 180,” says longtime resident Lawrence Koonce, who, like other Vermont activists, is more disappointed than angry. “It took everybody by surprise.” Waters’ absence from the DPSS project is really tacit support that has strengthened the position of Parks and Burke, bolstering their claims that a county building is just what the community needs. Parks maintains that a new building is infinitely better than a vacant lot; Burke says, not untruthfully, that the Vermont corridor is heavily populated with DPSS clients who need closer access to services. The problem is a lack of balance, and what is being built for whom; whatever their per capita income, black communities tend to get more lower-end businesses — fast-food outlets, Payless Shoe stores — than anybody in the community wants. That politicians can’t or won’t break that cycle is the crux of the matter. Burke’s office received a petition last month with nearly 500 signatures from residents asking that the DPSS site be located elsewhere; it went unheeded. Waters always appeared the most likely to change the status quo, and that she is the one reinforcing it now is more than ironic. Some call it downright tragic. “The public in South L.A. is always told, ‘Get out there and tell your representatives what you want.’ That’s what you’re supposed to do,” says Forescee Hogan-Rowles, director of the Community Financial Resources Center, a nonprofit that helps to develop business in the inner city. “Well, once more the people have spoken, and the elected representatives have not listened. They’re playing obstructionist politics, and it’s stalled our community for 40 years in a way that’s almost irreparable.” Even from a purely practical standpoint, the DPSS building makes little sense. Though Parks likes to tout it as a $100 million project, that is $100 million of public, not private, money. When it is completed, it will generate none of the tax-increment dollars that are so crucial to increasing revenue and raising property values, which is especially crucial in an area like Manchester/Vermont. Another puzzle is why the Community Redevelopment Agency, an entity charged with attracting private enterprise, is allowing a county building in a key redevelopment zone, a rare occurrence in any of its designated project areas across the city. The CRA board even voted last month to exempt the developer from following the city’s living-wage ordinance — a hypocritical move at least, if you buy the argument that the project has the interests of the poor at heart. (ICO will have to abide by the county living-wage ordinance, but only for non-county employees. Of 1,200 workers, that works out to roughly 20.) Consider also that ICO is laying out no money of its own — the whole thing is being funded by the 30-year county lease — and that the CRA, while putting up no money itself, will be issuing bonds for the project, and it’s easy to see how the concerns of the community simply don’t fit the picture. DPSS proponents insist the office workers will be a catalyst for retail and other services, but residents point out that that’s ignoring the fact that there are already hundreds of thousands of taxpaying citizens in the neighborhood who are willing and able to pay for retail, if only it would come. And, they say, why build a potential catalyst for retail instead of the retail services themselves? Hogan-Rowles says the catalyst argument is a weak one anyway. “If you look at other DPSS buildings around the city, they didn’t spur additional development,” she says. “I’m not saying that can’t change, but in other buildings around L.A., especially around here, new retail has simply not happened.” Compounding South-Central’s problem is its image, which politicians have done little to mitigate. “There’s been no consistent advocacy [for South-Central] from elected officials,” she says. “In this case, the only people advocating are the residents, but that’s not enough. Everybody has to be onboard to make it happen.” Clearly everybody is not, but that doesn’t mean the residents are giving up quite yet. Koonce, who is active in the grassroots Vermont/Manchester Economic Development Organization, is hoping to enlist AGENDA, the respected community-organizing outfit that’s done successful voter-registration drives, in the cause. Hogan-Rowles is using the expertise of her organization to nail down retailers who will locate on six acres of the 10-acre lot where the county building is going up; interestingly, Hogan-Rowles sits on the board of Community Development Corporation of the Crenshaw Christian Center, the megachurch on Vermont that initially opposed the DPSS project but changed its mind. “I’m not for this, but the train is out of the building, so let’s try and get retail on those six acres,” says Hogan-Rowles. “Yvonne and Maxine could use their influence here, get dollars out of Washington. Parks could also help with those six acres. I’m not utopian, but I think it could happen.”

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