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Game Over

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."

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."

Since the Weekly first 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."


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