No other part of Los Angeles burned hotter during the 1992 L.A. Riots than the commercial district near Vermont and Manchester. A Korean-owned swap meet at 84th and Vermont was among the first structures to go up in flames after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers of beating Rodney King. By the end of the violence days later, every business on the east side of Vermont Avenue on that stretch had been burned to the ground — and the ones on the west side didn't fare much better. In all, 22 buildings in the area of the Vermont Knolls neighborhood were gutted.
Today, 25 years later, the neighborhood is stricken by a legacy of neglect. Nowhere is that legacy more apparent than at a football field–sized vacant lot of prickly straw grass and litter on the 8400 block of Vermont.
For nearly three decades, real estate developer Eli Sasson has owned the two city blocks where the swap meet burned. The land has lain dormant ever since the riots. An adjoining parcel that Sasson's commercial real estate firm purchased in 2006 is home only to a vacant retail complex.
According to a 2008 story in the Los Angeles Times, Sasson lives in Beverly Hills, “in a Trousdale Estates mansion with a seaward view and a circular porch flanked by bronze torchbearers in loincloths.”
On the other side of Vermont from Sasson's South L.A. property is the district field office of City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson. The councilman calls the land a blight on the neighborhood.
“It’s dragging down the quality of life and property value and overall well-being of the community, holding those 3 acres hostage for this long,” Harris-Dawson says. “I keep trying in every possible way to impress upon Mr. Sasson how devastating it is to our community to have that parcel sitting there the way it is a full 25 years after the civil unrest. It’s just been a real horror story for our entire community behind this one land owner.”
Sasson was unavailable to comment for this story.
“We're still moving forward on this project. We haven’t owned [the land] for past 30 years to not develop [it].” –Jennifer M. Duenas
Sasson's firm, Sassony Commercial Real Estate, has periodically released renderings of proposed developments for the site. The most recent drawings were unveiled as part of a groundbreaking ceremony held by Sasson and then–Councilman Bernard Parks on the 23rd anniversary of the riots in 2015. Parks was widely quoted at the time remarking at how the neighborhood had “10 times more groundbreakings than ribbon cuttings.”
The rendering showed a Disney-like development on the site called Vermont Entertainment Village, a retail shopping and entertainment complex two to three stories tall on 127,000 square feet, with a colossal atrium and banquet hall with amenities such as “festive kiosks” in a central plaza. The video promoting the project shows children whirling on a merry-go-round and women in flouncy Mexican traditional dresses dancing a fandango. It's a far cry from the dreary blocks of painted stucco storefronts with tenants like 24-hour pawn shops, rehab centers, churches, money marts, beauty salons and an anger-management center.
Two years have now passed since the groundbreaking, and many job-hungry residents of the neighborhood remain as puzzled as ever about the fate of the project. Nothing has happened, a permit has lapsed, the ground remains undisturbed.
“They need to put a laundromat here,” says Wanda Dilworth, 58, a resident walking by the rusty perimeter fence at the edge of the vacant lot. Dilworth says she has to carry her laundry five blocks to the nearest laundromat at 79th and Vermont.
“The only rebuilding around here is when they have to make a good showing after something devastating happens,” says Raymont Gardener, 58, who was seated beside the vacant lot at a pop-up tent, signing up passers-by for free government cellphones. Gardener says the most activity he's seen on the lot was a Bobcat clearing away litter last Wednesday afternoon.
Jennifer M. Duenas, chief operations officer for Sassony Commercial Real Estate Development, says the timing of the groundbreaking was premature, and that the construction delays are related to a legal dispute with the Community Redevelopment Agency of L.A. over the sale of three parcels within the area of the proposed development. “We're still moving forward on this project,” Duenas says. “We haven’t owned [the land] for the past 30 years to not develop [it].”
Historically, the stretch of Vermont Avenue between 83rd Street and Manchester Boulevard was one of L.A. County's major commercial corridors. During its golden age, in the middle of the last century, the area was home to dressmakers, hatters, tailors and shoestores. But it was twice burned by riots — in ’65 and ’92 — and for the past 25 years redevelopment has been stymied by a kind of “South-Central Syndrome” afflicting investors averse to the risk of investing in a neighborhood with a volatile past.
“I don’t blame anybody that’s scared they’re going to lose their business after the riots,” says Henry Johnson Jr., 69, a retired carpenter who lives in the neighborhood. “If I’m a business owner and my business got burned down, I’m saying: Forget you.”
Meanwhile, basic amenities like fresh food, chain retail shops or a sit-down restaurant necessitate a trek outside the neighborhood.
Sasson didn't exactly win over neighborhood advocates when he sold the 8300 block of Vermont Avenue to the L.A. County Department of Public Social Services in 2007. The 2008 story from the Times stated:
The DPSS building generated enormous controversy when it was being built: Local residents had long been agitating for a large retail development featuring a supermarket, a sit-down restaurant and chain stores. The news that one block of the site would be devoted to a welfare office (leaving two blocks that wouldn't support a very grand development) hit with a resounding thud. Community Coalition executive director Marqueece Harris-Dawson described the building to me as having been “shoved down the throats” of the community.
In 2008, the Community Redevelopment Agency of L.A. was attempting to seize the land through eminent domain, and Sasson’s firm was ensnared in legal proceedings. But Gov. Jerry Brown disbanded the CRA program before the matter was resolved, and the property was returned to Sassony in May 2013.
Councilman Harris-Dawson says that when he took office in July 2015, there were homeless encampments on the lot at 84th and Vermont, that schoolchildren were playing inside the vacant Payless Shoes store Sasson owned at Manchester and Vermont, and that one group of homeless people had broken into a vacant office and retail complex at 84th and Vermont.
“There were a couple dozen homeless people living in those buildings,” Harris-Dawson claims. “They had jack-wired some electricity, and one group of homeless people was actually renting space to another group of homeless people. So the reason it’s boarded up now is because, again, we had to cite Mr. Sasson for the conditions of that building.”
The city has issued citations to Sasson from the fire department, Building and Safety, the Department of Water and Power — “almost anything you can get on a vacant lot, they’ve had,” Harris-Dawson says.
Duenas says Sassony received another citation from the city last week, the latest of several the firm has been issued from city agencies in recent years.
“We cleaned up the weeds, cleaned up the trash, got rid of the homeless population again, cleaned up the graffiti,” Duenas says. “You can't prevent it. Even if you're going to board everything up, they're going to keep entering.”
Sasson has demolished the building that housed the Payless Shoes, and he had the office and retail complex at 85th Street vacated — signs the developer is proceeding in good faith, Duenas says. According to Duenas, the project has hit a legal snag over the CRA deal, which should soon be resolved. She says Sassony is reaching out to Harris-Dawson for support in renewing a lapsed permit.
Critics of Sasson's say they have heard it all before.
“I've been here 20 years in June, and he's been showing this [plan] for 20 years,” says Aurea Montes-Rodriguez, executive vice president of Community Coalition of South L.A., whose office is located within sight of the lot. “He’s a land prospector waiting for gentrification to hit this area so that he can make a lot of money.”
Sassony's remaining property occupies an estimated 148,000 square feet, nearly two city blocks. It is rare to see a clear stretch of commercially zoned property of that size in South L.A., where most of the commercial plots are small and individually owned — and where the process of assembling them can be painstaking and expensive.
Neighborhood advocates say Sassony's vacant land has the potential to transform the neighborhood. The rarity of parcels that big in South L.A. has generated interest from investors.
Harris-Dawson says lack of interest from investors is not the issue.
“Business interests call me on a routine basis saying, can you help us get to the owner of that lot, because we’d love to do a movie theater, we’d love to do a drugstore, we’d love to do another land use,” Harris-Dawson says. “And we just can’t ever make any headway.”