Vermont Avenue has waited a long time for this. The South-Central corridor,
less famous but grander than Crenshaw, Florence or Normandie, took the brunt of
the fire and destruction in 1992 and has been the slowest to recover; closed storefronts
and burned-out lots still dominate the scene at the ground-zero point close to
Manchester. Now, finally, comes a big project that is on a fast track to happen,
thanks to the trilateral political support of 8th District Councilman Bernard
Parks, county Supervisor Yvonne Burke and — most important — Congresswoman
Maxine Waters, who actually lives in the neighborhood’s middle-class enclave
called Vermont Knolls. There’s just one problem: Many people in the neighborhood
don’t want it.

That’s because the project, at 83rd Street and Vermont, is not of the commercial or retail variety that residents have been lobbying hard for since ’92, but a county building — the Department of Social Services, to be exact. Residents say there are already enough county buildings in South-Central, including one going up at 120th and Western, several miles to the south. They say the fact that Vermont’s first sizable development in years will be a government building that serves mainly the poor and indigent sends potential commercial developers the wrong message. Residents also complain that the project was put together behind closed doors without sufficient community input; public meetings have been held since last year, they say, but only to inform people about what always felt like a fait accompli. They say meeting notices were mailed only to those folks who had attended meetings already rather than the community at large, and not nearly enough were printed in Spanish. “The process was very flawed,” says Lawrence Koonce, a 37-year resident of Vermont Knolls and a member of the Vermont/Manchester Economic Development Organization, a consortium of neighborhood councils that opposes the DPSS building. “One question is, why is the county putting this here? Why not somewhere else in the city?”

Proponents of the DPSS building agree that commercial and retail development along Vermont is crucial — and they argue that a $100 million building with a daily population of 1,200 office workers with disposable incomes is just the thing to make it happen. “This will bring in some moneyed folk with good salaries,” says Dave Roberts, an economic development aide in Parks’ office. “The stereotypes of DPSS buildings, of people standing out in line waiting for welfare checks, is just not valid.”

Roberts also says the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency has held plenty of local meetings — six total — and that the Community Advisory Committee, a group of residents, business owners and property owners working with the CRA and partially appointed by the council office, has consistently voted in favor of the DPSS project. Roberts adds what everyone in fallow South-Central has been saying for years, and what has become an increasing justification — especially by his boss, Parks — for green-lighting less-than-ideal projects in the hood. “There’s no other proposal out there right now,” he says bluntly. “How could you let this land sit, when you could get a $100 million building built? There have been lots of promises made, but it’s been 13 years and nothing’s happened.”

Of course, part of this ongoing crisis of inaction is attributable to the
city itself, and to the polarizing effect of politics in inner-city development.
Parks’ predecessor, Mark Ridley-Thomas, did get 163 acres in the Vermont area,
including the three acres of the proposed DPSS site, declared a city redevelopment
zone after 1992. When Ridley-Thomas proposed a housing complex to be built on
Vermont near Manchester, he was fiercely opposed by Maxine Waters and a contingent
of residents, especially those in Vermont Knolls, who maintained that commercial
and retail were what the community needed and deserved; it didn’t hurt the cause
that Waters famously disliked Ridley-Thomas and didn’t hesitate to oppose him
(the former councilman, now an assemblyman, eventually got his way). That Waters
supports the DPSS project now is partly due to a very different relationship with
the sitting councilman, Parks; she was among his most vocal supporters during
his failed bid to retain his job of police chief and, later, during his successful
run for council. Her staunch opposition to ousted Mayor Jim Hahn was also interpreted
as a continuation of that support. Still, Waters’ support of the county building
feels like an abrupt about-face; the Ridley-Thomas fracas aside, she has always
been an advocate of quality commercial development in the Vermont corridor specifically
and in long-suffering black neighborhoods in general. Some sources say that Waters
has uncomfortably close ties with the developer, ICO, a Beverly Hills–based outfit
that is currently renovating the Pacific Electric building downtown as part of
that area’s latest housing and gentrification boom; ICO was a contributor to Waters’
2003 re-election campaign. Neither ICO nor Waters’ office returned calls for comment.

Another dynamic at work is the role of the Crenshaw Christian Center, the megachurch on Vermont near 83rd led by televangelist Fred Price. Five years ago, the church was the nonprofit partner with Majestic Realty — the developer of Staples Center — in a promising deal to bring in commercial and retail outlets, anchored by a supermarket. But the partnership unraveled over land-acquisition problems, lack of a supermarket tenant and — perhaps most significantly — the failure on the part of the city to fill a $20 million funding-subsidy gap Majestic was asking for. Though the church has no official role — yet — in the DPSS project, it has been outspoken in its support of it and has mobilized its membership accordingly. At a May 14 community meeting about the DPSS issue that was held at the church, attendees say it was less a meeting and more a rally in favor of the county building. “They [members of the Crenshaw Christian Center] packed the meeting and intimidated the anti-DPSS people,” says one attendee, who asked not to be named. “Our voice was heard, but not loudly.” At the meeting of the county Board of Supervisors three days later, church members also dominated the public-comment forum that preceded the supervisors’ vote to approve the 30-year lease for ICO (the board voted in favor of it).

Both supporters and opponents of the project say that, 13 years of nothing notwithstanding,
time is of the essence now. Koonce’s group, which has been doing its own research
about urban development with the aid of some sympathetic legal and financing professionals,
is hoping to find a way to block the DPSS project with a mayoral veto or through
the courts. Dave Roberts says Parks is trying to hold off the Los Angeles Unified
School District, which is eyeing the Vermont site to build a new high school campus.
The biggest irony in all this may be that Koonce and other residents stress that
they aren’t philosophically opposed to a county building in the neighborhood at
all — they’re just opposed to it as the catalyst for bringing back the kind of
high-end retail that Vermont was known for in the 1940s and ’50s. “But we’re not
expecting all that to come back,” Koonce adds. “We just want a Walgreens, a grocery
store, a pharmacy, a sit-down restaurant. Stores that recycle dollars. We can’t
stabilize a community without that.”

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