He came to clear the air, but when it was over Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas had confirmed rather than allayed growing suspicions that he wanted to sink Magic Johnson’s multimillion-dollar redevelopment project in the Santa Barbara Plaza.

The bad blood stemmed, as Ridley-Thomas implied that night, from developer Johnson’s avowed interest in backing a pro-football stadium in Carson — a proj ect that would effectively kill the Coliseum plan, long touted by the councilman.

Development and investment is long overdue at the 22-acre Santa Barbara Plaza, which is considered the most significant retail project in the Crenshaw area, along with the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Plaza mall. Johnson Development Corporation led a partnership that won the rights in 1996 to conduct a $62.5 million renovation of the aging retail center. Johnson and his partners had been working with the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) over the last two years to try and close a funding gap of about $15 million with public monies.

Ridley-Thomas announced his position on the project last week at a public meeting of the CRA and its Crenshaw-area advisory committee. Under a barrage of questions from a testy audience, the councilman said that he was “not committed” to Johnson Development’s involvement. In a surprisingly unguarded moment, the councilman went on to insinuate strongly that he was pulling city support because of Johnson’s stand on the Coliseum.

For many who attended the meeting, the councilman’s moment of candor confirmed rumors that had been flying for several weeks of a rift between the two camps. “I know the plaza thing is strained because of the stadium deal,” said Sheila Jones, owner of the Elegance Plus boutique in the Santa Barbara Plaza who last year formed the Santa Barbara Plaza Action Committee as a watchdog group of the development deal. “He didn’t flat-out say it, but he certainly painted the picture for us.” Ridley-Thomas did not return calls for comment Tuesday.

Crenshaw property owner and CRA community advisory-committee member Lawrence Williamson agreed that the councilman’s position was “clearly a leverage thing.”

“What I got out of the meeting was Mark saying, ‘Yes, I’m using the stadium situation to stop [the plaza],’” he said. “It’s kind of unfortunate. Why can’t each deal stand alone?”

But development is often less about buildings than politics — especially in the inner city, where high-profile development projects are about as scarce as political egos are plentiful. Sources close to the Santa Barbara Plaza deal say that the trouble started brewing about six weeks ago, when Magic Johnson appeared on the cover of the April 6 issue of the Los Angeles Business Journal. Asked to remark on the possibility of the National Football League locating a stadium at the Coliseum, Johnson responded that “the Coliseum is out, because the owners want . . . a brand-new stadium. They’ve been adamant about it.”

In the same article, Johnson acknowledged he was talking with former Disney chairman Michael Ovitz about becoming a partner, along with a host of other celebrities, in a new stadium Ovitz is proposing to build in the Carson area.

Sources close to the deal say that Ridley-Thomas was livid about Johnson’s remarks and set about pulling the plug on the city’s deal with Johnson Development. In the weeks following the interview, Ridley-Thomas repeatedly cancelled CRA meetings with the development team, bringing the protracted talks to a halt. Sources say that the two sides were coming very close to settling the deal when Ridley-Thomas began to intervene.

Ann Marie Gallant, the CRA’s deputy administrator of economic development, declined to comment on why the talks stopped, but said that they were resuming this week. Gallant had told the Crenshaw community she would give them a definite answer about the Johnson project by June 1, a deadline she plans to keep. “We’re still in exclusive negotiations with Johnson Development,” she said in an interview. “We’ve made a lot of progress. I believe that the majority of the community supports this project, as long as the developer is doing a good job.”

Ridley-Thomas finally addressed the issue publicly at last week’s community meeting, where he was scheduled to appear for five minutes, but wound up speaking for close to an hour. He criticized Johnson Development for proceeding too slowly and suggested that the development firm might not be up to the job. He also implied that Johnson, who is fast accumulating business interests in urban areas all over the country, is not nearly as community-oriented as the media has made him out to be.

After the meeting, several people dismissed the councilman’s remarks as a smokescreen. “He played a race card by saying that anyone who was against his Coliseum project was against having a nice stadium in the community,’” said one longtime Crenshaw businessperson who asked not to be identified. “He presented it as a righteous thing, but people kept nailing him by bringing up the real question about Magic.”

Eufaula Garrett, Johnson’s spokesperson, dismissed any suggestion that Magic is not committed to building up minority communities. Johnson Development is currently expanding its movie theater multiplex at the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw mall, across the street from the plaza on Martin Luther King Boulevard. “We have two years experience in this, research and dedication which no other developer has,” said Garrett, who also attended the meeting. “When [Ridley-Thomas] said he wouldn’t support those who wouldn’t support him, I responded by saying I thought we were talking about the plaza, not Mark Ridley-Thomas. This whole thing is not about Magic or the Coliseum or Mark or me. It’s about the community, and [about] the plaza finally getting done.”

As to the suggestion that Johnson would be selling out his urban business principles by becoming a partner in a South Bay stadium, Garrett said that the former basketball superstar “has already demonstrated his belief in the black community. He doesn’t need the councilman telling him where to spend his money. He could have spent it in Beverly Hills, but he didn’t.” For the record, added Garrett, “Carson is a black city, too.”

Whatever the extent of Ridley-Thomas’s opposition, Johnson Development and its partners, which now includes veteran developer The Arbor Group, is forging ahead with plans. Agents at Grubb & Ellis acquired exclusive leasing rights to the plaza last month, and say they are getting healthy interest from companies such as Kinko’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target and Home Base. Sheila Jones said that while she isn’t necessarily a Magic Johnson loyalist, starting the development process over again would set everything back several years — years she doesn’t think that the 43-year-old plaza, or the Crenshaw community, has to waste. “The fact is the property owners here are letting things decay further because they figure redevelopment is going to happen anyway,” she said. “The business owners are losing money. We’re going to be writing letters to the council office. We can’t just stand by.”

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