Lead Story West Edition

County acquires South L.A. property for development

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — A prime four-acre property that has been vacant for 26 years will be developed by Los Angeles County following a recent court ruling.

The county sued property owner Eli Sasson and his company, Sassony Commercial Development Co., in December in a bid to take over the property that lies south of Manchester Avenue and east of Vermont Avenue.

“The court finds that [the county’s] needs override any hardships suffered by [Sasson],” wrote L.A. Superior Court Judge Daniel Murphy in his April 26 ruling. “[Sasson] will not lose rents and [Sasson has] sat idly on the project without development for years.”

In his ruling, Murphy approved the immediate use of eminent domain, with the county poised to obtain the land May 7.

Eminent domain is the power granted to government agencies to seize private property to be used for the public good. The government entity, in this case the county, must pay market value for the land.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas applauded Murphy’s decision, calling it a community victory for the years of effort to develop the land.

The county plans to build 180 affordable housing units, 50,000 square feet of retail space, a new transportation plaza and a training academy for careers in the transportation industry.

“Local governments have an absolute obligation to think imaginatively about our most pressing issues — job creation, quality education, transportation, and the development of affordable housing and community centers,” Ridley-Thomas said in a news release. “With this project, we are taking an out-of-the-box approach to getting all of that done at the corner of Vermont and Manchester.”

Sassony couldn’t be reached for comments on the ruling, but during a town hall meeting in February, company representative Jennifer Dueñas disputed some of Ridley-Thomas’ claims.

“People think Sassony has been the continuous owner [of the property] for the past 30 years,” Dueñas said. “That’s not true. In 2008, the city filed eminent domain against us for the first time. Now this is the second time.”

Between 2008 and 2012, the Los Angeles City Community Redevelopment Agency owned the land. But in May 2013, Sassony reclaimed ownership of it after the state abolished all community redevelopment agencies.

The company had plans to build the Vermont Entertainment Village, which would have included a pharmacy, a grocery store, a live performance stage, a banquet hall and community room. In April 2015, Sassony even held a ground-breaking ceremony for the development project.

But in the ensuing time, nothing happened.

During the February meeting, Dueñas said it made no sense for the Board of Supervisors to stop a “$250 million investment in South Los Angeles.”

“We’re not saying that [the county’s rental housing project] is not needed,” Dueñas said about the county’s proposal to build affordable living units on the property. “But why stop a project that’s ready to go to put this other one in? Why can’t we do both? Why not work together to redevelop South L.A. as a whole?”

The four-acre property is considered one of the most devastated areas from the 1992 Rodney King Riots, when the ABC Swap Meet was burned to the ground, Ridley-Thomas said.

The news of Murphy’s ruling is being celebrated by many.

“South L.A. has waited for a fresh start on Vermont and Manchester for 26 years,” said District 8 City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson in a press release. “Over the course of almost three decades, residents endured crime, blight, violence, and neglect — all while waiting for empty promises and false starts to produce something real. Today, a longstanding injustice has been resolved.”

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass echoed Harris-Dawson’s comments.

“I am grateful and relieved to hear today’s ruling,” Bass said. “Over and over, residents have heard lofty promises about all kinds of redevelopment, resources, jobs and housing on this site. Now, revitalization is finally on the way.”

Community members also celebrated the news.

“This neighborhood has been held hostage to lip service and empty promises,” said Robert Rubin of the Vermont Village Economic Development Corporation. “We have literally waited decades for this site to receive the investment, improvements and development it deserves.”

“We are grateful that the county has taken steps to end the dilapidation of this prominent location in our community, so that we can have much needed and long-overdue public amenities,” added Pastor Anthony L. Williams of the 88th Street Temple Church.