SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Instead of enjoying her day off Feb. 10, Kowana Stanley decided to spend her day at a community forum hosted by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).
Stanley has been a resident of South Los Angeles for the last 50 years and was unaware of the plans for the new development at the corner of Vermont and Manchester avenues.
“Someone from the neighborhood council came to my house yesterday and told me that there was a meeting,” Stanley said. “One of my concerns living here is that we need more establishments and retail over in this area, because now I go all the way to Downey in order for me to enjoy something.”
The meeting was held at the Community Christian Reformed Church on Hoover Street.
The goal was to get community input about the proposed Vermont Entertainment Village, a 190,000-square-foot project that would include a grocery store, a pharmacy, a live performance stage, a banquet hall and community room, restaurants and shops, on approximately five acres.
It would be similar to shopping venues like The Grove near Farmer’s Market in the Fairfax District or the Santa Monica Promenade.
Representatives of the developer — Sassony Commercial Development Co. — showed up to give more details about the project and answer questions residents had.
But county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has other plans for the property, and Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, whose district the project is in, did not attend the forum.
Waters made it clear that they were invited.
“Today’s meeting is for informational purposes only,” Waters said as she began the meeting. “I have invited all parties to be here today, both from the county and Sassony.
“We said come and walk through your plan and tell us in detail what you’re doing.”
Most of the property has been vacant since the 1992 Rodney King Riots when the ABC Swap Meet was burned to the ground.
Nothing has been built since.
In April 2015, Sassony held a groundbreaking ceremony in 2015 for the Vermont Entertainment Village on the 23rd anniversary of the riots.
It’s taken “23 years to replace something that was burned down during the riots,” then-City Councilman Bernard Parks said at the time.
In the ensuing time, nothing happened.
Then in late December, the county Board of Supervisors voted to use eminent domain to seize the large, empty piece of land. Ridley–Thomas complained that the vacant property had become a nuisance, attracting homeless encampments.
Eminent domain involves a government entity, in this case Los Angeles County, seizing a piece of private property for the good of the public. The government is required to pay market value for the property, but the eminent domain declaration usually leads to a legal battle that Waters was trying to avoid with her community meeting.
Although Ridley-Thomas did not attend the meeting, he did send a three-page letter that Waters read to the audience.
Ridley-Thomas said he believes the community “deserves better.” His proposal would create 180 units of affordable housing.
“This investment in housing is timely, as populations like our seniors and young families are being squeezed out of the housing market, a challenge particularly felt in South Los Angeles,” Ridley-Thomas’ letter said. “Moreover, our project would create needed social services, education and workforce development centers, as well as enhanced public transit amenities.”
A representative of Sassony disputed some of Ridley-Thomas’ claims
“People think Sassony has been the continuous owner [of the property] for the past 30 years,” said Jennifer Dueñas, chief operating officer of Sassony Commercial Development Co. “That’s not true. In 2008, the city filed eminent domain against us for the first time. Now this is the second time.”
“That is a major point I want everyone to remember; we didn’t own it from 2008-2012.”
The city’s Community Revelopment Agency (CRA) owned it.
Sassony reclaimed ownership in May 2013 after the state dissolved all community redevelopment agencies. However, Dueñas explained that three additional parcels of land to expand the project site were still owned by the successor agency to the CRA.
“It makes no sense for the Board [of Supervisors] to be stopping a $250 million investment in South Los Angeles,” Dueñas said.
“We’re not saying that [the county’s rental housing project] is not needed. 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.”
Many in attendance complained that Ridley-Thomas failed to inform them about his plan. Waters said that was why she hosted the meeting.
“Transparency is everything,” she said.
At the end of the forum, a microphone was set up so residents could ask questions about the project. Many asked about affordable housing, what type of restaurants would move in, and many expressed concerns about gentrification.
Claudia Brick, a South L.A. resident of 30 years, asked about Sassony’s plans for affordable housing. She said she was happy her questions were answered and found the forum to be helpful.
“I have lived here for a really long time and we have go way out of our neighborhood to find decent entertainment, shopping,” she said. “I end up going to The Grove. I would love to have access to the same kind of amenities right here.”
Dueñas couldn’t give a precise answer to affordable housing, because it is the local government that determines those regulations.
“If I had a say in it, it would be a completely different conversation. I unfortunately don’t control that,” she added.
Pastor Rodney Hilson has lived in South L.A. since 1979. He also voiced his concerns at the end of the forum.
“We definitely need more of these [meetings] and I’m very satisfied,” Hilson said. “The concern of my wife and I was always why isn’t there infrastructure here? What’s the reason for it not being here?
“The only thing I can think of is keep the property value low and eventually when the property is needed for whatever reason — gentrification or what not — then they’ll buy the property up and move the people out.”