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Supervisors push housing project on Vermont

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors voted Dec. 5 to condemn two long-vacant lots at South Vermont and Manchester avenues to build affordable housing and a boarding school, over objections from a developer who has promised for years to build a major retail center at the location.

Both sides claimed to be acting in the interests of the South Los Angeles community that surrounds the land that has served as a homeless encampment, crime scene and reminder of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas recalled a 2014 Los Angeles Times story that dubbed the two-mile corridor Death Alley because it boasted one of the county’s highest homicide rates and said the area continued to suffer an “inexplicable level of trauma.”

He promised 180 units of affordable housing and jobs for local residents.

“My office is committed to elevating the quality of life in this neighborhood,” Ridley-Thomas said. “This is a fabulous project, this is a creative project. … This is a deserving project by any standards.”

Conceptual plans for the 8400 and 8500 blocks of South Vermont Avenue submitted to the board also include a six-story charter boarding school and a retail component.

But developer Eli Sasson, who has owned much of the land in question since the time of the riots and recently closed on three final parcels to complete the site, has a vision of a “destination retail center” that he has dubbed Vermont Entertainment Village and is ready to sue the county as it prepares to take the property by eminent domain, according to his lawyer.

Attorney Robert Silverstein accused the county of launching its plan without warning or public input in an “unconstitutional attack.” The county lacks the statutory authority it needs to invoke eminent domain, according to the developer’s attorney.

“They’ve cited a whole slew of statutes, like throwing spaghetti against a wall and none of them allow them to take private property for this hodge-podge, so-called mixed-use, charter boarding school, bus transfer, affordable housing mish-mash,” Silverstein said.

The board set aside $15.7 million to acquire the property as both sides disagreed about whether offers had been made as required by law.

Proponents of the county plan said they are tired of waiting for Sasson to build on the site.

Property near the intersection of Vermont and Manchester avenues that has been vacant dating back to the 1992 riots is now being fought over by the property owner, who wants to build a ‘retail destination center,’ and Los Angeles County, which wants to build affordable housing and a boarding school. The battle could end up in court.
(Photo by Dennis J. Freeman)

Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, without naming Sasson, accused the owner of “criminal neglect.”

“Just last summer … the last standing building on the parcel, because of neglect, I believe criminal neglect, had been taken over by homeless people. Folks then set it on fire. We came out of our office to see two people being chased by a man with a machete. And piles and piles of trash; encampments on a regular basis,” Harris-Dawson said.

Citing a host of crimes, including two shootings, the councilman told the board that not taking control of the property would amount to “waiting for one of these bullets to hit somebody and for there to be a funeral.”

Many community members agreed, complaining about ribbon cuttings for a retail project that never materialized.

Pastor E.L. Williams of the New Prospect Baptist Church was among those who said he had “no confidence” in the developer.

Joyce Fantroy, a resident and block club member, told the board, “We’re being held hostage by property owners who do not live in the community.”

Silverstein blamed the delays on the Community Redevelopment Agency that controlled the final three parcels necessary to assemble the entire site, a sentiment echoed by Sasson’s wife.

“The CRA was holding us a hostage for two and a half years,” she said. “Finally we closed escrow on November 15th. We’re ready to go. … This is not fair. … It’s inside deals, closed door.”

Representatives for the developer said they had gathered more than 600 signatures in opposition to the county’s plan and some residents spoke out in favor of the retail development.

“I want our Vermont Entertainment Village to be known as L.A. Live Junior,” one grandmother who lives in the neighborhood said. “We deserve the same as others in the community. I want to stop traveling to Inglewood, Torrance and other surrounding cities to go to a pharmacy, a grocery store or just for the purpose of entertaining myself.”

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, wrote a letter to the board saying the area already has affordable housing but needs more retail amenities and suggesting the county find another site.

“I do not support [more] low-income housing in the South L.A. area without the commercial and entertainment development that makes for well-rounded neighborhoods,” Waters wrote in a letter read by District Director Blanca Jimenez.

Jennifer Duenas, chief operating officer for Sassony Commercial Development, said the retail project has 90 percent of the approvals it needs and an “overabundance of tenant interest” from credit-worthy national retailers like Walgreens and CVS and will continue to push forward.

Without further opposition, “I can have shovels in the ground within six to eight months,” Duenas said.

Asked whether the developer would be willing to add affordable housing to the mix, Duenas said, “We actually are open to joint venturing with L.A. County. If the community wants the L.A. County’s proposed project or a mixture of our projects, we’re open to that.”

If not, she warned, county officials should expect to find themselves tied up in court for four years or more.

“That would be holding the properties hostage,” Duenas said.

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