Frustration and skepticism were the dominant emotions residents and business owners in Leimert Park expressed to a panel of city and county officials at a meeting last Wednesday of the Empowerment Congress West Area Neighborhood Development Council.
They were frustrated about the lack of progress with the Marlton Square development and demanded that officials clean up the site immediately and eliminate what they said were serious hazards including suspected hazardous waste.
At the meeting, which was attended by more than 50 people, residents also asked for an update of the project and offered suggestions on how officials could better communicate with the area residents and businesses.
Marlton Square, formerly Santa Barbara Plaza, is a $155.9-million-dollar mixed-use retail and housing development set on 19 acres in the Crenshaw District. It is bounded by Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to the north, Marlton Avenue on the east, Santa Rosalia Drive to the south, and Buckingham Road on the west. An additional three-acre site for a 180-unit senior housing complex adjacent to Marlton Square, called Buckingham Place, is also part of the project and was initially projected at $27 million.
In addition to the senior housing, 140 single-family homes and 150 residential condominium units are supposed to be constructed on the site.
The Marlton Square development project was approved by the city in 1984 and actually includes the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Mall, which was completed in 1995.
Plans for the Santa Barbara Plaza portion have been in the works since 1990, when the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) amended its redevelopment plan for the area to include the former shopping center. Initially envisioned as a retail-only project, market forces and rumored conflict between then-Eighth District Council Mark Ridley-Thomas and the chosen developerMagic Johnsonthrew the project off track.
According to Joyce Perkins, chair of the Community Advisory Committee for the Marlton Square project, the 1992 civil unrest prompted city officials to expand the redevelopment area and that plan was approved in 1995.
Another developer who also had some ownership stake in the plazaCapital Visions led by Christopher Hammondresponded to a request for proposals solicited from owners of the land, and he too proposed all retail, said Perkins. But difficulty interesting retailers in investing in the site, as well as an inability to amass the money needed to buy the 39 individual owners out to assemble a decent retail parcel in a timely fashion, prompted local officials to look in other directions.
Perkins said this is when the idea of a mixed-use development was proposed by Congresswoman Diane Watson.
Federal and local money was assembled to underwrite the project and this included tax credits for the senior housing portion.
But inspection delays, city certification problems, funding issues, and problems with the construction lender caused Capital Visionswhich formed a partnership with the Lee Group called MSA Acquistionsto miss its deadlines and consequently lose the tax credits.
Currently, the first building in the 180-unit Buckingham Place senior housing is 97 percent complete, but construction halted in February because developer Capital Visions does not have enough money to complete the project, in part because delays have caused costs to escalate and the lost money from the tax credits must be replaced.
Additionally, because Capital Visions was unable to acquire eight properties, LNR, the company brought in to develop the retail portion, terminated its Retail Implementation Agreement Sept. 15, 2006. The unacquired properties include Jerrys Flying Fox, Maranatha Church, and the swap meet on the corner of Marlton and King Boulevard.
Now the Lee Group, who had partnered with Capital Visions to construct the market-rate housing portion of Marlton Square, is reportedly negotiating to take over all phases of the development.
Additionally, the CRA has begun to purchase property on the site, with the intention of being able to offer a potential retail developer the land needed to build. There is also $18 to $19 million in Federal Community Development Block Grant Section 108 loan money that is awaiting approval by the city council for use to purchase additional land.
And finally, a new retail developer and plan must be approved.
The key, said CRA chief, Cecilia V. Estolano, who has actually been connected with the redevelopment project since she was an aide with former councilwoman Ruth Galanter, is acquiring control of the retail properties and the giant parking lot that sits in the middle of the site. This requires obtaining control of the eight remaining properties (about four acres) as well as the land that is controlled by MSA Acquisitions.
All of these delays have frustrated and angered residents, who said that developer misfires and city inaction have led to Marlton becoming an unsightly and dangerous place.
There are abandoned buildings with broken windows fronting Santa Rosalia and abandoned cars parked in the lot. People are also camping out on the property.
At the same time, business owners like Lloyd McCloud of Sincerely Yours Luv Unique Gifts as well as artist and framer Thomas Fitch, continue to operate their companies in the midst of the struggling development.
Nobody knows whats going on, said McCloud about the project. We have no clue where we are, whats going to happen, or when its going to happen. We live in fear all around. Why do we have to react to what you do? You dont listen to us, McCloud told the assembled officials.
Other residents expressed similar sentiments about being in the dark and ignored, and one community member, Taylor Mayfield, voiced doubts about the city being the owner of all the property. Im not comfortable with the city owning the property because they can build what they want; they might even build a jail there.
While a variety of suggestions were put forward, the primary action city officials agreed to take was to form a task force to address the blight at the project site. The group will be composed of officials such as the City Attorneys office, Building and Safety, as well as the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
A community representative would also be part of the body. Among the action that the task force members will begin are to obtain permission from the property owners for a no-trespassing order, which can then be used by the police to cite people and the city attorneys to prosecute.
Building and Safety is in the process of doing a complete inventory of the property to assess code violations and other infractions, and then will notify owners to take action on these issues.
The task force is expected to report back to the next neighborhood council meeting.