Our Weekly Los Angeles Cover Art for Thursday, June 17, 2021. (305564)
Our Weekly Los Angeles Cover Art for Thursday, June 17, 2021. Credit: Our Weekly LA

The Watts neighborhood in South Los Angeles is at a crossroads which community advocates say has been years in the making.

“It’s a case of malign neglect,” began Timothy Watkins Sr., who serves as the president and CEO of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee.

A 200-unit housing development is on the horizon after years of inactivity surrounding the Historic Watts Train Station near the intersection of 103rd Street and Graham Avenue. However, many residents have no idea what has been proposed to come.

“We weren’t asked,” said Watkins.

Through community outreach and lived experience, Watkins has a unique pulse of the people of Watts, a historically African-American working-class neighborhood within the city of Los Angeles.

According to the Watts Neighborhood Council, Watts did not become predominantly Black until the 1940s, as the Second Great Migration brought tens of thousands of people, who left segregated states in the South in search of a better life in California. Large housing projects like Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs were built during World War II for the thousands of new workers employed in war-related industries. Over years, those projects became nearly 100 percent Black, and as industrial jobs left the area, historians said the projects began housing more low-income families than when they were first built in the 1940s.

As industrial jobs left the area, historians said “longstanding resentment by Los Angeles’ working-class Black community over discriminatory treatment by police and inadequate public services, (especially schools and hospitals), exploded on Aug. 11, 1965, into what is now commonly known as the Watts Riots.”

“Watts is important because historically it is the birthplace of the greatest domestic uprising in American history in 1965, number one and it also is the birthplace of the Watts Towers which are globally known in many respects as the eighth wonder of the world,” Watkins said.

With historical context and environmental concerns, Watkins said residents are asking for safe, open green spaces, not high-density housing near LA Metro A Line’s 103rd Street / Watts Towers Station.

Currently, the project is being led by Thomas Safran and Associates, who have developed more than 6,000 units of luxury, affordable, and mixed-use rental housing in Southern California. According to Thomas Safran and Associates, past project locations include Hollywood, downtown Los Angeles, Carson, Baldwin Park, Calabasas, Riverside, Sun Valley and Catalina Island. Now, the developer with 69 properties in their online portfolio and more than 40 years of experience, has set their sights on building the “Watts Station” project.

According to WattsStationProject.com, between phases one and two, developers are looking to build nearly 200 affordable housing units for low to moderate-income residents. Rents are expected to be between $591 – 986 per month for a Studio, $633 – 1,056 per month for a 1-Bedroom, $760 – 1,267 per month for a 2-Bedroom, and $878 – 1,464 per month for a 3-Bedroom.

However, Graham Smith, who studies environmental science at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said the historic Watts Train Station, which is federally registered as a historic landmark, is currently at stake, as long as it is in the hands of a private developer.

“This project will not serve the long-term interests of the community, it will merely concentrate more Black and Latino people in one of the most densely populated and most polluted neighborhoods in Los Angeles,” wrote Smith, in an open letter.

Developers said they are looking to renovate the Historic Watts Train Station to include commercial retail space for a coffee shop and restaurant and community event and exhibit space to “celebrate the history of Watts with outdoor seating for customers and Metro patrons.”

Developers are also proposing to renovate the Watts Station Plaza as an open public space that will be available to support community events like the Watts Jazz Festival and the Watts Art Walk. Another idea from developers is to provide a “flexible multi-purpose center” (approximately 3,000 sf) next to the Watts Station Plaza to be an indoor space for arts and community programs.

However, these ideas have come after the project’s developer was given permission to buy the land in 2018 by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, while now Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas served as the Supervisor of LA County’s 2nd District.

Mark Ridley-Thomas has long been a supporter of high-quality, affordable housing near Metro lines in Los Angeles County because of the easy access to public transportation for residents.

Ridley-Thomas was unavailable for comment.

“The community deserved to weigh in and actually be engaged in the process that led to the acquisition and proposed development of the land,” Watkins said. “You can’t (go back now), you have to disrupt it.”

Watkins has several additional counterpoints about why this project ultimately hurts Watts.

“Summing up that project, it’s an ill-guided project. I hope it’s ill-fated. It’s to me, the equivalent of—on a much smaller scale of course—of what happened with the Keystone Pipeline. When you’re taking on a community’s special spaces to develop for personal enrichment, then I think this should be a moral and ethical question about the kind of permission that allows that (to happen),” Watkins shared.

Watkins said the project takes away open green spaces in Watts.

“I believe that open space is vitally important in Watts as we have less park space, less open space per capita than practically anywhere else in the city,” Watkins explained. “If it just stayed vacant waiting for the community to have the opportunity to develop it, that would be better than rushing to put affordable housing on it, which at its best is questionable because affordable housing has a beginning and an end.”

The potential loss of open, green space can be coupled with the fact that Watts has some of the lowest life expectancies in the city, according to Los Angeles’ Health Atlas.

Watkins said Watts already has a density rate higher than most neighborhoods and believes losing green space, “further decreases positive health consequences.”

However, all is not lost. Watkins believes there’s still time for Los Angeles to put the long-term residents of Watts first. He has suggested that city leaders buy back the land from the developer and fund the design and implementation of public redevelopment for the entire Watts Cultural Crescent park from 103rd Street to Wilmington Avenue.

Ideally, Watkins said “that precious land” would be owned by a community-controlled, non-profit Heritage Land Trust, along with other properties like the Mafundi Institute, the historic Watts City Hall, and the historic Watts Fire Station. Watkins said that would allow community members to plan, capitalize on those assets and control their destiny.

Ultimately, advocates would like to see a specific master plan for Watts that focuses on creating a better experience for visitors to the Watts Towers, while improving surrounding cultural tourism opportunities, to provide new economic development initiatives.

For decades, long-time Black residents in Watts believe they’ve been underserved and said now is the time to be provided protected class status. Watkins said it is also time to break the perpetual cycle of renting in Watts.

“I proposed rent to own,” Watkins added, as a way for residents to build generational wealth in Watts.

Community leaders have not given up their fight, as the proposed affordable housing development has not broken ground.

The public has been invited to attend the Watts Community Town Hall on Friday, July 16 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee Phoenix Hall located at 10950 S. Central Avenue, Los Angeles, California, 90059.