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A Towering Symbol of Hope in Watts : Renewal: Landmark artwork is at the center of a plan to turn 10 acres into a park and cultural mecca that would encourage tourists to stay longer.


The Watts Towers, a graceful network of arching towers and gleaming spires that draws visitors from throughout the world, have suffered the same sad fate of abuse and neglect as the community that surrounds them. But after decades of failed projects and abandoned promises, there is a plan that could showcase the towers and serve as a catalyst to revitalize the community.

Planners and architects hope to transform a curving 10-acre strip of weed-choked lots, anchored by the towers at one end, into a beautifully landscaped park with the possibility of gift shops, restaurant, theater for performing arts, artist studios, galleries and other uses. This "cultural crescent," as it is being touted, could lure more tourists, encourage them to linger in the area and serve as a catalyst for rebuilding surrounding neighborhoods, residents say.

"For too long the perception of Watts has been very different from the reality of Watts," said Clinton Minnis, chairman of the Watts Cultural Crescent Advisory Committee, an organization of residents. "If this community is ever going to move forward, we need to be able to change all those negatives attitudes about Watts. Now, we may finally have a way to do that."

For years, community activists have unsuccessfully sought to revitalize the area around the towers. But recently, the Community Redevelopment Agency purchased about five acres of land near the towers, and, with another five acres owned by other government agencies, the CRA controls enough land to put together a development plan.

The cultural crescent will be on a winding strip of land, much of it on a vacant Southern Pacific railway corridor. It does not look like much now--just empty lots filled with rusting bedsprings and sofas, and gravel-filled strips of land surrounded by chain-link fences. But its supporters envision landscaped promenades, bike paths, open markets in plazas and a number of businesses.

This blueprint for the area's development--being drafted at a cost of $175,000 by the architecture and planning firm Renaissance II--is expected to be completed in about nine months. The consultants have been holding community meetings to determine what kind of uses residents want and will support.

The project's cost has not been determined, but the plan will include a number of financing proposals--from private investment to grants from the city, local art donors and national foundations. The consultants also are hoping to work with the Watts Credit Union, a local financial institution, to provide loans for investors.

But it is an onerous task to develop property in a neighborhood long abandoned by the business community, banks and thousands of middle-class families--a neighborhood that does not have a single sit-down restaurant or movie theater. The project also must contend with the recession and city budget shortages. And to attract enough visitors, concerns about security will have to be allayed.

Another fear is that the slow pace of the tower's renovation will hamper the success of the project. The renovation is years from completion, the towers are only open part time and scaffolding covers several spires.

Still, the towers, a national historic monument, remain a tremendous tourist draw, attracting more than 50,000 people a year. And in the wake of the riots, corporations and nonprofit foundations have shown more interest in investing in the inner city.

Supporters of the project also note that the site will be more accessible because of the Blue Line transit system and the scheduled 1993 opening of the Century Freeway. Although there were serious concerns about safety on the Blue Line, which bisects South-Central Los Angeles, the crime rate has been negligible as a result of the highly visible presence of sheriff's deputies and security guards.

City officials are optimistic, citing signs of progress in the area. At a nearby intersection--near the recently renovated Watts train station used as a Blue Line stop--there is a proposed CRA project that includes a new library, an 18,000-square-foot commercial development and the first sit-down restaurant in Watts. At the other end of the property, near the towers, is the Santa Ana Pines, the first commercial single-family subdivision to be built in Watts since World War II.

Thad Williams, a partner in the Santa Ana Pines project, said the potential of the cultural crescent has been a selling point for potential home buyers.

"I think this could change the whole dynamic of the area," he said. "I think it will make it a more desirable place to live and bring in a lot more investment. And with the Blue Line taking thousands of people by the property every day and some of the development already going on, I think it could attract more private investors to Watts."

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