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CITY TIMES Cover Story : The Comeback Corridor : Once-Thriving Vermont Avenue Is on the Rebound as $60 Million Has Been Earmarked for Construction and Rehabilitation Projects.

March 26, 1995|STEPHEN GREGORY | Special to the Times

Vermont Avenue emerged from the 1992 riots a broken and dispirited street, a wasteland of gutted shops and shattered dreams.

Many of the roughly 600 properties gutted or damaged during the riots were located along the artery, and among the hardest-hit pockets was a five-mile stretch in south Los Angeles between the Santa Monica (10) Freeway and Manchester Avenue. About 50 structures were torched there, and property losses topped $40 million. On some blocks, the voracious flames left only charred storefronts opening onto debris and sky.

"It looked like something out of a World War II movie," said Rodney Shepard, a developer based in South-Central Los Angeles. "It looked like it had been bombed."

Now, almost three years later, more than $60 million--nearly $50 million of which is private investment--has been earmarked for construction and rehabilitation projects on and around Vermont in hopes of jump-starting full economic recovery along the once-thriving retail strip.

New supermarkets, retail stores, library services and a performing arts center are in the works. The most high-profile plans call for a face lift along Vermont between Vernon and Slauson avenues and conversion of former Pepperdine University property into a 75,000-square-foot retail and residential complex. Work is already under way on several of these projects--indeed, some are already nearing completion. (See graphic, Page 14)

Nearly $30 million in projects have been slated near Vermont and Manchester avenues alone, signifying one of the largest concentrations of proposed development in South-Central Los Angeles. The projects are expected to generate hundreds of new jobs.

"I'm excited to get back into business and make some money," said Terry Steele, who lost his Vermont Avenue furniture store in the riots. His business is set to reopen in one of 14 developments scheduled for completion along the thoroughfare in the next 21 months.

Much of the interest in the corridor has come from a November, 1992, Urban Land Institute report examining the need for revitalizing Vermont Avenue south of the freeway, said Eugene Grigsby, a UCLA professor who has been studying development-related issues in South-Central for 25 years. The report concluded that there are "thousands of acres" of vacant or underused commercial property that could be developed to produce "needed jobs, housing opportunities and services to the community."

But while the report identifies untapped potential for commercial development along Vermont, Grigsby remains doubtful of the area's success.

Continued competition from malls and large, one-stop shopping outlets, he said, will make it difficult to bring about full economic recovery for a strip of mostly small mom-and-pop stores.

"I don't think I'll be around to see a revitalized Vermont corridor," the 50-year-old said.

Yet proponents insist projects that combine commercial and residential uses, like the one slated at the former Pepperdine site, will provide a near-guaranteed customer base for new businesses.

*

Such is the medicine for a street that 40 years ago didn't even have a sniffle.

"It used to be you could walk and shop and get anything you wanted on Vermont," said longtime resident Helen Johnson, 64. "It was really nice."

From the 1920s through 1950s, commercial activity along Vermont was in top gear. All week, eager shoppers would throng the avenue's shops and department stores. Business was so brisk in the clothing stores and jewelry marts around Vermont and Manchester that the area rivaled Downtown as a shopping destination.

"It was crowded, always crowded," recalled Frank Morris, who moved into the middle-class Vermont Knolls neighborhood just northwest of Vermont and Manchester in 1957.

By that time, the area's mostly white residents had already started leaving for newer, more exclusive suburbs. Still, most businesses remained white-owned even as more and more African Americans migrating from the South moved in.

Economic prosperity began tapering off in the 1960s, when nearby factories and other high-employment enterprises began closing and joblessness soared. At the same time, retail shops started leaving Vermont in search of more moneyed clientele.

Racial distrust also played a role--the 1965 riots in nearby Watts accelerated the flight of white residents and merchants even though the Vermont area was untouched.

"The Watts rebellion killed it flat," Morris said of Vermont's economic life.

The area also suffered major blows in the 1970s when high-profile establishments such as Pepperdine University and a decades-old Sears department store moved off the avenue. The Malibu-bound university took with it a major customer base for local merchants, and the loss of Sears deprived the area of one of its chief shopping magnets.

The most recent malady, the 1992 riots, left Vermont a collection of weed-covered lots and shuttered stores interspersed among small, family-owned businesses.

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