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REDEVELOPMENT : In South-Central, Should It Be Houses or Stores?

November 19, 1995|William Fulton | William Fulton is editor of California Planning & Development Report, a monthly newsletter. His book on the politics of urban planning in Southern California will be published by Solano Press Books

VENTURA — Maybe Mayor Richard Riordan didn't have enough votes to oust transit chief Franklin E. White last week, but he did have enough clout to torpedo one of Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas' showcase redevelopment projects on Vermont Avenue. The reasons Riordan rejected a city loan for the project--and the political fallout from his rejection--go a long way toward explaining why revitalizing South-Central Los Angeles isn't easy.

On paper, the Vermont and 80th project was a gem. Vermont was one of the hardest-hit areas during the 1992 riots. But it is a wide avenue with a parkway and a lot of street trees, potentially one of the city's most attractive thoroughfares, and therefore a logical cornerstone for South-Central's revitalization. Sponsored by First Interstate Bank, the proposal combined 35 housing units with six commercial stores to create a planner's dream of a "mixed-use" project. Designed by Daniel Solomon, California's best architect of inner-city projects, the development incorporated an Art Deco market dating back to the '30s. To allay neighborhood concerns, First Interstate reduced the project's density and included townhomes available for purchase, rather than low-income rentals.

Yet, on Thursday afternoon, Riordan vetoed a $1.8-million city loan to buy the site. He contended that the project is a bad financial deal and that some of the residents of the adjoining Vermont Knolls area, a middle-class black neighborhood, oppose it. (Interestingly, it was only weeks ago that the mayor was defending First Interstate, the project's chief angel, against Wells Fargo's takeover bid). In fact, the mayor's veto was the culmination of weeks of political machinations involving Riordan, Ridley-Thomas and Rep. Maxine Waters, who just happens to live around the corner from the Vermont development site.

Ridley-Thomas called the project "the most significant development along the Vermont corridor in two decades." But Waters was against it from the start, claiming the corridor needed new retail development, not more housing. Both claimed community support.

There's no love lost between Ridley-Thomas and Waters; among other things, he originally won his council seat by defeating a candidate she supported. Furthermore, Ridley-Thomas and Riordan are bitter enemies, while Waters gets along with the mayor. Though she didn't overtly back his mayoral bid in 1993, she was one of the few African American politicians in town who didn't line up behind Mike Woo. Stripped to its political core, the Vermont project was a question of who could exert more muscle over the mayor--and Waters won.

But, there is more to the Vermont project than just politics. There is also the important question of what the nature of revitalization should be in an area like lower Vermont. The success of urban revitalization in Los Angeles depends on the city's politicians arriving at a consensus answer.

A lot of the economic "infrastructure" that invests in inner cities nationwide--foundations, bank community-lending departments, nonprofit developers--involves creation of low- and moderate-income housing. It's a worthy cause that can easily win headlines and philanthropic money, and provide politicians with a chance to bring investment to neighborhoods that might otherwise have none. Furthermore, since the '92 riots, the housing agenda has been aggressively pushed by city Housing Director Gary W. Squier, a strong leader who has more credibility than the troubled Community Redevelopment Agency. It is hard to argue with Ridley-Thomas when he says: "$15 million in a single project has not seen its way to Vermont in who knows how long."

Yet, in opposing the Vermont development, Waters skillfully played to her constituency. Black homeowners in South-Central are NIMBYs. They don't want their neighborhoods to deteriorate; they fear more Latino immigrant families coming in. Most important, they yearn for a return to the days when South-Central's commercial strips were viable and vibrant--the atmosphere so lovingly recreated in the movie "Devil in a Blue Dress."

Waters may or may not have manufactured neighborhood opposition to the Vermont project, as Ridley-Thomas' people claim. And, to some extent, she probably was playing power politics. (Some affordable-housing developers didn't bid on the project for fear of crossing her.) But when Waters says she just wants to be able to walk down the street to buy some hose, instead of driving to Fox Hills Mall, she strikes a chord with a lot of South-Central homeowners.

Ridley-Thomas thinks he has the votes to override Riordan's veto, in which case the project will move forward. But both Riordan and Waters have begun talking about trying to put together a new, retail-only project for the Vermont site. If the mayor starts twisting arms on the council, his veto may hold. But then the onus will be on Riordan and Waters to deliver something better on the site.

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