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CRA Ends Deal for Mall With Magic Johnson

Redevelopment: Some blame city politics as exclusive pact is dropped, leaving future of Crenshaw site in limbo.


It looks as though not even Magic could turn around the beleaguered Santa Barbara Plaza shopping center in the Crenshaw district.

The Community Redevelopment Agency's Board of Commissioners voted Thursday to terminate its exclusive agreement with Earvin "Magic" Johnson's development company to revitalize the commercial project.

But, as is common with anything even remotely connected to the CRA and City Hall these days, there is more under the surface than what appears in public.

The agreement between the city and Johnson's company has a long, messy history that, by most accounts, begins and ends with the councilman who represents the Santa Barbara Plaza area. Although Mark Ridley-Thomas acknowledged Johnson's efforts Thursday, he hasn't been the biggest champion of the former Lakers basketball star, leaving many community members saddened by the end result: nothing.

Johnson, who was out of town Thursday, said he is extremely disappointed that he could not develop the center, particularly because the community has been waiting so long.

Ken Lombard, the president of Johnson's development company, said Johnson told him: "It's also disappointing that we simply were not able to put together the political support necessary to make it happen." But Johnson thanked Mayor Richard Riordan's office for its support.

Johnson's development group has--and had--big plans for the shopping center, at Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw boulevards, near the thriving Magic Johnson Theaters movie complex. At various times since the agreement was drafted in July 1996, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Costco were going to anchor the retail center. Johnson's development group, known as Santa Barbara Partners, had several different, $100-million-plus proposals to greatly revamp the mall.

The 23-acre site is complex because any development there will require negotiating with and relocating up to 39 property owners and about 200 businesses. That alone has driven up the costs of the project, not to mention the vast improvements the center needs.

Santa Barbara Partners was seeking a public subsidy for its latest plans, a practice that is becoming more common and that helped developers of the downtown Staples Center and owners of the large Hollywood/Highland project. With the help of Riordan's business team, which has been extremely supportive of Johnson's efforts in South Los Angeles, the group would have received a loan from the Community Development Bank as well as federal grants.

Still, the redevelopment agency and the Crenshaw Community Advisory Committee, a citizens group that has been trying for years to revamp Santa Barbara Plaza, believed the time had come to examine other options. The CRA board voted unanimously Thursday to hire consultants to develop new alternatives for the site.

Joyce Perkins, chairwoman of the advisory committee, said she believed everyone involved worked hard to make the Johnson effort work but that "time was of the essence" and the community needed to move forward.

To some, even those close to the negotiations, it appeared that Ridley-Thomas never wanted the CRA to become involved with Johnson, and he pressured officials to make difficult, unnecessary demands on Johnson's company after the councilman learned that Johnson supported a rival to Ridley-Thomas' unsuccessful effort to bring professional football back to the Coliseum.

Ridley-Thomas, who has denied any link between the shopping center and football, fought long and hard for a team but Los Angeles recently lost out to Houston. He blames the loss, in part, on the rival ownership groups that he believed showed a lack of unity in the city. Johnson supported the effort led by former super-agent Mike Ovitz.

Some say football was only the beginning of Ridley-Thomas' disinterest in Johnson, and that he prefers another nearby project being developed by one of his close allies, Chris Hammond, which he believed could have been forced to compete with the plaza.

Ridley-Thomas was unavailable for comment Thursday, but he sent a letter to the CRA board, essentially supporting its action and saying that his main concern is developing the area. He said he supports giving other developers, and even the existing property owners, the opportunity to present plans for the plaza.

To the Johnson group, however, the councilman, the mayor, the CRA and the community must jointly agree on the future of that center.

"Until they all get together and decide, nothing's going to happen there," said Victor MacFarlane, a partner in Johnson's development group. "It's hard to govern by committee. . . . We're very disappointed."

Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo, who oversees the business team, said: "We felt as though if anybody had the ingenuity or the magic touch to make it happen, it would be Magic Johnson. . . . This is certainly not a happy day, but I'm not giving up hope."

Johnson's group says it will announce within a month some new projects in the city.

"We go on," said MacFarlane, "the city goes on but the tenants and the community remains . . . with what?"

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