For years, a dairy-processing plant sat shuttered at Slauson and Western avenues, another decaying hulk that symbolized the decline of South Los Angeles. At early light Thursday, Home Depot opened its doors for the first time on that same corner, anchoring the largest commercial development in South Los Angeles in more than a decade.
In more affluent neighborhoods, one more shopping center would attract little notice. But for South-Central, the $75-million project brings more than an uptick in convenience. It signals a rebirth of an area many had written off as dead, long before the 1992 riots wrote its epitaph.
Where once national retailers feared to tread, stores have sprouted. Food4Less opened at the site, now christened Chesterfield Square, this week. Starbucks, International House of Pancakes and McDonald's are among the tenants to follow.
From Los Angeles to Harlem, retailers are discovering the inner-city urban areas they had written off during the 1970s, '80s and '90s, bringing jobs and services and in some cases triggering further development. Retailers realize the spending power of high-density urban neighborhoods translates into profits. They are finding that some of the new stores bring in up to three times the average of the chains' outlets.
Home Depot is among those moving most aggressively, opening stores in Inglewood, Huntington Park and Cypress Park in the last few years, with another under construction in Pico-Union.
"This is not a matter of philanthropy," Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who pushed heavily to make the project a reality, told a crowd gathered for the opening Thursday. "This is not a matter of altruism. It's a matter of good business."
That business is likely to give a needed injection of economic vitality to a neighborhood that sorely needs it.
After the riots, there was an unsuccessful political campaign to bring business back to the scarred city. But in recent years, some businesses have returned because they see a market. McDonald's is a frequent logo, as is Auto Zone and Rite-Aid. Still missing, however, have been anchor stores.
In the last two months, more than 2,000 residents trooped to a portable trailer on the Chesterfield lot seeking work from Home Depot. More than 70% of the store's 105 hires live within seven miles of the site, and half live in the immediate area, store manager Farid Khansarinia said. Altogether, the development is expected to create 541 jobs.
Residents say those jobs--and the pride associated with the project--will do wonders to boost neighborhood morale and even help to combat crime.
"There was nothing here, just factories and dirt," said Keiishia Lytle, 25, a Home Depot employee who lives less than a mile from the site and transferred from the chain's Hollywood store. "We needed something in the community to bring life, to bring jobs. When there's nothing [for youth] to do, that's when crime goes up."
Hopes are high that the project will lure other development to the neighborhood, either chain stores or mom-and-pop businesses that have nervously steered clear. Swap meets, auto body shops and a Pic 'N Save marred by graffiti leave the area wanting. Residents had a say in the design of the 22-acre project, insisting that it be free of the iron fences and gates that surround many nearby shopping centers. And developer Chris Hammond said Home Depot was required to build its top-tier store as a condition of the project. Hammond's Capital Vision Equities paired with heavyweight Katell Properties to develop the site.
The project has helped build momentum in the area, Ridley-Thomas said. Three retail developments--at Crenshaw's Santa Barbara Plaza, at Vermont and Manchester and at Broadway and Manchester, are moving forward after years of delay.
"It's opened a lot of doors," said Home Depot assistant manager Katrina Greer, who grew up nearby. "Since the civil unrest we haven't had any new stores. The self-esteem of the neighborhood is going to be raised. This is going to break all the stereotypes."
Developers who have spearheaded a movement in urban revival across the country say such seed projects can spur greater change, as long as other key ingredients such as local hiring and affordable housing are in place.
"The real key is getting the sense of scale and getting the momentum going," said Oliver Wesson, president of the Retail Initiative, a New York-based development fund that backs supermarket-anchored projects in urban markets across the country.
Wesson, whose organization has invested in a project at Slauson and Central avenues, said other retailers have followed projects in Harlem and elsewhere after it became clear they were high-grossing.
Chesterfield Square faced all the hurdles that typically burden developments in low-income neighborhoods.
Developers found seven unexpected underground storage tanks at the site, driving up the cost and forcing them to seek a $7.9-million subsidy from the city's Community Development Department.