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Skid Row Project Has Big Buzz but Little Detail

June 26, 2006|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Donald Sterling, the L.A. real estate mogul and Clippers owner, is shaking up the downtown establishment with a seemingly ambitious but mysterious plan to build a huge homeless services center in the heart of skid row.

Sterling announced his plans in a splashy ad in The Times three months ago and has been communicating his intentions for the project largely through a series of additional advertisements. The Donald T. Sterling Charitable Foundation, the ads announced, was buying a 65,000-square-foot lot near Wall and 6th streets and spending $50 million to provide homeless housing, a rehabilitation center and medical services on the site.

Sterling declined repeated requests for an interview, but his real estate agent, Brad Luster, said the project is an example of his altruism.

"His interest at this stage of life is to leave a very significant legacy to the city that took care of him," Luster said.

Downtown officials and community activists said they are excited about Sterling's promise to use his considerable resources to help skid row's homeless. But they are also raising concerns about exactly what the mogul is planning.

At first, Sterling's representatives approached the Midnight Mission about a possible partnership on the new facility. But after months of discussions, Midnight Mission's board announced it was halting negotiations with Sterling.

One person whose picture was featured in the ads -- Councilwoman Jan Perry -- said her likeness was used without her permission.

A new series of ads, published in The Times over the last few days, has sparked more questions.

The ads touted the center's first event: cocktails and dinner tonight at Spago Beverly Hills. The evening will honor a Sterling friend, Ramy El-Batrawi, as "Humanitarian of the Year 2006 for his support of the homeless people in Los Angeles."

El-Batrawi was sued earlier this year by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which alleged that he and a partner, Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, orchestrated a $130-million scheme to manipulate the stock of a Van Nuys-based company. The manipulation, the SEC alleges, resulted in the largest bailout in the history of the Securities Investor Protection Corp.

In an interview Friday, El-Batrawi said the federal charges are untrue and have nothing to do with his interest in helping Sterling launch his homeless center. The businessman said he has not donated money to the cause but has introduced Sterling to other potential donors.

"I'm devoting a lot of my time, my efforts, in being available," he said. "I'm making introductions ... trying to figure out the things he needs."

Singer Natalie Cole also has appeared in the Sterling ads. In one, her publicity shot identifies her as a "leader" providing support for the homeless; in another, she appears next to El-Batrawi as a "special guest" for the dinner. Others in the ad include former Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and singer Smokey Robinson.

The event's producer, Tami Bennett, said that Cole is a big supporter of Sterling's project in part because she was once homeless. Cole's publicist, Courtney Barnes, said Thursday that the singer, "a recent acquaintance" of Sterling, had told Sterling she would attend the event.

But he stressed the singer was never homeless. On Friday, Barnes said the singer was on "voice rest" and would not be attending the event at all.

Community activists have long said that downtown's homeless community needs exactly the kind of medical services center that Sterling has proposed. But they're also concerned that their questions reflect a larger pattern of people promising help for skid row but never delivering.

According to the city Planning Department, no one has filed plans for the property. The Building and Safety Department said Friday that no demolition requests or building permits have been requested in conjunction with the project.

"Aside from these ads, no one has seen anything," said Estela Lopez, the head of the Central City East Assn., a business advocacy group representing an area of downtown that includes skid row. "What's the plan? Where's the proposal?"

Sterling and his backers have offered only a limited sketch of what they want to do on skid row. The facility would rise on a block-long property where a warehouse now stands.

Luster, the real estate agent, said the Sterling family trust is now in escrow on the property, purchasing it for a "significant discount" from the $12-million asking price. He would not elaborate.

The facility is "not going to be a homeless center, but a community center for the people who live in the area, whether they be homeless or housed," Luster said.

He said the center would offer job training, rehabilitation services and medical care, as well as a skid row community court where authorities could process homeless people accused of misdemeanors.

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