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Building hope

Although questions hover over the proposed Bethany Square project, it looks like a good sign for South L.A.

June 30, 2007

WHAT DOES the Bethany Square project have that countless other efforts to breathe life into South Los Angeles lacked? This question will determine not only the future of the $100-million project -- which seeks to revitalize a strip of Hoover Street between 83rd and Manchester, on lots owned by the City of Refuge Ministries church -- but the viability of the widely shared dream of building a more prosperous community through large commercial developments.

Development in post-riot South L.A. has traditionally involved a maddening mix of state, federal and local agencies. Although its initial investment round has come via complex federal New Markets Tax Credits, the Bethany Square project so far plans to eschew public financing except for the low-income portion of its housing goal. The bulk of the project entails construction of 150 market-rate condominiums, expected to sell for up to $380,000 each. Bethany Square also benefits from the large, five-piece swath of land that the City of Refuge Ministries assembled over the years. This makes it possible to handle regulatory matters for one big project rather than five small ones.

A more controversial advantage may be that the Bethany Square LLC has braved the criticism of anti-gentrification forces and only partially intends to satisfy the frequent calls in the area for higher-quality retail shopping and job creation. Although the project contains some retail, office, banking and restaurant elements, it is clearly geared toward creation of a denser, more desirable housing base.

Which brings us back to the central question: If you build it, will they come? South L.A. is littered with phantom developments that began with grand approval announcements and ended up in limbo. Large projects have been stalled for years in Marlton Square, Broadway/Manchester, Vermont/Manchester and other sites. The Bethany Square project itself has gone through various iterations, including an earlier town square vision that mixed housing, retail and an entertainment center. The current plan looks more like the redevelopment of downtown, which occurred in part by ignoring the need for swanky retail and focusing on high-end housing. So far, that model seems to be working for downtown; but if, for example, you multiply $380,000 by 150 units and do a best guess about how much money will be generated by rentals or sales to retailers, it's hard to see how Bethany Square adds up to a $100-million project.

Investors have a right to dream with their own money, and the people of Vermont Knolls have a right to hope that the vast potential in their bustling but neglected neighborhood may finally be realized. Bethany Square is a risky venture, but we are cautiously hopeful that something seems to be happening in South L.A.

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