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Can the Vermont/Manchester project be saved?

April 17, 2008|Tim Cavanaugh | Tim Cavanaugh is the Web editor for The Times' editorial pages.

Almost 16 years after the Los Angeles riots, the Vermont/Manchester Recovery Redevelopment Project in South Los Angeles looks like Kabul. In the heart of the project area is a mostly undeveloped two-block stretch -- majority-owned by a man who lives in a Trousdale Estates mansion with a seaward view and a circular porch flanked by bronze torchbearers in loincloths.

Does that mean City Hall should condemn and seize the land?

The Community Redevelopment Agency thinks so. This month, the agency began eminent domain proceedings against brothers Eli and Joseph Sasson, owners of the 8400 and 8500 blocks of South Vermont Avenue.

At first glance, the CRA's case appears sound. The Sassons have owned much of the property at issue for more than 20 years, and they have built nothing since the area -- a collection of modest swap-meet-style stores -- was burned to the ground in 1992. By any reasoning, this property meets the definition of "blight" in the area's Redevelopment Plan. The CRA has for years tried to get a retail commercial center built -- the lack of services and name-brand stores in the area is legendary -- with no success.

Eli Sasson, to put it mildly, doesn't help his own case. He's a hothead with a rambling, impassioned speaking style who has alienated nearly everybody involved, including his brother, who still owns one lot on the site. This situation also skirts the thorny emotional questions often associated with eminent domain; this is vacant, nonresidential property that Sasson can afford to lose.

So does that mean eminent domain seizure is the way to go? The city and community leaders argue, compellingly, that using force is the only way to bring this recalcitrant landowner to the table. But the case against Sasson is not airtight, and there is ample reason to believe that city seizure will just doom the Vermont/Manchester project to another decade or so of development limbo.

Among other things, the seemingly damning argument that Sasson has failed to rebuild since 1992 loses force on close inspection. Sasson did not, in fact, have what is called in the development game "site control" until 2006, when he bought out some other owners, and since then he has been negotiating with the CRA.

These negotiations have been fraught with turmoil as the CRA has reshuffled staff and changed direction -- and Sasson has a voluminous paper trail to back up his claim that not all the delays have come from his end. The agency's poor record on comparable projects -- including the long-deferred Broadway/Manchester and Marlton Square developments -- does not inspire confidence.

Finally, the CRA has had eminent domain authority since 1996 and never opted to use it until Sasson had majority control of the site. The decision to seize the land seems partly driven by the agency's deadline: Its eminent domain authority expires in mid-May.

His detractors note that Sasson has over the years presented innumerable site plans to the CRA, ranging from modest to impossibly grandiose. His response? He has drawn up designs at his own expense in response to conflicting signals from the city. Even his relatively modest versions of the project come with the expectation of some city financing -- but Sasson is hardly the only landowner in town who has sought public largesse in return for retail development.

The amount of that largesse is the key to this story, and Sasson's opponents point to the particularly grand retail/dining/supermarket plan he submitted to the CRA last year, which included a $32-million gap in financing. Even that point is not as dispositive as the city would like you to think. It is, for example, a fraction of the expected tax break for the Grand Avenue Project, which is being built in a part of the city that needs public financial help far less than South L.A.

Sasson's interlocutors, including the CRA board and Councilman Bernard C. Parks' office, are no longer in the mood to quibble over these points. They note that his seriousness about the project seems to increase the more pressure is put on him. Both board members and administrators at the CRA hold out hope that they can stop short of seizing the land -- understandable, given the unlikelihood that the agency could come up with a "fair market" price for the property and then finance an attractive retail development on it. But the prevailing mood is that a peaceful resolution is no longer possible.

The problem with cutting the Gordian knot, however, is that you get left with useless pieces of rope. The reason the Vermont/Manchester project has been stalled this long is that it's an ambitious project, an attempt to bring full-service retail to a neighborhood that retailers are reluctant to enter, with a less-than-ideal combination of owner, city agency and (now) economics. Fiscal logic indicates that Sasson has the clearest motivation to get the project completed, even as his long history of inaction argues against that logic.

Even if you don't buy the popular claim that this or any other neighborhood has a "right" to high-quality retail, you can understand the frustrations at work here. For 16 years, the residents of Vermont Knolls have listened to rhetoric about exciting new developments, which has invariably ended in sniping about whether absentee landlords are worse than feckless city officials. Meanwhile, the hopes of 1992, and of all the years since, have gone to ground.

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