It was supposed to have been a model of urban renewal -- a mix of housing and classy stores to replace a decaying 20-acre shopping center at the foot of the affluent Baldwin Hills.
Instead, more than a year after the project was to be completed, Santa Barbara Plaza is a collection of dead or dying businesses surrounding a vast parking lot with weeds pushing through large cracks. Most of the housing was never built; none of the retailers ever came. The largely middle-class, African American area is stuck with a mostly deserted commercial slum.
Los Angeles leaders gambled on a check-bouncing, politically connected developer to shepherd the project. And after $15 million in government subsidies and more than $30 million in private investment, taxpayers -- and the community -- have lost.
"It's disgraceful," said Karen Ceasar, secretary for the neighborhood council at a recent meeting packed with angry residents. She accused elected officials of a "failure to care."
For years, officials had eyed the half-century-old plaza, near Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards, for redevelopment. Then-Mayor James K. Hahn called what was expected to be a $170-million project the top redevelopment priority of his administration.
At first, the city pinned its hopes on basketball legend-turned-businessman Earvin "Magic" Johnson, but he was unable to interest retailers in the site, city records show.
Christopher Hammond, a successful developer of low-income housing and a prolific political fundraiser, stepped into the breach. Hammond impressed officials and residents with ambitious plans for a sprawling retail center, which later were modified to include a gated residential community, condominiums and apartments for low-income seniors.
As an African American, he was seen as a potential pioneer in a city with few black developers heading up big-league projects. His proposal was endorsed by councilmen from the area: first Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is now a state senator, and then his council successor, Bernard C. Parks. Both are now candidates for county supervisor.
But if the city was impressed with Hammond's vision, officials also had reason to question his ability to realize it. Along with his accomplishments, he had serious financial troubles that emerged as the project worked its way through rounds of government approvals beginning in 2000.
In June 2004, a few months before the project was slated for final approval, the Los Angeles Times, citing records and interviews, reported that Hammond or his companies had bounced checks in three dozen instances from 1999 through 2003, for a total of more than $200,000. Although he was effective in raising campaign funds from other people, nearly two dozen of his or his companies' contribution checks to Hahn and 10 to current or former City Council members had bounced.
He was in default on mortgages on both of his houses, in Malibu and Los Feliz. His principal company's landlord had moved to evict it from its offices for failure to pay rent.
Three times, Hammond had agreed to settle lawsuits over bad debts, only to bounce the settlement checks. And even his initial good-faith deposit check to the city for the Santa Barbara Plaza project was no good.
Despite a last-minute warning from City Controller Laura Chick about Hammond's troubled finances, Hahn and the council approved his continued stewardship.
Chick said recently that elected officials should have pulled the plug then.
"The city had an opportunity to stand up and say, 'This is not the way we do business anymore,' and they blew it," she said.
Now, neighbors say the plaza has become a crime magnet and a danger to children. They want the city at least to fence off the blight.
"What we see . . . is no longer tolerable," said Lark Galloway-Gilliam, the neighborhood council president, at the recent meeting.
Hammond did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
To date, little of the plan approved by the city has materialized, according to city and property records, lawsuits and interviews with those involved:
* New stores, the original impetus for the redevelopment, are nowhere on the horizon. Neither Hammond nor his firms ever closed the deals on the land on which he promised to build them. His retail development partner, LNR Western Properties Inc., walked away in 2006, city records show. No replacement has been found.
* Housing for low-income seniors, which was supposed to have been finished in 2004, is only partly built. After an $8.5-million investment by the federal government for the purchase of land and other preliminary costs, a Hammond-led firm managed to erect just one of three planned buildings, and even that one is partly covered in scaffolding. Work stalled after the main contractor, S.C. Anderson Inc., walked off the job in September, saying in a lawsuit that it had not been paid.
In the last year, the state treasurer's office rescinded a promise to provide $17 million more in federal subsidies, saying it was fed up with delays.