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For Watts neighborhood, housing complex is a sign of renewal

The first of 92 units in the Imani Fe development open this week. Developers say it's part of a larger plan to revitalize Central Avenue.

September 08, 2009|Teresa Watanabe

Chris Jordan had just returned home from his paramedic job when he saw his local market aflame on Central Avenue in Watts, one of many targets that night in April 1992 when parts of the city exploded in riots after the Rodney King verdict.

Now, on the site of that rubble, an affordable-housing complex has risen in what neighbors see as a sign of renewal for their beleaguered community.

"It's like the phoenix rising from the ashes," said Jordan, executive director of Grant African Methodist Episcopal Church's nonprofit housing and economic development corporation. "To see it actually happen is almost surreal."

This week, the $37.5-million project will open the first of 92 units after more than a decade of false starts and predictions of failure. A collaboration among Grant, the city of Los Angeles, a development firm headed by Samir Srivastava, and other partners finally made it happen, Jordan said.

Developers say the complex is part of a larger plan to revitalize Central Avenue between Imperial Highway and 103rd Street.

Also in the works are more housing and retail shops and what would be one of the few sit-down restaurants in the neighborhood. The city's Community Redevelopment Agency has conducted a Central Avenue corridor study -- set for release next month -- on how to revitalize the area.

After services Sunday, Jordan gave Grant congregants a preview of the development, drawing oohs and aahs and an occasional "thank you, Jesus."

The development is named Imani Fe -- the Swahili and Spanish words, respectively, for "faith" -- in recognition of the largely Latino and African American residents who will occupy the units. Built in modern Mediterranean style, it features warm shades of mustard and brick red and such top-flight touches as granite bathroom countertops.

The courtyard has a children's play area with a climbing structure, artificial turf and a family space that will be outfitted this month with tables and barbecues. The courtyard will eventually have a meditation area with a fountain, according to Chuck Henry of Srivastava's firm, ABS Properties Inc.

Jordan said the project fulfilled the church's mission to attend not only to congregants' spiritual needs, but their temporal ones as well. Construction created more than 200 jobs, nearly a quarter of them going to local residents.

The 92 units drew 1,500 low-income applicants, who were selected by lottery. The waiting list for the units is already at 800.

Bringing the project to fruition wasn't easy. Jordan said two gangs control the east and west sides of Central Avenue. The area is represented by two City Council members. The nonprofit's initial intention to bring in a major retailer was stymied by space limitations. When Jordan approached smaller retailers, he was met by one rejection after another.

"It's the stigma of Watts," said Jordan, who completed a Harvard University fellowship in urban planning and development in the nonprofit sector. "People were concerned about the security in the area."

Finally, he said, his team decided to build housing first and hope retail would follow.

Jordan said support from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Councilwoman Janice Hahn was crucial.

Hahn said several attempts were made to strip the development's funding for other city projects, but she and her allies rebuffed them. "This is the last frontier of Los Angeles that hasn't been redeveloped," Hahn said. "But now it's time for a change. This community deserves it."

Another key development, Srivastava said, was the group's successful bid for the project's primary funding source: $23 million in federal housing tax credits awarded through the state. About $9 million in federal community development block grant funds was acquired from the city. To keep the project's costs low, Srivastava's firm is deferring 75% of its fees.

Jordan and Srivastava said that thanks to respect for the church and outreach by the developer, the housing complex has had no graffiti, theft or vandalism, except for a few broken windows.

Sunday, as congregants trooped through the complex, many said they saw God's hand sparking a new life for Watts.

"It's about time someone did something for Watts, and I'm pleased to be part of it," said Gladys Foster, 85. "People said it couldn't be done, but they don't know it's not about us -- it's about the power of God."

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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