Donna Davis cuddles with her grandson, Archie Amerson, at Jordan Downs… (Arkasha Stevenson/ Los…)
Los Angeles' housing authority board chose developers Thursday for a $1-billion effort to redevelop the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts, a crucial step toward revitalizing one of the city's poorest and most violence-plagued neighborhoods.
The plan calls for knocking down the 700-unit project whose name has become synonymous with urban blight and replacing it with a larger "urban village" of up to 1,800 new homes, stores and a park.
More than a third of the units would be reserved for families now living in the dilapidated two-story buildings, many of whom pay little rent and have lived in public housing for generations. But officials also envision selling several hundred units at market rate, and hope to make the new community inviting to retailers and more affluent residents.
"Our goal is to move this as quickly as possible," said Doug Guthrie, the housing authority's chief executive officer. He added that the developers selected — The Michaels Organization of New Jersey and Bridge Housing of San Francisco — have a record of redeveloping housing projects around the country. Michaels was part of a project to replace the infamous Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago with mixed-income town homes
Significant questions remain about how the project will be financed.
The housing authority has about $15 million in federal housing replacement funds and has identified some other funding sources, but officials said many details must still be worked out.
Kim McKay, the executive vice president of Bridge, said officials expect to "cobble together a lot of different colors of money," probably including tax credits.
The housing board authorized the development team to spend up to $3 million on preliminary work such as planning and environmental studies. The developers will spend an additional $1 million of their own.
Construction could begin as early as next year, said Whitney Weller, senior vice president of Michaels.
Previous efforts to redevelop Jordan Downs have left residents disappointed. One effort in 1989 fell apart. Another smaller modernization project a decade ago was plagued by allegations of misspending. In the wake of that, housing officials were fired or forced to resign.
The current effort has been in the planning stages for years. In 2008, the authority spent $31 million to purchase a 21-acre piece of land nearby on which they now plan to expand.
Jordan Downs is among the city's oldest housing projects. It was built as a temporary shelter for factory workers during World War II and became public housing for the poor in the 1950s.
In later years, the Grape Street Crips claimed the project as their turf. Police and residents now say crime is down and conditions are much better than a few years ago, but many people living there have lost someone they know to violence. On a recent day, a makeshift shrine, with candles and liquor bottles, sat not far from the project's community center.
Even so, with so many long-term residents, the project also has the feel of a close-knit small town. People often care for one another's children.
There are about 2,400 people living in Jordan Downs. Under the plan, all of those complying with the terms of their leases will be eligible to move into the new development. In recent months, officials have been offering an extensive array of social services at the project, including groups for mothers and fathers.
Many residents who attended the board meeting — bused there in a housing authority coach — said they have high hopes.
"How it has been in the past, we don't want it to be like that in the future," resident Julius Sanders told the board.
After the vote, residents gathered with the new developers to pose for pictures. One child wore a shirt that said "Watts Is Worth It."
That was the slogan the group chanted instead of "cheese" before the photos were snapped.