Competing Public Visions over Large Vacant Lot in South Los Angeles

Some L.A. neighborhoods are still recovering from the 1992 Rodney King riots.

Plans have been made for a mixed-use development, that includes some retail and a boarding school for the county’s child welfare and criminal justice systems, to occupy this 4-acre site on the corner of South Vermont and Manchester Avenues in Los Angeles. (Photo by Alejandra Molina)

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In the 20 years Rosalind Farr has been living in South Los Angeles, she has seen investments and improvements materialize in surrounding cities while her own neighborhood remains the same, she says.

“This community has been like this since the riots,” Farr says.

Farr would like to see more grocery stores, restaurants and retail fill abandoned lots that have been vacant since the 1992 riots erupted in protest of four police officers being acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Farr says her community is being left behind while neighboring cities like Inglewood have seen retail development and renovations to The Forum, the former home of professional basketball’s Los Angeles Lakers still in use as a concert venue. The city is also undergoing construction for a new NFL stadium complex.

Now, one of the largest tracts of vacant land in South L.A. has been the focus of attention as residents and county leaders ponder the role it can serve to revitalize the community.

Plans have been made for a mixed-use development, with 180 affordable apartments, a public boarding school for the county’s child welfare and criminal justice systems, a transit careers training center, open space and 50,000 square feet of retail space, to occupy a 4-acre site on the corner of South Vermont and Manchester avenues.

The county of Los Angeles, through the use of eminent domain — which allows for privately-owned land to be seized for public projects — was in April granted control of the site that housed a swap meet (also called a flea market) before it burned down during the riots. In December, the county sued to acquire the property from developer Eli Sasson, who had left it largely vacant for 26 years. Sasson’s firm, Sassony Group, planned to build a shopping mall dubbed the Vermont Entertainment Village, but delays emerged due to a lengthy process in buying the necessary parcels to build the project, Sassony Group representatives have said.

The county set aside $15.7 million for acquisition of the site as part of the eminent domain transaction — so Sassony Group isn’t at a complete loss.

“This project is about economic development — the kind of sustainable, ongoing investment this community has long deserved,” County Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, who represents the area, has said.

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, said that with the land acquisition “revitalization is finally on the way.”

On a recent weekend, residents went to the vacant site for a community meeting aimed to gather insight about the kind of businesses that should move into the lot. Many people chose a small grocery store and a job training center, the county says.

“In the last month, I’ve seen more action on this site than I have since I was a child,” said Moises Rosales, president of the Southeast Neighborhood Association. “I’m hoping it’s going to be a catalyst for all of Vermont.”

Not everyone is happy about these proposals, however, including Farr.

At a meeting Wednesday, July 11, more than 50 gathered at Community Coalition, a nonprofit space a few blocks away from the vacant lot.

Farr and other residents envisioned a more retail-oriented use of the land and expressed concern over the lack of resident input on whether the school would be the best choice. They expressed fears their community could be defined by housing and a school with foster kids that could potentially bring disciplinary issues to a neighborhood that has seen its share of violence.

The way Farr sees it, why should she and her neighbors have to venture to other communities like Inglewood to do their shopping?

“We want a Starbucks in our area. We want a decent grocery store that sells decent food,” Farr says. “Why should we have to leave out of our community to drive down to Crenshaw and Century to patronize that community?”

County representatives say the land must serve as public use because it was acquired through eminent domain. The school and housing units would not only fulfill that use, but also address the needs of the community, they say.

Sassony representatives have criticized the county’s move, saying it came came less than a month after the company finally secured the remaining site parcels. Sassony officials could not be reached for comment, but in a Los Angeles Business Journal story said the county’s decision “might have more to do with the proximity to Inglewood’s new stadium complex.”

To Farr, when people get off the 110 Freeway, “They’re going to fly right through ‘the ghetto’ to get to Inglewood, to get to The Forum, to get to those stadiums and we’re still missing money right here on this end.”

“We deserve to have revenue come back here, too,” she says.

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Alejandra Molina is a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow for 2018-2019. Previously, she was a reporter for the Southern California News Group where she covered cities, immigration, race, and religion. In her decade-long career, she's reported how gentrification has affected downtown Santa Ana in Orange County, followed up how violent shootings have affected families and neighborhoods, and reported how President Donald Trump has impacted undocumented communities in the Inland Empire. Her work has appeared in The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, The Orange County Register, The Los Angeles Daily News, and The Mercury News in San Jose. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from the University of La Verne, where she taught an introductory journalism course as an adjunct professor.

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Tags: urban planninglos angelescommunity-engaged design

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