Long-Blighted South L.A. Lots to See Groundbreaking on Massive Development Wednesday

South L.A., is that you? Renderings by the Sassony group for Vermont Village, to be built on the NE corner of Vermont and Manchester. (screenshot from the SG website)
South L.A., er “SOLA,” is that you? Renderings by the Sassony group for Vermont Village, to be built on the NE corner of Vermont and Manchester. (screenshot from the SG website)

As Baltimore grapples with tamping down the police-community tensions that have been brewing for decades, South Los Angeles may be taking a step forward in mitigating the damage done by the unrest that ravaged much of the area in 1992.

Twenty-three years to the day after a not-guilty verdict for four officers videotaped viciously beating Rodney King launched six days of rioting, Councilmember Bernard Parks will be celebrating the groundbreaking for the Vermont Entertainment Village at the northeast corner of Vermont and Manchester — a major source of blight since the swap meet and other businesses were burned to the ground there in 1992 (see a photo of the swap meet burning, here).

While the ceremony, set for 10 a.m. tomorrow morning, may signal a positive step forward in reclaiming the neighborhood for growth and development, my guess is that, for many residents and business owners in the area, the moment can’t help be anything other than bittersweet.

Screenshot of the rendering of the Vermont Entertainment Village interior plaza.
Screenshot of the rendering of the Vermont Entertainment Village interior plaza.

Developer Eli Sasson (of the Sassony Group) has not endeared himself to either the city or the community over the years.

Like many of the commercial property owners in the area, he lives elsewhere and has never had a stake in the community nor was he directly affected by how the property he let stand blighted for decades impacted the neighborhood. And his proposed projects — going as far back as 1999 — did not seem to indicate he had any great stake in seeing them flourish. According to a 2008 L.A. Times story, he had previously asked that the city help finance his project in return for him taking on retail development there. And business tenants in nearby buildings looking to participate in the pending development suggested he was unresponsive to them as a general rule, and not open to discussing whether they could move into the new retail center.

Location of the future Vermont Entertainment Village. (screenshot from Sassony website)
Location of the future Vermont Entertainment Village. (screenshot from Sassony website)

Although fraught with its own internal problems, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), launched eminent domain proceedings to reclaim the land in April of 2008. They were stymied by Sasson’s disruptive pre-trial tactics (see p. 2, here) and his asking price of $25.5 million, which was significantly higher than the CRA’s $9.1 million appraisal of the property. The deal eventually fell through anyways, as the CRA was dissolved in 2012 by Governor Jerry Brown, before the proceedings could reach a conclusion.

And so the lots remained untouched. Vacant and blighted. Ugly and inaccessible.

The sun sets on the vacant lot at 85th and Vermont, directly across the street from County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' Constituent Service Center. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
The sun sets on the vacant lot at 85th and Vermont, directly across the street from County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ Constituent Service Center. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Good neighbor or not, the Sassony Group will be on hand tomorrow morning, most likely to speak of the promise the development will bring for the community and to explain how the project, which looks like a mash-up of the Americana and Hollywood and Highland, will be a great fit for the area. Or at least, for tourists, as this video with incredibly cheesy music seems to suggest.

It isn’t clear just yet, however, which businesses will populate the retail spaces.

According to an application Sasson filed with the city last year, the Village will be a “two- to three-story, approximately 127,000 square foot retail shopping and entertainment center” with a central courtyard for cultural programming and public entertainment. It will also have a five-story parking structure (including two subterranean levels) with 426 parking spaces and ground-level retail spaces.

The prospective tenant chart on Sassony's project website.
The prospective tenant chart on Sassony’s project website.

The project website also touts a banquet hall and central performance space (below).

The performance space.
The performance space.

And also a supermarket (under the parking garage).

The supermarket.
The supermarket.

According to a flyer on Parks’ website, the $200 million project actually boasts over 190,000 square feet of lease-able retail space, plus 40,000 square feet of kiosk and promenade space.

In a facebook post, which has since been removed, Parks noted that major retailers were interested in the space, but did not name any names. The Sassony Group’s website included this (below) in its project package, which does make me wonder about how much genuine thought they are putting into making this a viable community-specific project.

The caliber of retailers Sassony seems to suggest could be appropriate for the area. (screenshot from website)
The kinds of retailers Sassony seems to suggest could be appropriate for the area. Perhaps they were inspired by the potential of being located in “SOLA.” (screenshot from website)

That said, South L.A. residents have long wanted better retail and sit-down restaurant options in their own neighborhood. And they have also wanted to see their vacant lots turned into community assets. Given the lack of accessible public space in the area, a well-executed project could give youth and families a safe and fun destination and a much-needed place to just hang out. It could also bring decent jobs to the community, as long as they didn’t compete with local businesses in the process.

Fencing is already up around the lots, and Parks posted that it will be open in the winter of 2016, so it seems we will know the answer to these questions sooner rather than later.

What is your opinion on the development? Let us know in the comments. Or attend the groundbreaking tomorrow, at 10 a.m., at 8500 S. Vermont Ave., and offer up your opinion in person.

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Last year, on the 23rd anniversary of the 1992 riots, then-councilmember Bernard Parks held a groundbreaking ceremony with developer Eli Sasson and a host of local dignitaries at the site of the proposed Vermont Entertainment Village. The shiny new open-air mall, Parks and others claimed, would anchor positive growth in the South Los Angeles neighborhoods […]