A Year after Breaking Ground at Vermont and Manchester, Major Shopping Center Project Appears to Have Stalled

Scaffolding set up around the perimeter of the lot near Vermont and Manchester doubles as clothing racks for vendors on the weekends. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Scaffolding set up around the perimeter of the lot near Vermont and Manchester doubles as clothing racks for vendors on the weekends. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

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 around Vermont and Manchester and transform them into a destination.

According to documents the Sassony Group filed with the city in 2014, the project was to 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 (below).

Local residents had been thrilled at the announcement there would be a full-service grocery store and that local hire would be considered “mandatory,” with regard to construction.

Their optimism had been further fueled by Parks’ announcement in a Facebook post (which was removed very shortly afterward) that he had been talking with major (unnamed) retailers who were interested in the space. His claims had made the projected completion date of winter 2016 seem like it might be feasible.

The performance space planned for the Vermont Entertainment Village. Source: Sassony Group
The performance space planned for the Vermont Entertainment Village. Rendering: Architecture Refined Corporation

But residents would have settled for a less flashy project, too. Not because they were particularly concerned about gentrification, per se, they just wanted to see something positive happen on the site after so many years of neglect.

The lots at Vermont and Manchester effectively constitute one of the most glaring visual reminders of how the hardest-hit neighborhood in South Los Angeles had been left to fend for itself after the riots [see the burnt-out swap meet that sat on the site, here]. Covering two full city blocks and sitting directly across the street from County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ Constituent Service Center, the blighted space has thumbed its nose at local officials and area residents for more than two decades, an unhappy homage to all of the city’s broken promises to rebuild and revitalize.

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. The lot is one of two block-long lots owned by Eli Sasson. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Resident Dana Gilbert, fearful that the community was being sold yet more horse manure, showed up to last year’s groundbreaking carrying an image of himself walking the lot with then-Mayor Tom Bradley 23 years earlier. He was unlikely to get the job he had been promised back then, he knew, but he wanted reassurances that area youth would now have a chance to find steady work.

Those in power, he said, shouldn’t get away with false promises and “building [the community] up if you’re just gonna tear them down again.”

At yesterday's groundbreaking, South L.A. resident Dana Gilbert holds an L.A. Times article from 1992 about the plans to rebuild the vacant lots at Manchester and Vermont and the jobs the effort would bring to the area. The article features a photo of himself with then-Mayor Tom Bradley. Gilbert showed up to ask for the job he was promised 23 years ago. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
At the groundbreaking for the Vermont Entertainment Village, South L.A. resident Dana Gilbert holds an L.A. Times article from 1992 about the plans to rebuild the vacant lots at Manchester and Vermont and the jobs the effort would bring to the area. The article features a photo of himself with then-Mayor Tom Bradley. Gilbert showed up to ask about the job he was promised 24 years ago. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Unfortunately, the project appears to have stalled almost immediately after the hoopla of last year’s groundbreaking.

The only activity seen at the site since then has come in the form of sidewalk vendors (at top) and an occasionally large homeless encampment.

Both groups seem to have made the most of the fencing – the particle boards afford the homeless some privacy by hiding the encampments from public view while the scaffolding serves as racks for the vendors.

When the fencing went up in the spring of 2015, so did residents' hopes. But the project appears to have stalled since then. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
When the fencing went up in the spring of 2015, so did residents’ hopes. But the project appears to have stalled since then. At different times of the year, you can peer through the gap in the fence (at left) and see homeless encampments. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Searches of Department of Building Services’ records yield a long list of Range Files (notices of violations) and one permit granted for the demolition of the Payless shoe store which took place during the groundbreaking last year. But nothing more.

Similarly, City Council files show a flurry of activity leading up to the April 2015 groundbreaking and the approval of zoning changes in the month or two after the ceremony.

And then all activity appears to cease.

Sassony Development’s twitter account – apparently created expressly for this project – has a grand total of three tweets: one touting the impending groundbreaking in April and two in May, 2015, posted from the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas where then-Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Dueñas was reaching out to potential retailers. The Sassony instagram account followed a similar trajectory – several images were taken at the groundbreaking and the last two were of Dueñas at the Vegas convention.

When reached via phone this past April, Dueñas explained that, after sending out press releases regarding the project last year, they had gotten so many phone calls she had practically been “forced” to go to Las Vegas. So many major retailers – pharmacies, sit-down restaurants, movie theaters, etc. – were eager to participate in the project because they “knew how much buying power” was in the community that she had had to meet with them in person, she said.

Mr. Sasson’s heart, she continued, was truly invested in seeing this project come to fruition. But the project had stalled because of all the hoops the city was asking him to jump through to get building permits, she said (perhaps someone can find the unreasonable conditions I didn’t spot in these city approvals of zoning changes?). And even though she herself was no longer with the Sassony Group, she was still indirectly active with the project in that she was busy finding tenants for the site. She believed in the project, too, she said, and was looking forward to seeing the promise to the community fulfilled.

Dueñas is a very likable and deeply positive person (at least in my limited encounters with her), and I genuinely did not doubt her sincerity. But as most residents and representatives of the area who have long lobbied for quality grocery stories, retailers, and sit-down dining options can probably tell you, the claim that retailers were fighting to tap into the spending power of the community is something that has pretty much never been said about South Central.

Which means that getting a handle on what is actually true with regard to where the project stands is far more complicated than it should be.

During our conversation, Dueñas had asserted that Sasson himself was very bad at telling his own story which made it easy for him to be painted as the villain in his dealings with the city. Multiple attempts to contact the Sassony Group starting in late March in an attempt to suss out where his intentions were misunderstood were not returned.

And two calls in the past week answered by an automated voice system actually referred to the office as “Cal Bid Brokers;” Cal Bid and Sassony apparently merged very recently. Cal Bid’s rather sparse website enthusiastically describes the firm as “CBB – Sassony Properties” and the “Owners Representative/Development Consultant for all of Sassony Development Projects!!!” (exclamation points are theirs). Information about “Projects,” however, is still “Coming Soon!”

Several requests made to speak with planning staff within councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson’s office to ask about any communications with Sasson regarding progress on the project were also not fulfilled as of the writing of this story.*

Screenshot of the rendering of the Vermont Entertainment Village interior plaza.
Screenshot of the rendering of the Vermont Entertainment Village, interior plaza. Rendering: Architecture Refined Corporation

So, I will just have to draw conclusions about the project’s status using what I have been able to observe thus far.

Last year’s groundbreaking was such a hodgepodge of contradictions that the real aim of the ceremony appeared to be the bolstering of councilmember Parks’ legacy, not launching a major construction project.

Residents from the surrounding community were barred from entering the lot to witness the ceremony. Those arriving with postcard invitations to the event in their hands or after seeing the preparations for the ceremony on the local news were told it was a “private” event. Any non-dignitary wishing to hear what a great leap forward speakers thought this project was for the community had to resort to peeking through gaps in the plywood fencing until after the official festivities were over.

Odder still was the marketing of the project: only 4 miles from downtown!, free shuttle service to USC!, a reference to South Los Angeles as “SOLA!” A video promo straight out of the 80s by Architecture Refined Corporation was totally devoid of any meaningful reference to South L.A. Even the retailers Sassony seemed to suggest it was courting (below) seemed out of step with the community. It wasn’t clear who this project was ultimately going to be aimed at, but it was clear that, whoever they were, very little time had been invested in thinking about how to reach them.

The caliber of retailers Sassony seems to suggest could be appropriate for the area. (screenshot from website)
The caliber of retailers Sassony seems to suggest could be appropriate for the area. (screenshot from website)

At the ceremony, a few staff linked to community leaders – all of whom were very familiar with Sasson’s dealings with the community – voiced lingering questions about whether the project was even real to begin with.

Sasson’s earlier proposals for the site – going as far back as 1999 – did not seem to indicate he was invested in seeing them flourish. And when he sold off some of the adjacent parcels at 83rd and Vermont in the mid-2000s (now the site of the DPSS building), he dashed the community’s hopes for a major retail center and affordable housing project. According to a 2008 L.A. Times story, Sasson had previously asked that the city help finance his project in return for him taking on retail development there. Later, he thwarted the Community Redevelopment Agency’s (CRA) effort to purchase the land (see p. 2, here) and demanded $25.5 million for it – a figure well above the CRA’s $9.1 million appraisal. In 2012, when the city’s bid to wrest the remaining lots from Sasson evaporated with the dissolution of the CRA, so did hopes that the blight would ever be meaningfully remedied [more on that history is here].

For reasons unknown, the fencing does not surround the entire lot at 84th and Vermont. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
For reasons unknown, the fencing does not surround the entire lot at 84th and Vermont. Instead, it just adds to the blight. In the background is the DPSS building; Sasson sold that lot off in the mid-2000s, shrinking the parcels the community had hoped would become a major retail and housing center. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Now here we are, a year after the groundbreaking, with the lots only partially fenced off and as unkempt as ever, and the only reasonable conclusion seems to be that the project is going nowhere.

It’s a tremendous shame.

Not because the proposed project was particularly beautiful or because malls are such a livability asset, of course. But because if youth want a safe place to hang out with their friends, somewhere to stroll in the evening with their families, a place they can get a job to help pay for school, or somewhere to catch an open air performance that is within walking, biking, or bus distance of their home, there are very few places in their neighborhood that they can go to.

South Central deserves so much better.

___

*Story has been updated as of June 2 to note that requests to speak with staff at Councilmember Harris-Dawson’s office went unfulfilled. Prior wording (“ignored”) seemed to indicate their office had no interest in tracking the project when I know Harris-Dawson was active in agitating for something to happen on the lots for many years. There appears to have been a miscommunication with the press aide. Apologies for any confusion.

**Streetsblog generally doesn’t cover mall projects. I covered this story for two key reasons: 1) as noted in the piece, the blight has effectively served to hold the community hostage and thwart much-needed economic development for more than two decades now and 2) privately-owned spaces can sometimes function as de facto public space in communities where the public space is insecure. With regard to the latter, gang activity in the surrounding neighborhoods, particularly to the south of Manchester, has made the public space hard to access, especially for young people. An open-air retail center designed to encourage pedestrian activity (especially one with a quality grocer) can give area youth and their families a safe place to hang out, take an evening stroll, or take more control of their health. Youth often describe feeling trapped in their homes – particularly in the winter, when the sun sets much earlier – because there are no places they can hang out nearby and they can’t be out on the street after dark. So, a project like the one proposed actually can improve walkability in a community, even if it is not in the form urban planners might normally define it.

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