County Wins Control of Vermont/Manchester Lots in Superior Court Ruling

Ruling closes the book on 26 years of being held hostage to blight

Juan Carlos Mercado and Miguel Sanchez stand in a vacant lot at Manchester and Vermont. The former swap meet site saw a groundbreaking three years ago but the mall project, planned by developer Eli Sasson, never materialized. And the buildings behind the youth - occupied by homeless folks from the area - burned down in February. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Juan Carlos Mercado and Miguel Sanchez stand in a vacant lot at Manchester and Vermont. The former swap meet site saw a groundbreaking three years ago but the mall project, planned by developer Eli Sasson, never materialized. And the buildings behind the youth - occupied by homeless folks from the area - burned down in February. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The County is celebrating a major victory today, having finally gained control over the fate of the vacant lots at Vermont and Manchester.

Thursday’s ruling (found here) by L.A. Superior Court Judge Daniel Murphy approving the County’s bid to acquire the lots from developer Eli Sasson via eminent domain effectively closes the book on the 26 years the community has been held hostage to blight.

The site of a former swap meet that burned to the ground in 1992 (see photo), the lots are more than a testament to how hard the neighborhood was hit by the unrest and how slow it has been to recover. They have come to symbolize both the many barriers the whole of South Central has faced in taking control of its own destiny and the many promises that were made to the community that never materialized.

And while the ruling means that actual structures will finally rise from the ashes, the County’s proposed project has struggled to please everyone.

A rendering of the affordable housing, boarding school, and transit plaza planned for Vermont/Manchester. Source: Mark Ridley-Thomas
A rendering of the affordable housing, boarding school, and transit plaza planned for Vermont/Manchester. Source: Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas

In order to justify the use of eminent domain, the County had to demonstrate that the lots in question were essential to the project going forward – that the project’s success hinged upon the lots’ unique characteristics and location. And because public monies would be used, the project also had to serve a public purpose – the County couldn’t just replicate the developer’s mall plans.

Within those tight constraints, the County’s project still manages to be quite innovative: a mixed-use development including a six-story structure housing 180 affordable one-, two-, and three-bedroom units, a first-of-its-kind-in-the-area public charter boarding school aimed at giving area students a supportive 24-hour learning environment (including a six-story structure housing 200 dorm rooms and 20 faculty apartments), a career technical education center (to funnel participants into transit careers), neighborhood-serving retail (including a supermarket), community rooms/spaces, and a transit plaza (serving the Bus Rapid Transit service planned for Vermont Avenue).

The draft arrangement of the boarding school, transit plaza, transit vocational training center, community spaces, parking, and retail sited for the lots between 84th and Manchester Streets. Housing would rise above the training center and retail spaces. Image: Meridian Consultants
The draft arrangement of the boarding school, transit plaza, transit vocational training center, community spaces, parking, and retail sited for the lots between 84th and Manchester Streets. Housing would rise above the training center and retail spaces. Image: Meridian Consultants

County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ press release regarding the victory touts the significance of a college-prep school and transit-specific job training center in a community where so many youth have been left behind, noting that a sizable percentage of Metro employees will be eligible for retirement in the next few years and that “Measure M has generated funds to support 778,000 new jobs over the next 40 years.”

Moreover, Ridley-Thomas says in the release, that brighter future will arrive sooner rather than later, as the ruling paves the way for the project to move into the development and implementation stages.

Arguing that “Local governments have an absolute obligation to think imaginatively about our most pressing issues – job creation, quality education, transportation, and the development of affordable housing and community centers,” he hails the project as an “out-of-the-box approach” to ticking all of those boxes.

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The proposed grocery market. Source: Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas

Eighth District Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson is also quoted in the release as declaring the ruling to be the “fresh start on Vermont Manchester” that the community deserved after enduring 26 years of “crime, blight, violence, and neglect – all while waiting for empty promises and false starts to produce something real.”

And while the ruling may mark the resolution of what Harris-Dawson described as a “longstanding injustice,” it’s still a far cry from the shopping center so many residents had pinned their hopes on.

At the Board of Supervisors meeting last December, a number of community members had stood to express disappointment that the move to reclaim the lots would finally dash all hopes of seeing the full range of retail and services they had clamored for for decades.

The college prep boarding school. Source: Mark Ridley-Thomas
The college prep boarding school. Source: Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas

It is indeed unfortunate that the only way a disenfranchised community can take control of blight and uplift itself is by agreeing to tie its hands and limit its aspirations.

But it is also clear that the project is designed to push the boundaries of those bonds as far as it can while laying the groundwork for the kind of long-term sustainable growth and development in the area that would attract other community-serving investments.

Says Metro CEO Phillip Washington in the release, “We have projects, we have jobs and we have funding — but not nearly enough skilled workers. This new workforce education model represents a shift in how Metro plans to prepare the next generation of workers.”

The ruling means the County can take immediate possession of the lots. As such, the release states, the Supervisor’s office plans to begin working with residents on elements of the project. Information regarding that process will be posted as soon as it becomes available. The County is currently finalizing the solicitation process to operate the boarding school academy in partnership with Metro and will begin soliciting bids from affordable housing and retail developers as soon as Monday, April 30.

For more background on the Vermont/Manchester lots, please see the articles below.

  • Stvr

    This reads to me like a public grift replacing a private grift

  • sahra

    These lots have tremendous symbolism in the community and the three folks who will be likely be the biggest drivers of the project – Ridley-Thomas, Harris-Dawson, and Washington – understand that. Especially Ridley-Thomas and Harris-Dawson – Ridley-Thomas’ constituent center is across the street and Harris-Dawson’s old organization (Community Coalition) is two blocks north. Making something happen there means something to them and to their communities. It’s the one thing that actually makes me hopeful about the potential impact of this project.

  • De LA

    NO MORE STORES!! STOP IT WITH THE SMALL STORE UPFRONT – THEY ONLY MAKE THE COMMUNITY TRASHY!!! CAN SOUTH CENTRAL BE REGAINED TO BE A BEAUTIFUL COMMUNITY, LIKE CULVER CITY MANAGE TO UP RISE, MIDTOWN AREA, ETC. MAKE THE AREA USEFUL FOR ALL AND ALL THOSE NEW FAMILIES RELOCATING INTO THE AREA; MAKE THE AREA PRODUCTIVE!! THAT’S WHAT THE SOUTH CENTRAL STUDENTS NEED…MORE PARKS!! MORE AREAS TO BECOME CREATIVE & PRODUCTIVE. BORN & RAISED IN THE AREA & SADLY, I SAW MY COMMUNITY GO FROM BEAUTIFUL TO THE DUMPING GROUNDS FOR EVERYONE WHO IS AT THE BELOW LOW-INCOME POVERTY LEVEL.

  • sahra

    I don’t believe there are plans for too many small storefronts. The community has wanted a grocery store for a long time and that is included in the preliminary plans. The rest of the project will be focused on serving the students and job trainees and residents – hopefully that will include some of the greenery and creative spaces you rightly point out folks need.

  • Sabas Carrillo

    Good reporting Sahra. I’m excited to see something go up there finally.

    Would you venture to predict what kind of grocery store we are getting?

  • sahra

    Your guess is as good as mine. I think that’s the one real variable in the equation – getting a grocer to commit to the community. And I feel like many folks’ feelings about the project will be swayed by whether or not a grocer materializes. So a lot hinges on it. The intention to bring one in seems clear, and everyone understands the need for it. My fingers and toes are crossed that a quality grocer steps up!

  • Nancy Johnson

    Is the ruling not subject to appeal?

  • “the County’s proposed project has struggled to please everyone.”

    You can try, and you should make an effort to do so, but you can never please everyone. For things to get built, at some point we have to stop talking and decide. This project is awesome :)

  • sahra

    I also think it’s a really interesting project, and it’s reassuring to know that something will finally rise up there. This story is aimed mostly at the community…there have been a lot of questions about why money is or isn’t being used in a particular way. And not everyone is familiar with the requirements tied to eminent domain. So, my conversations with stakeholders have been about what is possible within the given constraints and why certain things are not possible. Folks are frustrated and understandably so. But I think the county’s project is a really creative one, given the limitations.

  • sahra

    I don’t believe so – the county gets control of the land next week.

  • Ennnne

    So, what is the thinking behind a public boarding school/charter school in the middle of a city? Why would anyone want such a thing? Sahra, please explain!

  • sahra

    I touched on it in previous articles. Briefly, it’s a combination of the need for a creative justification of eminent domain and the fact that youth’s educational opportunities in the area are heavily impacted by gang activity, poorly resourced schools, lack of support systems, and an overall lack of resources, etc. This allows kids -especially those who have already been in and out of social services systems and foster care- to have a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to uplifting them.

  • Ennnne

    Thanks for explaining. It is good someone is trying to do something for foster kids. I would have preferred a real orphanage though. Won’t this be like if we had to live at our workplaces? Plus it seems like it is inherently temporary, and I wish we could do better. (And that’s not even getting into the charter thing.) Good luck to the kids though.

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