South LA’s District Square: Big plans and a long waiting game


The lot slated to become District Square, seen in mid-March, 2015. | Ciara Lunger

By Ciara Lunger

A shopping center that was supposed to break ground in South L.A. three years ago is still slated for construction, according to officials who envision an economic boost for the Crenshaw district.

The 6 1/2 acre retail establishment, called District Square, is planned for the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Rodeo Road. Local organizations hope it will not only improve the financial climate but also bring in-demand shops and services to the neighborhood.

“There are a lot of missing elements in the neighborhood as far as access to basic goods — not a lot of clothing stores, still a need for groceries,” said Tunua Thrash, executive director at the West Angeles Community Development Corporation. District Square is slated to replace a Ralphs and Rite Aid, which, according to Thrash, were aging and needed aesthetic upgrades.

Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson said he wants to give the area a more upscale vibe while bringing in businesses that he said people want in their neighborhood.

“What I’m trying to do is bring the types of businesses here that people never dreamed we would have 20 years ago,” he said. Target, Marshalls, and Smart & Final are expected to be part of the development.

But just when that will happen remains a question. Wesson could not specify when the development will break ground, even though he said the project is “back on.” He blamed the delay on “financial hiccups.”

Construction was meant to begin in 2012 and end by fall 2013, according to Metro planning documents. “They just kind of halted it in the middle,” said Renee Barot, Director of Business Development at architecture and planning firm KTGY. Barot said she received a call in early February from Charles Company, the contractor, telling her that the project is “coming back to life.” But she did not offer further details.

Other projects have also not panned out as hoped in District 10. They include West Angeles Plaza, meant to include a Fresh & Easy as one of the only healthy food options in the area. But Fresh & Easy did not lease a space and the company recently announced it is closing 30 stores in Southern California. In addition, the redevelopment of Marlton Square, a shopping center in the Crenshaw district, has been stalled for decades. The only progress is a land purchase by Kaiser Permanente.

Getting projects up and running in District 10 has been tricky for various reasons.

“Businesses and private capital are afraid of South L.A. and don’t want to put their money here,” said Thrash, adding that some view this as discrimination against the historically low-income region. “Money just doesn’t follow this area.”

Another major setback was the dismantling of the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) in 2012. In doing so, California Governor Jerry Brown redirected funds that would normally go to municipal development back to the state.

District Square, Marlton Square, affordable housing developments and similar projects throughout the state depend on agencies like CRA to get through the entitlement process for land use, to complete design work, and to have support from a city authority in fast tracking projects and attracting investors.

“We are the kind of community that really benefits from having that kind of agency,” Thrash said.

Redevelopment agencies could also leverage conditions for projects that are favorable to the community. For example, they might allow a project to continue only under the condition of local hiring. Thrash hopes District Square developers will work with the Los Angeles Urban League, which assists with hiring from the neighborhood. But, she said, “because it’s been such a stop and go, it’s difficult to move on that.”

Once District Square is complete, developers hope it will spur business growth nearby.

Robbi Doncost, project manager at Charles Company, the contractor for District Square, said this project will serve as an example of economic viability along the Crenshaw Corridor. The upcoming Crenshaw/LAX line, which will post three stops along Crenshaw Boulevard, should help. Doncost says these stations, plus street parking for District Square, will create a pedestrian-friendly environment. The design also aims to enhance the “visual experience of the street-scene,” he said.

Thrash said pioneering developers typically take an interest in areas where public transportation is expanding. But according to studies by the Community Development Corporation, it could take 10 to 12 years after the Metro is put in before a demonstrable change is seen.

Sarah Mawhorter, a Ph.D. candidate in Urban Planning and Development at the University of Southern California, questions the goals of District 10 officials. “‘Revitalization’ is a word often used in a top-down perspective on local economic development,” she said. In her view, the word ignores the efforts of local residents to improve their own neighborhood. “It is necessary to recognize that these communities face severe challenges that reach far beyond urban planning or economic development—like racism and discrimination,” she said.

As plans for District Square move forward, the South L.A. neighborhood keeping an eye on this “revitalization” may be in for a waiting game.

Crenshaw Blvd. and Rodeo Rd.: 

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