Future of Crenshaw District’s Marlton Square still looks uncertain

An old mural stands out from the rest of Marlton Square. | Daniel Carr- Crawford

An old mural stands out at Marlton Square. See more photos on Flickr. | Daniel Carr-Crawford

Many driving through the Crenshaw district might head straight for the massive Baldwin Hills Mall — or simply pass through on their way to other parts of Los Angeles.

Few notice the massive, weed-filled lot that is Marlton Square, or know about its long history.

Learn more in an audio story from Annenberg Radio News:

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Buckingham Place senior apartments finally open

The Buckingham Place Senior Apartments in Marlton Square is no longer an abandoned and vacant building. After more than 10 years of delays, South LA seniors were finally able to move in to the updated and brand new complex.

The affordable housing project for seniors in South Los Angeles, which originally broke ground in 2002, was finally recently completed and tenants have moved in to the community. The four-story building has 70 one and two-bedroom apartments, a community room and a courtyard area with benches and outside barbeques. The units are for low to moderate income seniors.

The opening of the Buckingham Place Senior Apartments is a milestone for Councilmember Bernard C. Parks, who for years tried to push forward the Marlton Square redevelopment project on the site of the old Santa Barbara Plaza. For Parks, the grand opening “brings to a conclusion a ten-year project that makes a very positive impact on housing for seniors within the local community.”

Just three weeks ago, Parks announced that Kaiser Permanente would become the anchor tenant for the long-awaited Marlton Square Redevelopment Project.

“This accomplishment, along with recently securing Kaiser Permanente as a neighboring tenant in Marlton Square, is a positive sign for future development in the surrounding area,” said Parks.

Bids for the sale of the remaining acres of Marlton Square are currently under review and Parks’ office says a developer will be chosen soon.

Kaiser to move in at Marlton Square

After more than 25 years of abandonment, plans for redevelopment and litigation, construction will finally begin in Marlton Square.

imageCouncilmember Bernard C. Parks proudly announced yesterday during an on-site press conference that Kaiser Permanente will be moving in to the current empty lot.

“Today marks a major achievement for the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw community,” said Parks. “Twenty-eight years ago, Mayor Tom Bradley mandated that the Santa Barbara Plaza be completely rehabilitated.

Now, twenty-five years later, we are here at the site once known as Santa Barbara Plaza, after many starts and stops to actually welcome a cornerstone and major tenant of the project Kaiser Permanente.”

Kaiser Permanente recently closed escrow on an 8.65-acre portion of land at 4033-4081 Marlton Avenue.

“Now we can begin planning an outpatient medical office building that brings medical services closer to our members living and working in the area,” stated Norair Jemjemian, Chief Operating Officer, Kaiser Permanente, West Los Angeles Medical Center.

Parks said the facility will not only “provide first-class health care to a community that is sorely in need of care,” it will “become an economic engine for new employees and provide a customer base for the surrounding shopping centers in the area.”

Councilman Parks, surrounded by community members, celebrate the arrival of Kaiser Permanente to Marlton Square. (Photos: Melissa Runnels)

Marlton Square was previously known as the Santa Barbara Plaza. In 1984, Mayor Tom Bradley first called for redevelopment of the shopping center.

In 1996, former LA Laker and entrepreneur Magic Johnson won the exclusive right to negotiate and spent five years working with the city through the planning and entitlement process, but lost the deal in 2002 to Capital Vision Equities, a development group run by developer Chris Hammond. Unfortunately, Capital Vision Equities defaulted on the project in 2004.

In an interview with Intersections South LA in March of this year, Carolyn Hull, South Los Angeles Regional Administrator for the CRA/LA explained “Marlton Square was a tremendously difficult project to move forward with because of the multiple ownerships…There were over 40 owners and 30 tenants that had to be relocated.”

Another big problem was that the bank that loaned Capital Vision Equities $36 million to buy up the approximately 50 parcels of land, went bankrupt in 2006.

When Las Vegas-based USA Capital dissolved, it left over $962 million in assets with more than 6,000 investors. After bankruptcy settlement agreement was reached on December 29, 2010, Commercial Mortgage Managers (CMM) – became majority owners, with approximately 80% control of the total property, with the CRA/LA in possession or negotiations with the majority of the remaining 20% of the land.

According to Bernard Parks’ office, CMM is currently in negotiations to sell the remaining acres of Marlton Square. Several bids have been submitted for the retail portion of Marlton Square and a developer will be chosen soon.

“We have narrowed it down to two and once we have finalized our choice we will begin planning what will be built on the rest of the remaining land. It is our hope to build sit-down restaurants and shops but nothing is confirmed,” said Parks’ spokesperson Brittney Marin.

While the announcement of Kaiser Permanente’s development of the land is an accomplishment for Parks, the city has to approve the plans before construction can begin.

Here’s a video of the annoucement, by reporter Melissa Runnels:

Here’s a Marlton Square history timeline provided by Parks’ office:image

Uncertain future for CRA projects in South LA

Demolition on Marlton Square isn’t complete. There has been no construction on the site for more than 20 years.

More than 20 years after the California Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles (CRA/LA) invested over $17 million dollars to buy portions of Marlton Square, it has yet to see new construction. The failed redevelopment project has become a monumental disaster and for many, an example of the CRA’s inefficiency.

The agency has been mired in controversy due to its slowness in handling funding and approval and construction of projects, prompting even the CRA’s toughest critics to face the prospect that the 20 acre property, which sits just feet away from the Baldwin Hills Shopping Center, will remain in an indefinite state of limbo.

Marlton Square, previously known as the old Santa Barbara Shopping Center, is just one of many South LA projects whose future prospects are uncertain due to the closure of the CRA on February 1st. With the elimination of the redevelopment agency, there’s no knowing how long it will take to determine which projects must continue, when they’ll be given a green light or how soon they can receive the money to move forward.

“It’s going to be very detrimental to communities across the state, particularly in L.A., in areas that are poor,” says District 8 Councilman Bernard Parks about the CRA closure. “The way it was cut off is going to be devastating. There was no planning for contracts or moving forward on projects.”

When Governor Jerry Brown last year called for the dissolution of the CRA, the state was facing a $19 billion deficit. Eliminating the CRA was meant to alleviate the state’s financial woes by bringing property tax revenues, which were diverted to local redevelopment agencies, back to the state.

“Even if the governor closed the budget gap it, won’t do anything to help communities in low income areas,” complains Parks. “Looking down the road, shutting the CRA is a decision people will live to regret.”

Demolition on Marlton Square began in August of 2011.

The dissolution of the CRA means the independent agency, once authorized to purchase property, raze and build structures, develop affordable housing and provide municipal infrastructure such as streets and lighting, had to stop everything it was doing.

Successor agencies have taken over the CRA’s responsibilities, which include approving projects that will move forward and selling all of its assets to pay outstanding debt.

Many of the projects already underway have what’s called enforceable obligations and must be completed. These obligations include binding contracts. Additionally, construction was made possible due to the selling of municipal bonds, which have to be repaid. Even though the CRA/LA technically no longer exists, it’ll take a while for it to wind down and comply with all of its legal obligations, including paying back all of its loans.

“According to state legislation, repaying the bondholders is an enforceable obligation, so we will have to do that,” states Carolyn Hull, South Los Angeles Regional Administrator for the CRA/LA.

The CRAs were set up so that taxes generated from projects in a specific area would be reinvested in the area it came from. So Parks worries how oversight boards foreign to the needs of South LA will be able to adequately address the community’s concerns.

“They’re going to auction properties without taking into account the time and money spent on the projects, and the monies received from those auctions will go to different cities in L.A. [county], not the areas where the project originated. It’s a disaster.”

Marlton Square is in Parks’ district, so he’s concerned about its future.

“Marlton Square was a tremendously difficult project to move forward with because of the multiple ownerships,” explains Hull. “There were over 40 owners and 30 tenants that had to be relocated.” She says another problem is “there was an agreement in place with the city and county saying the Crenshaw project area could only generate $500,000 a year in tax increment. Capping the income severely limited the ability to reinvest in the community.”

So even though, according to Hull, the Crenshaw project area generated a much larger tax increment, the CRA couldn’t touch that money. That forced the agency to look for alternative sources of funding to move the Marlton Square project forward, delaying the acquisition process of the property.

About 80 percent of the land Marlon Square sits on is owned by Commercial Mortgage Managers (CMM), which bought it from foreclosure in 2008. The CRA owns the rest. Since so much money has already been invested and plans for construction are underway, the project is considered an enforceable obligation, so it must be continued.

“There are several developers committed to the project,” says Purvi Doshi, Economic Development Deputy for Parks. “Several bids have come in and the CRA and CMM are in the process of reviewing them.”

This vacant lot was scheduled to be the Vermont Manchester Shopping Center, but numerous obstacles stalled the CRA project. Now, the fenced lot only collects garbage.

Doshi says as soon as a developer is chosen to purchase the property from CRA, the money from the sale will be used to pay off a $12.5 million HUD loan acquired in 2008.

The CRA estimates once development begins, Marlton Square would generate 700 to 800 construction and 550 permanent jobs.

Marlton Square may have a happy ending, after all. But the Vermont Manchester Shopping Center, another project Parks considered important and invested significant time and resources on, won’t make the cut. The four-acre lot has been vacant 20 years and it looks like it’ll stay that way.

“It has been an eyesore for the community,” says Doshi. In 2008, the CRA tried to buy the land from its owner, but they couldn’t reach an agreement. “We found CRA funds to go into eminent domain proceedings. We were supposed to start the court proceedings in January, but when the CRA ruling came in to dissolve, we had to abandon that.”

Plans for the project included construction of a supermarket, a sit-down restaurant, a drugstore and a bank – all considered to be necessities in the area. The estimated CRA investment for the project was $9.5 million. Hull says the development of the shopping center would have created 150 construction and 200 permanent jobs. Among the community benefits derived from being a CRA project: mandatory local hiring and prevailing wage requirements.

Parks says a mixed-use senior housing and grocery store on 38th and Vermont is also likely to stall. “Those are the kind of things we’ve worked on and were just about ready to percolate, but now, since there’s no binding contract, they’re on the cutting block.”

Despite the controversy surrounding the CRA, Parks is a firm believer that without the redevelopment agency, many improvements in South LA would not have been possible.

“The ability to pull together a project on 94th and Broadway, a senior housing and mixed-use project with a grocery store, these are things that wouldn’t be there.” He also points to the recent completion of the Buckingham Place senior housing project, near Marlton Square, which will soon start accepting applications for tenants to move in.

Buckingham Place, with Marlton Square on the right.

But the Buckingham Place project wasn’t a complete success. Originally part of the Marlton Square redevelopment project, it was set out to be a three building complex with 180 units. Construction was halted in 2008 after the original developer filed for bankruptcy. A second developer completed one building with 70 units in March of 2012.

Redevelopment agencies across the state received over $5 billion of tax increment revenues annually. The South LA region only got an operating budget of $20 to 25 million for nine project areas.

“It had the least amount of the regions in L.A. to put into projects,” states Hull.

It’s currently unknown what the overall economic impact of unfinished redevelopment projects will be in communities across the state in terms of jobs and reinvestment in blighted areas. In South LA, Hull estimates hundreds of temporary and permanent jobs will disappear, causing a negative chain reaction of losses among the different sectors of the local economy.

Senior apartments next to Marlton Square almost complete

Buckingham Place, with Marlton Square on the right.

After years of delays, the Buckingham Place senior apartments is putting its finishing touches and is about to open for business. The building’s current management company is now accepting applications from qualifying seniors.

“There are still spots available, but we anticipate they’ll go fast,” says Peter Barker, President of Barker Management, Inc., which oversees the leasing and operations of the new building. “We should be open within the next month.”

Barker says the building, which has one and two bedroom apartments, will have a social services center that will assist residents on an as-needed basis. On-site staff will help coordinate social activities for the seniors. The complex also has a community room and a barbeque area, which faces a vacant lot and some decaying structures from the dilapidated remnants of the former Santa Barbara Shopping Center.

The Buckingham Place apartments, part of the Marlton Square redevelopment project, was supposed to be a three building complex with 180 units. Only one building with 70 units was completed.

Construction of the affordable senior housing project was 90 percent complete when it was halted in 2008 after the original developer, Buckingham Place Senior Housing LP, filed for bankruptcy.

Community center of Buckingham apartments, with Marlton Square in the background.

A second developer, Meta Housing, took over the project at the end of 2009 and construction resumed in 2010.

“It’s about time,” says neighborhood resident Erica Randall. “They really needed to clean this area up. It was really bad around here. I think it’s going to get better now with the apartments. There’s going to be more people traffic.”

Randall says that prior to the demolition of a great portion of Marlton Square she felt unsafe in the area. “Weird people would hang out and hide in the boarded up buildings. It was scary.” She believes that people living in the building right next to the now vacant lots will deter suspicious individuals from “hanging out” and bring about positive change to a blighted area.

“It seems like a pretty building,” observes Mary McNeill. The 69 year-old stopped by the Buckingham Place apartments to pick up an application. “I never lived in senior housing,” she says. McNeill currently lives with family. “I have chronic diabetes and other problems and wanted to see if I could manage living here.”

Among the requirements for living in the senior complex, tenants must be 62 years or older. A one-bedroom apartment rents for $751 and a two-bedroom for $859.

Seniors interested in applying can pick up applications in person at the Buckingham Place apartments, located at 4020 Buckingham Rd., just south of Martin Luther King Blvd. from 9 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday.

How shutting down the CRA will impact South LA

imageUnless alternative funding can be found, the next phase of the Crossings at 29th street, an affordable housing project in district 9 will come to a halt.

Today is the California Redevelopment Agency’s last official day and the future of dozens of projects in South Los Angeles are at risk of becoming casualties of politics, money and allegations of corruption.

More than 50 housing, public infrastructure, commercial, community service and program development projects in South LA will be on the chopping block, unless other funding can be found to move them forward – 34 are in Councilwoman Jan Perry’s 9th District. Another 17 are in Bernard Parks’ 8th District.

“The pending closure of the agency means that many potential projects, such as the rehabilitation of the Angelus Funeral Home, a historic Paul Williams structure, will be hard pressed to find new funding and it will be incredibly difficult to fill these gaps and get these projects done,” Perry said in a statement.

Also in danger, construction of affordable housing projects such as the extension of the Crossings at 29th Street, which just last week celebrated the grand opening of its first phase.

In CD 8, the controversial Marlton Square project in the Crenshaw district and the Vision Theater in Leimert Park could come to a screeching halt.

The L.A. CRA owns the Marlton Square property, which has been in redevelopment limbo for 20 years. “There were some missteps with the previous developer,” admits Los Angeles CRA spokesman David Bloom. “It’s impossible to say what will happen now, but presumably, it will be sold off. The reality is that some of the properties we own will be more attractive to buyers.”

Technically, more than 400 redevelopment agencies across the state will no longer exist after February 1st, but the winding down of the CRA’s operations and of many projects currently underway need to be taken care of.

imageMarlton Square, in district 8, was in redevelopment limbo for 20 years. Demolition finally started in 2011, but now its future is uncertain.

“The government must now appoint three people who live in LA County to be part of a board to run a designated local authority to take over the job of the agency to wind down,” explains Bloom. Until successor agencies are designated to pick up where the redevelopment agency left off, employees will continue going to work during the transition period.

The mission of redevelopment agencies was to improve areas and neighborhoods officially designated as blighted by targeting them for economic development. These areas would benefit from infrastructure improvements, construction of affordable housing projects, business assistance and other programs.

But critics argue that millions of dollars were being invested in areas that were not blighted and hardly any money was spent in areas that were in dire need of economic development.

“The CRA was the biggest cesspool in the world. It never delivered what it was supposed to do – reinvest in underdeveloped communities,” complains author and political science professor Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad. “Hollywood Boulevard got redeveloped. It got millions of dollars. And communities that should’ve been prioritized didn’t. Almost all of South LA should have gotten money, but didn’t.”

Bloom quickly defended that investment: “People who don’t think Hollywood was blighted have no idea what it looked like. Downtown was not what it’s like now and that’s because of what the CRA did. The agency helped transform areas that were blighted – it was work over many decades so they no longer look blighted.”

Based on a 2011 list of Los Angeles redevelopment projects, the CRA set aside only about $32 million for all of South LA. By comparison, the agency earmarked $52 million for the downtown parking garage that would be adjacent to Eli Broad’s Broad’s proposed museum in the L.A. Civic Center.

Councilwoman Perry, whose district stands a lot to lose by the CRA’s demise, also justified the redevelopment agency’s existence. “I can personally attest to the efficacy of the CRA and the amazing work that we were able to accomplish in partnership. From developing housing for the formerly homeless, to building new grocery stores in areas where there historically had been none to restoring communities by building quality affordable housing, the CRA has helped us reinvigorate and rehabilitate neighborhoods.”

While dozens of projects in South LA will no longer have agency funding, it doesn’t mean they’ll never be built. It will just be harder to get them off the ground, as it will require finding other pools of money. With mounting state and municipal budget deficits, raising funds for even the most well-meaning projects will be a challenge. The bigger question will be who would spearhead efforts to find a way to help and how long it will take to fund the projects that seek to transform South LA from an impoverished area to a prosperous community.

Editor’s note: State law determines that funding for redevelopment projects comes from tax revenues raised in the area where the project is located. When redevelopment agencies improve “blighted” areas, property values in those areas rise, increasing property tax revenues. That increase, a result of redevelopment activity, is referred to as a “tax increment.” The money raised with the tax increment, along with the sale of bonds, finance projects in the area where the taxes were generated.

After the story was published, CRA LA spokesman David Bloom contacted us to say it was unfair to suggest the agency was to blame for the disparity in the different redevelopment project areas. He writes: “Under the provisions of the redevelopment law, funds from a given project area could ONLY be spent in THAT project area. If an area generated fewer resources, we had fewer to spend… The agency invested considerable dollars across many years in South LA. And the proof of the agency’s efforts lies in the great distress that officeholders and community groups are showing at the agency’s dissolution.”

A full list of L.A. projects that will be negatively impacted by the closure of CRA:

Projects that will move forward because they’re considered to have “enforceable obligations:”

City Councilman Bernard Parks discusses the future of Marlton Square

Listen to an audio story by Annenberg Radio News

imageFor years, Marlton Square has been an eye-sore for the Crenshaw community. That’s one of the issues City Councilman Bernard Parks will talk about tonight when he delivers the 9th Annual “State of the Eighth” address. Check out an interview with park with Annenberg Radio News to hear about what’s next for the square and Crenshaw.

VIDEO: The transformation of Santa Barbara Plaza

Photojournalist David Roy began taking pictures of Santa Barbara Plaza years ago. He used to marvel at how such central real estate could be ignored and allowed to deteriorate. He noticed the plaza was transforming at the same time that he began to recognize the beauty in the urban landscape.

Check out his audio slideshow, where Roy walks us through the transformation of Santa Barbara Plaza.

Demolition begins on Marlton Square in South LA

imageA smiling Bernard Parks watched as an excavator dug its claws into a dilapidated building at Marlton Square, marking what everyone hopes will be a real beginning of a new shopping center. The 8th District city councilman has been assuring Crenshaw residents for years that this day would come. But you could forgive residents if they were skeptical.

The 20-acre property has been eyesore for decades. Its sorry odyssey dates back to 1984 when Mayor Tom Bradley called for redevelopment of what was then known as Santa Barbara Plaza.

The development stalled right from the start and ran into a brick wall in 2004 when the development group awarded the contract, Chris Hammond and Capital Vision Equities, defaulted on the project. CVE’s bank then went bankrupt and the property was tied up in bankruptcy court.
Since then, Parks and other officials worked to gather funds for the Community Redevelopment Authority of Los Angeles (CRA/LA) to buy the remaining properties.

“If there’s one lesson to take away from the past decade, it’s the importance of attaining site control before undertaking a project of this magnitude,” Parks said. “This project will have high, high job creation and significant commercial retail development.”

Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) called this step a “little miracle” and she praised residents for their patience in putting up with the vacant and rundown condition of the area. From the ground and the air it looks like a bombed out section of city neighborhood.

Several officials, such as Crenshaw Community Advisory Council Chair Joyce Perkins and Kenneth Fearn, Chair of the CRA/LA Board of Commissioners, spoke about shopping at Santa Barbara Plaza when it was a thriving and vibrant neighborhood hub. Sitting next to the Crenshaw Maill with its soon-to-be-renovated food court and the newly refurbished Rave Motion Pictures theatres, it’s in a prime location to again become a gathering spot.

But what happens from here is still a question mark. Parks said that he hopes within the next two months to have some idea of what the project will look like. In the meantime, senior citizen housing at the Buckingham Place Senior Apartments is due to be finished and occupied by February, according to Parks. That project was taken over by Meta Housing from developer Hammond.

Last year LeimertParkBeat.com and Intersections South LA teamed up last year to produce a comprehensive story on the Marlton Square project. See LeimertParkBeat.com for more background on the series of stories we produced and see the stories below.

Watch video of the demolition by Walter Melton of LeimertParkBeat.

Ken Beavers, community resident, gives his reaction to the project.