Vermont/Manchester in pictures
If you have read my Op-Ed on the Vermont/Manchester project (and of course, if you have not, what are you waiting for?), you may be interested in seeing just what the two-block battlefield looks like. The project area today is smaller by about 30% than what it was back in the 1996, when the Community Redevelopment Agency was given its mandate to develop the area. At the time, the project area included the 8300, 8400 and 8500 east-side blocks of Vermont Ave. Most of this area remains unbuilt since 1992, though there are a few strip-mall-type buildings in the area, and a much larger develoment on the 8300 block, about which more in a moment.
This is the view facing southeast from the corner of 84th and Vermont. The vacant lot and the strip mall to the right are now owned by Eli Sasson, who gained virtual control of the 8400 and 8500 blocks in 2005 and 2006.
If we turn slightly to the left, we see the L.A. County Department of Public Social Services building that now takes up the entire 8300 block. It was completed last fall. The L.A. Times' Roger Vincent had that story on September 28, though it has since disappeared from our site. (It's called "In South L.A., hope rises along with concrete, steel" if you want to look it up at your local public library.)
The DPSS building generated enormous controversy when it was being built: Local residents had long been agitating for a large retail development featuring a supermarket, a sit-down restaurant and chain stores. The news that one block of the site would be devoted to a welfare office (leaving two blocks that wouldn't support a very grand development) hit with a resounding thud. Community Coalition executive director Marqueece Harris-Dawson described the building to me as having been "shoved down the throats" of the community.
Nevertheless, L.A. leaders promised that giving this piece of the project over to the county building would be a catalyst for retail development, on the logic that it would bring free-spending county employees into the area during work hours. Vincent's story, for example, quotes Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., calling the building "a magnet for potential customers" that should "provide a solid customer base." Councilman Bernard Parks has made similar suggestions, and the building has definitely increased foot traffic in the area.
Elie Sasson played a supporting role in the DPSS saga too, which didn't endear him to the retail advocates. He sold off four lots on the 8300 block to ICO Development, helping give ICO site control of that block while buying out a handful of other owners in the other two blocks and getting site control (less his brother Joseph's lot) on those.
Sasson says that he too heard a lot of catalyst talk and made his series of sales and purchases only on the promise of CRA assistance with his development. He did enter into an exclusive negotiating agreement with the agency in 2006, but that expired last year without success. At the time, the CRA's regional administrator Ricardo Nogera minimized the expiration of the ENA, telling me the agency was close to moving toward a Disposition and Development Agreement with Sasson. Nogera left the agency shortly afterward, and his replacement Carolyn Hull would not characterize her predecessor's talks other than to say that they failed to produce a development.
The area already boasts a public building, the Constituent Service Center on the other side of Vermont. This picture shows the service center from across Sasson's lot. I was standing along some parking lots the CRA owns when I took this. These lots have factored into the story as well, since higher parking density allows more ambitious retail development. Sasson negotiated to buy the lots from the CRA, and he claims that he had an agreed-to deal with Nogera that fell through due to a technical snafu -- amusingly enough claiming the CRA failed to take out an ad in the Los Angeles Times in fulfillment of some open-bidding rule. CRA officials refuse to comment. For what it's worth, Nogera did tell me last year that he intended to "contribute" both lots to the project.
Not everything is devastated. Here's a view of 85th Street facing northeast. Most of these shops are up and running, as are quite a few mom-and-pops along the Vermont/Manchester corridor. It's not clear to me that the mediocre quality of the retail in the area is as much a crisis as some observers claim. There is a Ralphs and a variety of sit-down dining further west on Manchester Blvd., for example. Then again, I have a higher tolerance for long walks and a greater fondness for swap-meet-level retail than many Angelenos. The Optometry office with the blue sign is run by Dr. Hilary Hawthorne, who was gracious enough to let me take a shot from inside her office of the 8500 block:
That Payless store is on a longterm lease, and whoever ends up owning all this property will have to relocate the store and move it back into the final development. Dr. Hawthorne supports the eminent domain proceeding against Sasson, whom she characterizes as an indifferent, mostly unresponsive landlord who has refused to discuss relocating her office into the final retail center. I should note that the feeling against Eli Sasson among city officials, community leaders, other observers and participants, and in this case a tenant, has been almost unanimous.
Here is the front porch of Eli Sasson's house in Beverly Hills, showing the circular porch and one of the hunky torchbearers mentioned in my story. It's a beautiful spread, and the view from the rear is spectacular. Though it was a hazy day when I visited, I was assured that you can see the ocean.
The house is the headquarters of Sassony Commercial Real Estate Development, and home to a considerable collection of previous plans for the Vermont/Manchester project. Sasson's collection of site plans goes back all the way to 1992, when the city first took an interest in rebuilding the area. Here are a few of them:
These are the oldest plans in the collection, which suggest how ambitious the project was in the beginning.
Finally, one of my suspicions has been that this long-stalled project suffers from a combination of champagne dreams and Old Milwaukee reality. That is, the CRA wants a big retail project even though it has no expertise in completing private-sector development, and Sasson sees it as a step up from swap meet landlordship -- but neither party has the wherewithall to get it done. Sasson says he has a comparable development in Rancho Cucamonga, which I have not seen.
One characteristic piece of property: the two Sasson-owned buildings at the corner of Broadway and Fourth St., close to the L.A. Times building, that burned down last February. Here's more detail on those properties, and one last picture.