In Cren­shaw, mall re­vival fu­els de­bate

Project raises con­cerns about race and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Leila Miller

Justin Jack­son jumped at the chance to move his pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio from down­town L.A.’s Arts Dis­trict into a his­tor­i­cally black com­mu­nity off Cren­shaw Boule­vard where he grew up.

En­cour­aged by the prospect of new de­vel­op­ment and in­creased foot traf­fic, he re­lo­cated last year, and from his store­front he can hear the beats of the African drum cir­cle that meets Sun­days in the neigh­bor­hood square.

The area “is due for an up­grade, and I think we’re see­ing that up­grade come to fruition with the Metro go­ing through and the shop­ping cen­ter,” Jack­son said, adding, “I’m open to de­vel­op­ment, I’m open to di­ver­sity.”

Over the last few years, the forces of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion have be­gun to move south, from down­town, Echo Park and Kore­atown into the Cren­shaw Dis­trict, the heart of L.A.’s black com­mu­nity, push­ing up real es­tate val­ues and grab­bing the at­ten­tion of new re­tail­ers and res­i­dents.

But am­bi­tious plans to trans­form what many con­sider the heart­beat of

the neigh­bor­hood has res­i­dents wrestling with Cren­shaw’s evolv­ing iden­tity.

The 70-year-old Bald­win Hills Cren­shaw Plaza may soon be ap­proved for a ma­jor re­design that would cost up to $700 mil­lion and in­clude more than 900 hous­ing units — most of them mar­ket rate — new re­tail shops, restau­rants, of­fice space and other ameni­ties.

The mall was for decades a cen­ter of life in south­west L.A. and a point of pride for blacks in the city who long de­cried the lack of chain busi­nesses and restau­rants will­ing to move into the neigh­bor­hood.

At Martin Luther King Jr. and Cren­shaw boule­vards, the mall has of­fered sub­ur­ban-style shop­ping with an African Amer­i­can twist and is fa­mous for hav­ing a black Santa Claus on hand dur­ing the hol­i­days to take photos with chil­dren.

But like many malls, the Bald­win Hills Cren­shaw Plaza is look­ing to re­make it­self in the face of down­siz­ing by ma­jor re­tail­ers and in­creas­ing on­line sales. It’s long been the case that more af­flu­ent com­mu­ni­ties of black pro­fes­sion­als near the mall have tended to do their shop­ping else­where.

Many worry that the plan to re­vi­tal­ize it could price out long-term res­i­dents and small busi­nesses while also eras­ing the area’s le­gacy of black cul­ture and his­tory. Oth­ers, like Jack­son, see new op­por­tu­nity. Some ques­tion whether the im­pact is neg­a­tive if it’s be­ing driven by other African Amer­i­cans.

“Now I’m con­fused about what the def­i­ni­tion of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion means,” said Misty Wilks, a bank­ruptcy at­tor­ney in Leimert Park. “Be­cause it used to mean white peo­ple run­ning into black peo­ple’s neigh­bor­hoods and tak­ing over. But our [mall] devel­oper is black … and we’re in a neigh­bor­hood full of black peo­ple.”

“We keep yelling gen­tri­fi­ca­tion when black peo­ple are buy­ing and sell­ing prop­erty and mak­ing money and be­ing suc­cess­ful,” she said.

But Jackie Ryan, owner of Zam­bezi Bazaar in Leimert Park, said she sees some­thing more trou­bling: now-va­cant store­fronts that used to house small, fam­i­ly­owned busi­nesses un­til rents be­gan spi­ral­ing.

“Mar­ket-rate rents would drive ev­ery­one out of here,” Ryan said.

Tara Ma­son, a public school teacher who grew up in nearby View Park, said she sym­pa­thizes with both sides of the de­bate.

“I used to take cabs and shut­tles be­fore, and now any­one in the com­mu­nity will be able to jump on the Metro and go to the air­port,” she said. “That’s some­thing ev­ery­one in the com­mu­nity wants to take ad­van­tage of.”

But Ma­son said res­i­dents also feel that in­vest­ment in the area has been a long time com­ing and may ben­e­fit new­com­ers rather than long-timers.

Re­sent­ment has been stoked by an in­flux of white res­i­dents seek­ing char­ac­ter homes that are far more af­ford­able than real es­tate on the West­side and in other ar­eas.

“[They are] feel­ing like it was set up for some­body else to have, that it wasn’t some­thing that they could have be­cause the money wasn’t there for them,” she said. “It wasn’t ear­marked for that type of com­mu­nity.”

Re­vi­tal­iz­ing the mall is a big piece of a larger trans­for­ma­tion oc­cur­ring in the area. The Cren­shaw/LAX light-rail line with a Leimert Park sta­tion is set to open in 2019. Kaiser Per­ma­nente med­i­cal of­fices opened in early Septem­ber. And other big de­vel­op­ments are also planned.

Alexan­dra Men­doza­Graf, an as­sis­tant pol­icy re­searcher at Rand Corp., said that a short­age of af­ford­able hous­ing makes it dif­fi­cult for many res­i­dents to stay in their com­mu­ni­ties, and that the de­vel­op­ment of light-rail lines may con­trib­ute to gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.

“You’re see­ing younger, more ed­u­cated fam­i­lies mov­ing into neigh­bor­hoods around the Expo Line (run­ning from down­town L.A. to Santa Mon­ica) that have tra­di­tion­ally been neigh­bor­hoods that are lower in­come,” she said. “It’s chang­ing the de­mo­graph­ics of those neigh­bor­hoods, and the val­ues of homes and hous­ing is ris­ing in those ar­eas.”

While some neigh­bor­hoods — like Boyle Heights — have pushed back against gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, Men­doza­Graf said some lower-in­come com­mu­ni­ties have a harder time or­ga­niz­ing re­sis­tance.

“In L.A., you’ve seen com­mu­ni­ties that aren’t able to or­ga­nize and pro­tect them­selves against the ef­fects and com­mu­ni­ties that have a strong will or abil­ity to or­ga­nize,” she said. “I think those will see fewer ef­fects of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion or find some ways of mit­i­gat­ing the ef­fects.”

African Amer­i­cans be­gan mov­ing to the Cren­shaw Dis­trict and nearby Bald­win Hills in the 1950s af­ter the Supreme Court nul­li­fied racially re­stric­tive hous­ing covenants.

Leimert Park has long been oc­cu­pied by black mid­dle­and work­ing-class res­i­dents. But the me­dian hous­ing price in Bald­win Hills and Leimert Park more than dou­bled in five years and reached about $670,000 in May, ac­cord­ing to real es­tate data firm CoreLogic.

Carolyn Hull, vice pres­i­dent of In­dus­try Clus­ter De­vel­op­ment at the Los An­ge­les County Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Corp., said the Cren­shaw area is see­ing de­vel­op­ment — re­tail, hous­ing, din­ing — that is typ­i­cal in com­mu­ni­ties lo­cated near public trans­porta­tion.

“Once you put a bil­lion dol­lars into an area and en­hance the in­fra­struc­ture, you see a lot of pri­vate in­vest­ment fol­low­ing,” she said. “Clearly there’s al­ways been a misconception about the lack of buy­ing power in the com­mu­nity that has held back some in­vest­ment of ar­eas such as re­tail.”

But the com­plex­ion of the area is also chang­ing. The num­ber of African Amer­i­cans liv­ing in the im­me­di­ate vicin­ity of the Bald­win Hills mall has de­clined since 2000, while the pop­u­la­tions of Lati­nos, non-His­panic whites, Asians and home­own­ers have in­creased, said Paul Ong, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Neigh­bor­hood Knowl­edge at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Af­fairs.

“The chal­lenge fac­ing this par­tic­u­lar area is how to man­age some of those changes so the ben­e­fits are gen­er­ated in a way that it doesn’t just dis­place peo­ple who can­not af­ford to re­main there,” Ong said.

A fo­rum billed as a ses­sion to ad­dress gen­tri­fi­ca­tion at­tracted hun­dreds, in­clud­ing res­i­dents and com­mu­nity lead­ers who feared the im­pact of the mall plans, to a Hyde Park church in early Au­gust.

Stand­ing in front of the packed room, Cren­shaw Sub­way Coali­tion founder Damien Good­mon, one of the event’s or­ga­niz­ers, told the au­di­ence, “Re­peat af­ter me: ‘Mar­ket rate means not for me.’ ”

The city should ex­am­ine how the shop­ping mall’s re­de­vel­op­ment plan would af­fect low-in­come res­i­dents, de­mand more lo­cal hir­ing and push for more af­ford­able units, he said.

Cur­rently, 10% of units are des­ig­nated for low- and me­dian-in­come hous­ing.

Khalil Ed­wards, or­ga­niz­ing di­rec­tor of the Los An­ge­les Black Worker Cen­ter, said that is not good enough.

“Among this black com­mu­nity, you have dif­fer­ent class sta­tuses,” Ed­wards said. “You have folks who have higher in­come, [are] mid­dle class and are home­own­ers that are able to stay, and then you have folks that are mak­ing a liv­ing wage and are wor­ried if they’re go­ing to be able to af­ford their rent in a few months.”

Quintin Primo of Capri In­vest­ment Group, a mi­nor­ity-owned firm in Chicago that owns the mall, said cal­cu­la­tions for lower-in­come hous­ing were based on what is “eco­nom­i­cally fea­si­ble” and nec­es­sary to at­tract in­vestors for the project.

“We haven’t seen a long line of de­vel­op­ers or in­vestors that are will­ing to make this type of in­vest­ment in South L.A. or the Cren­shaw cor­ri­dor,” Primo said.

The devel­oper has said that it al­ready hires lo­cally. Plans for the new mall in­clude an on-site job-train­ing cen­ter.

City Coun­cil­man Mar­queece Har­ris-Daw­son, whose dis­trict in­cludes Cren­shaw, said the mall de­vel­op­ment will im­prove res­i­dents’ ac­cess to goods and ser­vices.

“I think it’ll be a breath of fresh air af­ter a long pe­riod of dis­in­vest­ment and redlin­ing and a whole bunch of other mea­sures that haven’t added up to se­ri­ous in­vest­ment in our area, even though the num­bers have been there to sup­port it for more than a decade,” he said. “The in­comes have been there, the traf­fic has been there, the cus­tomer base has been there.”

He ac­knowl­edged con­cerns about gen­tri­fi­ca­tion but said that dis­place­ment should be ad­dressed with rapid re­hous­ing and sup­port­ive pro­grams to pre­vent evic­tions — not by re­sist­ing de­vel­op­ment.

“There’s an un­set­tling amount of push-out al­ready hap­pen­ing, [and] my ex­pec­ta­tion is even if a sin­gle stick or brick isn’t put on the Bald­win Hills mall, it will con­tinue be­cause of the real es­tate sit­u­a­tion in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia,” he said.

Other com­mu­nity lead­ers are ex­cited about re­de­vel­op­ment.

“This is a wake-up call to African Amer­i­cans to get your fi­nan­cial health in or­der and join this cap­i­tal­ist train and move for­ward, be­cause the train is al­ready com­ing down the boule­vard, lit­er­ally,” said Carl Mor­gan, chair­man of the Em­pow­er­ment Congress West Area Neigh­bor­hood De­vel­op­ment Coun­cil.

He’s also sat­is­fied with the hous­ing plan.

“Why should we [South L.A.] al­ways be the dump­ing ground for af­ford­able hous­ing? We need more mar­ke­trate hous­ing so we can get the types of ser­vices that our res­i­dents have been scream­ing for for decades.”

Oth­ers, though, are still bit­ter that de­vel­op­ment comes af­ter decades of inat­ten­tion. Chas Tay­lor grew up in West Adams — hang­ing out in the Cren­shaw area as a youth — but re­cently moved to Palm Desert af­ter strug­gling to find af­ford­able hous­ing in Los An­ge­les.

“They kept that neigh­bor­hood op­pressed for all th­ese years, wouldn’t give peo­ple loans, the po­lice ser­vices were crap,” he said. “They al­lowed drugs and gangs, and now all of a sud­den, the train is com­ing down Cren­shaw.”

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

BALD­WIN HILLS Cren­shaw Plaza is seen from Cren­shaw and Martin Luther King Jr. boule­vards. The mall may be ap­proved for a ma­jor re­design cost­ing $700 mil­lion and in­clud­ing more than 900 hous­ing units.

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

NI­COLE MONK, left, dis­cusses the plan to re­de­velop the mall, seen by many as the heart­beat of the neigh­bor­hood, at a meet­ing last month.

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

SOME RES­I­DENTS be­lieve in­vest­ment in the area has been a long time com­ing and may ben­e­fit new­com­ers rather than long-timers. Above, a plane f lies over con­struc­tion of the Cren­shaw/LAX light-rail line last year.

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

PEO­PLE AT a town hall dis­cuss the re­de­vel­op­ment plan at Christ Tem­ple Cathe­dral Church last month.

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