Mixed-Use Project Is Planned For Sears' Boyle Heights Site

By ANDY FIXMER
Staff Reporter

A decaying warehouse complex in Boyle Heights may soon be home to one of L.A. County's largest single redevelopment projects.

MJW Investments Inc., the Santa Monica-based firm headed by developer Mark Weinstein, is finalizing plans for a $300 million mixed-use project on the 23.5-acre site at Olympic Boulevard and Soto Street, which once housed a massive Sears Roebuck & Co. warehouse operation. The plan also includes properties cater-corner to the Sears site.

MJW's plans, which may yet be revised, call for 440 townhomes and condominiums and 180 rental apartments, with 20 percent of the units reserved for low-income families. Also proposed are 750,000 square feet of retail space, an office component and parking for 3,000 cars.

Early plans include six or seven cobblestone streets winding through the site, connecting homes and the commercial structures with nearby freeways and existing side streets. The plans also call for a community center and four acres of athletic fields and parks.

After nearly 30 meetings with community groups, Weinstein has garnered support for the project from L.A. Mayor James Hahn, although he has yet to win the endorsement of City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, in whose district the site lies.

"The mayor is supportive of the project," said Shannon Murphy, a Hahn spokeswoman. "The mayor's office has been working with the developer and (Villaraigosa's) office to guide this project through the planning process."

Adriana Martinez, director of Villaraigosa's Boyle Heights field office, said Villaraigosa's staff has worked closely with Weinstein and arranged a public meeting on April 19 attended by more than 200 residents.

She said that while Weinstein's early efforts are encouraging, the councilman is holding off on endorsing the project until the proposal has been finalized and funding lined up.

"We're waiting for them to come back to us with some numbers," Martinez said. "That's when the project can really begin to move forward, when we have the numbers and we know the whole thing makes sense dollar-wise."

Community representatives are likewise withholding judgment.

"There are a lot of pie-in-the-sky ideas being thrown out there and I'm not sure how much of it is being used to win the community's trust," said Ralph Carmona, an economic development advisor to the board of the Boyle Heights Chamber of Commerce. "But I think we all believe the councilman will hold the developer to his word and the community has a chance to get a very good project."

Robert Jimenez, president of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, said community response had been "positive, but still skeptical."

While Weinstein has not yet arranged financing for the project, he said it would need public subsidies in the "tens of millions of dollars range."

"There is going to be public streets and streetlights, so there will be a need for the city's participation," he said. "We're still working out how much that will be."

Though he would not say how close he was to either private or public financing, Weinstein did say he was optimistic that the entitlements for the 3 million-square-foot project would be in place soon and that ground could be broken by the end of next year.

The site sits in a Community Redevelopment Agency zone, a California Enterprise Zone and a Federal Empowerment Zone, potentially qualifying it for grants and low-interest loans from all levels of government.

Kiara Harris, a CRA spokeswoman, said the agency has had discussions with the developer but no funding decision had been made.

Meanwhile, Weinstein said he has put up $40 million to cobble together most of the property for the project. His firm has already closed on the purchase of four of the five lots that make up the site from Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Univest and other owners. The last parcel is in escrow, which Weinstein said should close by the end of the month. He said the firm has spent $600,000 on architectural, engineering and landscape designs.

The 1.8 million-square-foot warehouse was originally built by Sears in 1927 to support its burgeoning catalogue business. Soon after opening, 200,000 square feet was sectioned off for use as a department store the first time a national retailer opened in Boyle Heights.

In the mid-1960s, as its catalogue business declined, the warehouse was shuttered. The store still operates, generating roughly $40 million in annual sales according to a source familiar with the operation.

As a condition of redeveloping the site, the Sears store must remain open and accessible during construction, Weinstein said.

Weinstein showed his proposals to Sears executives at its Hoffman Estates, Ill., headquarters two weeks ago. He said Sears plans a complete renovation of the store, which will anchor the retail complex.

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