Jimar Wilson was in the market for a home earlier this year and could think of one place he really wanted to live the Crenshaw Corridor, near where he spent his childhood years.
But the 29-year-old real estate development manager couldn't find the grocery stores, restaurants and other amenities he had become accustomed to as a recent Berkeley and MIT graduate.
So Wilson and his wife bought a San Fernando Valley condo instead even though he has a job helping to revitalize the Crenshaw Corridor, where he still hopes to live.
More than 14 years after the Rodney King episode and 1992 riots that rocked the area and decades after it lost its status as the center of African American life in Los Angeles Crenshaw is showing real signs of recovery.
Real estate developers are investing in the area, construction cranes are visible on the skyline and tangible progress is evident along Crenshaw Boulevard from new shopping centers and thriving boutiques to market-rate condominium complexes.
"There are a lot of young people who grew up here and went away to college and are coming back home and would like to live here," said Wilson, who grew up in the nearby West Adams district. "I want to be part of the solution."
Developers such as the CIM Group Inc., Chicago-based Capri Capital Advisors LLC and Wilson's own West Angeles Community Development Corp. are planning nothing less than a re-creation of the corridor that stretches for about four miles south of the Santa Monica (10) Freeway.
Key components include a planned $50 million to $100 million renovation of the historic Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza; the construction of the light rail Exposition Line that will connect the area to downtown; and several planned mixed use projects up and down the corridor.
Still, this is not the first time in recent memory that plans to redevelop Crenshaw have been proposed. Some progress was made after the riots, but efforts such as Rebuild L.A. stalled or didn't go far enough. And while prominent developers and investors are entering the area, violence is still a problem. Just last month, a three-year-old girl died in a gang-related shooting in nearby Baldwin Village. So far, though, the problems have not turned off this new crop of builders.
"The area is crying for more development," said Charles Quarles, president of Los Angeles-based urban developer The Bedford Group, which is planning a mid-rise condo complex in the area. "If it's the right kind of development, people will be excited about it."
Wilson is real estate project manager for the Community Development Corp., the independent economic development arm of Crenshaw Boulevard's West Angeles Church of God, which boasts about 22,000 members.
And given the church's long tenure in the area, it is not only a key player in the redevelopment of the corridor but is situated to benefit from it. The church owns several properties between 29th Street and Exposition Boulevard, a stop along the planned Exposition Line.
As with any rail station, it promises to bring a sizable amount of pedestrian traffic. And that should boost a mixed-used development that the development corp. wants to build on the stretch as soon as 2008.
"Crenshaw was a commercial strip that most of the property owners had divested themselves from," said Lula Ballton, chief executive of the development corp. "There were no office buildings for professionals, surrounded by areas where professionals lived. I see (the station) as a place to park the car and go to the ocean. As we move forward, it would make sense to have mixed-use near there."
City Councilmember Herb Wesson, whose district includes much of the corridor, agrees that a development around the station would be key to a turnaround of the corridor. "If we do the right type of development around that station it will be one of the major stops along the line," he said.
The optimism is rooted in reality. The first new shopping center in years opened on Crenshaw Boulevard in March.
The $18 million Coliseum Center, a few blocks south of Exposition Boulevard, includes a popular locally-owned Denny's and a Starbucks built by Magic Johnson's development company. It is anchored by a Big 5 Sporting Goods store and a Walgreens.
But building it wasn't easy. Developer Abe Shofet's Axiom Real Estate constructed the center on the site of the Holiday Bowl, a historic bowling alley that preservationists sought to save. Escrow ended up lasting two years alone.
In the end, the alley's coffee shop was converted into the Starbucks and a neon sign from a Pontiac dealership that also was on the property was preserved and formed the basis for the center's motif.
"The project took six years to complete from land purchase to opening. This project took a lot of effort by a large number of people," said Shofet. "I am absolutely pleased with the end result. We managed to really convince a good number of national tenants that this would be a great site. They have been all surprised by the tremendous amount of sales volume."
Indeed, developers in the area say that one of the biggest secrets about Crenshaw and other parts of South Los Angeles is that it contains among the most dense neighborhoods in the city despite their appearance as single-family neighborhoods. As the area's Latino population has increased, oftentimes extended families share a single residence, generating significant buying power as a whole.
"The Crenshaw Corridor is pretty dense. Watts is very dense. In South L.A., there are pockets with very high densities," said
Ricardo Noguera, Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency regional administrator for South Los Angeles.
Another key ingredient to a complete revitalization of the area is the planned renovation of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. The 860,000-square-foot shopping center is in the heart of the corridor at West Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The landmark mall was built in 1947, and over the decades has had several anchors. Most recently, a three-story Wal-Mart opened in 2003 at the site of a former Macy's, but even with that addition, the mall is showing its age.
However, Capri Capital, a minority owned development firm based in Chicago that invests in African-American and Latino neighborhoods, believes that a substantial renovation will pay off. After spending $136 million to purchase the mall, it's pledging a makeover that could hit $100 million.
"We want to be a very responsible member of the community," said Quintin Primo, co-founder of Capri Capital. "In addition to ultimately expanding the mall, we want to make sure we don't end up being an island unto ourselves."
The renovation, planned to start next year, will improve traffic flow around the mall, and bring in new tenants such as a book store and sit-down restaurants. It also will be the cornerstone for other area developments.
Across the street from the mall, Bedford Group is building the Bedford Parc and Promenade at Baldwin Hills. The project on Santa Rosalia Drive is targeted at young professionals and empty nesters. It will include an office component and 172 condo units in two mid-rise towers with market rate housing; condo units priced from the low $300,000s to over $600,000.
Bedford's project is the first large market-rate housing development in South Los Angeles in several decades. "The area has historically been developed by low-income housing and that has historically been seen as the need," said Quarles, Bedford's president. "You need to draw higher incomes that will support the commercial development that is needed there."
Further south on the corridor, CIM which has developed dozens of mixed-use projects in downtown, Hollywood and elsewhere is partnering with the West Angeles development group to build two separate projects.
There's West Angeles City Place, a planned retail and condominium development further down the corridor at West 54th Street that would include between 75 and 100 condos and about 30,000 square feet of retail space. Construction is planned to begin spring 2008.
And at West Jefferson Boulevard, the partners plan to build West Angeles Plaza, a retail and office development that is slated to start construction in summer 2007 with a Union Bank of California branch as an anchor.
"I think this is the best partnership we have ever had. Coming to a neighborhood you don't know, it's very important to have a good partner," said CIM principal Shaul Kuba. "We think this is the vehicle for at least, if not more than, $100 million of development. I think from here it's just a matter of processing deals as fast as we can."
But all this development is not sitting well with everyone. Just south of the mall, on the other side of the boulevard, members of the historic Leimert Park community eye the area's redevelopment cautiously.
Robert Rubio, co-founder of the Save Leimert! Neighborhood Coalition, says that his group is not against development along the corridor, but is concerned about the scale of new development, including big box retailers such as Wal-Mart and others. Since Rubio started the group in March 2006, it has distributed over 1,000 "Save Leimert!" yard signs.
"We want businesses and our neighborhood revitalized, but we don't want additional housing," Rubio said. "We know that once you start razing art deco buildings, inevitably the black businesses will be pushed out."
The objections of the coalition are typical of areas facing significant redevelopment: as new businesses and residences are brought to an area, some feel that a distinct culture could be lost along the way. But promoters of the projects along the corridor say that the success of the Wal-Mart at the mall points to a need for this sort of development in the area.
"People moan and groan about almost anything that is new coming in," said Norie Harrower, chief operations officer of Genesis L.A., a non-profit economic development company that invests in urban areas, including South Los Angeles. "You can pick Wal-Mart apart, but my God, does it help that community."
Even without the community concerns, it's not at all clear if all these projects will come to fruition.
Take Marlton Square, a mixed-use development on West Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The project, being developed by Christopher Hammond and Lee Homes, will feature 119,000 square feet of retail space and apartments.
However, it just lost its retail developer earlier this month when LNR Marlton Square Associates dropped out of the project. Though a part of the project's residential component has already been built at the 22-acre site and construction continues there, a new retail developer is needed.
Cecilia Estolano, chief executive of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, which has funded the project to the tune of $7.2 million, maintains the setback is "not emblematic" of South L.A.
"From the moment LNR terminated their agreement with the master developer we have received numerous calls from developers interested in that site," she said.
Redevelopment experts say that a key to the success for rehab efforts in the area will be a healthy dose of locally owned businesses. The Coliseum Center includes locally owned businesses and Kuba says that CIM plans to incorporate local businesses into its developments, but some say more could be done on that front.
Curtis Fralin, co-managing member of Los Angeles-based Infinity Redevelopment LLC, which has developed projects along the corridor, including a branch of Comerica Bank, has also made a personal investment in the area.
Last year, Fralin purchased Maverick's Flat, a famed Crenshaw Boulevard concert venue that has hosted acts like Earth, Wind and Fire, the Commodores and the Temptations. Fralin plans to reopen Maverick's Flat as an upscale jazz supper club in fall 2007.
"On a smaller level, prospects are pretty incredible," Fralin said. "Over the last five years urban areas are in vogue, especially Crenshaw. Prices have increased. We are getting Westside rents on Crenshaw."
But because large tracts of land are difficult to assemble, when they are put together, it often only makes sense to develop them for very large, national businesses not small-scale local owners, Harrower said.
"You can't get 20 acres of contiguous property that you can tear down and rebuild at a number that makes any sense," he said. "When you do, you get the big-box retailers. The supply of big-box retailers on these 20-acre sites is usually one or two. There is no supply, therefore they do fine, because there is no competition."
Then there's the specter of violence that still looms over the area.
Two decades ago the corridor was a very dangerous place amid gang warfare and rampant crack cocaine dealing. Last month's gang murder of a young girl who was shot at point-blank range in the nearby Baldwin Village neighborhood is a sobering reminder that violence is still a reality for the area.
Some people wonder whether the murder of three-year-old Kaitlyn Avila is the sort of violent crime that could scare off developers looking to invest in the area. For now, though, the development community is playing down the recent murder.
"Is gang violence more pronounced in this area? Yes. But can tenants and developers be successful? Yes," Fralin said. "There is a violent element and it's sort of messing things up for everybody. People are finding out that it's a small element."
Still, when Wilson and his wife settled on a condo in the San Fernando Valley, he said safety was a factor in his choice, though he emphasized that his decision largely hinged on a lack of amenities in the corridor tangible community assets such as pedestrian friendly shopping areas that developers are promising they will deliver.
"Those were some things I looked for," Wilson said. "Where I can spend money and time and feel safe."
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