Battle Looms Over Crenshaw Mall Redevelopment
This month, Crenshaw community activists are uniting with members of the faith community and residents to put together a strategy to combat what they are characterizing as the greatest threat to the stability of the historically black Crenshaw community: gentrification in the form of the Crenshaw Mall Redevelopment.
More plainly stated, they believe “Black L.A. is under attack.”
“Gentrification is the greatest threat to the stability of the Crenshaw community,” says Damien Goodmon, Founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit Crenshaw Subway Coalition. “If this project is built as currently proposed it would rise up a gentrification tsunami that will push out Crenshaw’s tenants, low-income residents, and vulnerable homeowners. This is bigger than the rail line. This is about whether there is going to be a black Los Angeles.
At 2.1 million square feet of new construction, the Crenshaw Mall is one of the largest proposed development projects currently being considered by the City of Los Angeles. At the crux of the issue is the market rate housing being proposed.
Activists charge that the majority of the proposed new construction will not be directed toward renovating the mall, but instead 60% of the new construction (1.2 million square feet) is to add 961 market-rate apartments and condos priced at a level that existing community members cannot afford.
“In general, most people believe renovating the mall is good, but we’ve got issues with the impact. When you bring in that much market-rate housing in an area that can’t really afford it, it does lead to indirect displacement,” Goodman said. “It leads to drastic increases in local property values, which can encourage landlords to try to evict long-term tenants and banks to be more aggressive in enforcing their requirements and foreclosure. It leads to more speculative real estate and housing prices that make it unaffordable for long term residents or historic residents who seek to return and for young professionals like me who want to buy or rent in the community.”
“If it had a significant amount of affordable housing, had a project labor agreement that had specific goals of reaching a specific number of black people to address the black worker crisis, if this project had a community benefits agreement that addressed the infrastructure impacts around it and provided an adequate return of one befitting the largest construction projects in L.A., we would have a different stance, but it has none of those things.”
Not true, says Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, a proponent of the mail, which is being built in his district.
“They should read the agreement.”
In fact, under the proposed agreement with the city, 10% of the apartments and condos—about 95 units— will be designated as affordable housing. Half would go to households making 50% of the area median which would amount to a family of four making under $43,000. The remaining half would go to households making less than 150%, or around $130,000 or less for a family of four.
“While the concern is that the presence of so many market-rate units can drive up rents around it, I don’t agree that’s going to happen partly because of in the 8th District, we’ve done more affordable housing units than anybody,” the Councilman pointed out. “We will have over 1,000 throughout the district by the time this project comes online. That’s far more affordable units than we have market-rate units and I think it will more than balance out the impact.”
Activists and Harris-Dawson may not see eye-to-eye on this project but both sides are concerned.
“People are already complaining about the growing diversity in the community, and that the prices are going up, and that’s not exclusive to the mall. It’s just the area in general,” Harris-Dawson points out. “Of the five neighborhoods with the greatest price increases year over year, four of them are in South L.A.—Hyde Park, Southeast L.A., Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills.
“The question is what do you do about it? So, say the developer walks in my office tomorrow and says the deal is up I can’t do it. Guess what’s going to happen home prices in Lemiert Park and Baldwin Hills, they’re still going to continue to climb and they’re probably going to climb faster because there will be less housing stock.”
A recent study from the UCLA Anderson School of Management ranked Los Angeles at number one in the nation as the single most unaffordable city for both homebuyers and renters. A 2015 City of Los Angeles study found that families must earn $81,240 to afford the average rent and $104,360 to afford a newly-built apartment.
That, points out Goodmon, is twice the median household income in Leimert Park, and four times the median household income in Baldwin Village, where no census tract has a median income for a family of four that is above $26,000.
“The reality where you could go to sleep five years ago and rents in Baldwin Village could average $850 and then you wake up ten years later and rents are $2200,” Goodmon reports. “That should be something that concerns people.”
Activists contend that a failure to maintain the affordability of the Crenshaw community, which made apartment renting and homeownership possible for the majority of long-term residents, may drastically change Crenshaw’s ethnic makeup.
Residents like Olla Bartlett say that is a factor, but point out that the community has already changed, adding that she believes the influx of whites is making the area more attractive to burglars.
“I worry what the neighborhood will look like in the next five years. Plus, the traffic and congestion is horrendous. And now they’re proposing 88 units of apartments on Overhill and Slauson. It’s just out of control.”
To that end, activists and some residents see the project as “an attack on the security of Black families, homes and small businesses, the preservation and cultivation of Black art and culture, the sanctity of Black space and the potential of Black political power.”
Goodman’s coalition, consisting of ACCE-LA, Black Community Clergy & Labor Alliance, L.A. Black Worker Center, Crenshaw Subway Coalition, Eviction Defense Network, Hyde Park Organizational Partnership for Empowerment, hopes to identify policies and programs that can be put in place so that the redevelopment can be a real benefit to the community and not harm existing residents.
Over 80 organizational leaders signed on to a letter requesting a help impact assessment to see how the mall would affect the surrounding area.
“All we are asking at this juncture is that the city not move forward until we complete that process.”
Harris-Dawson, who received the request, says the project has already undergone a full environmental impact review.
“Everything from traffic to pollution, to walkability, to the waiter, air, noise…all of it has been analyzed,” Harris-Dawson notes. “Will there be more diversity than we see now? Probably, will this project dramatically change the ethnic makeup of my district or councilmen west’s district, I don’t think so.
“The good part is that we finally get a first-rate development in South LA.
“When I encounter young African-American professionals who are beginning their families, they can’t look in South L.A. because either the houses are too expensive or they’re just not neighborhoods where they want to raise children. So, [now] we will have a housing stock that will be attractive to that population. We also think it gives us a much-needed upgrade in the quality of the retail services available in South L.A. and again $750 million, we just don’t get that kind of investment in South L.A. on a regular basis.
All of which excites residents like Briana Smith, who have longed for the day when she didn’t have to drive to other neighborhoods for fine dining or upscale retail.
“It will be nice to have more quality services right here in the community. Besides there’s not a damn thing you can do about whites and Latinos moving in. It’s life.”
In addition to the 961 market rate units, the new complex would include a 400-room hotel, a 10-story office building, and more than 300,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. A nearby Kaiser Permanente medical center is set to open next month.
While the existing mall would stay intact, some of those retail sites on the outer rim like—Post & Beam and the Debbie Allen Dance Academy—would be demolished.
Interestingly, Harris-Dawson adds, “I have a lot of neighborhoods east of Western that are historically black that are changing, and nobody cares. Nobody says a word.”
Activists instead point to the controversial billion dollar The Reef development in South Central near USC, which with 1,440 proposed market-rate housing units is now mired in a lawsuit filed by housing advocates out of displacement concerns; and the Hollywood Boulevard luxury development they say resulted in a push out of the poor and working-class Latino communities in favor of more affluent whites and fueled drastic increases in housing prices.
“It’s a wave that’s taking place not just in South L.A. and East L.A,” says Goodmon, but “in every major urban city. We now have this concept of new urbanism where it’s cool to be in the inner city.
“The two largest private equity firms in the world are now buying single family homes and renting. Houses that were going for $325,000 in Leimert Park in 1999 are now valued at $600,000. That’s a helluva return—much better than you can get in the stock market. And the people who are harmed the most are blacks, Latinos and the low-income communities that currently occupy these spaces.”
Officials like Harris-Dawson contend that it’s difficult to cite anywhere in the city where one development has transformed the entire neighborhood.
“Part of what’s happening,” Harris-Dawson observes, “is that people are responding to the energy crisis. It used to be that middle class white people organize themselves in the suburbs because getting in your car and coming into town for work was cheap. That’s going to be less and less true going forward, and it’s happening all around. These neighborhoods that are close to downtown and the center city are becoming more and more in demand than they’ve been in our lifetime.”
But housing advocates have been at odds wiyth black elected officials for some time, characterizing them as active participants in the “urban cleansing” of South L.A. while charging that they are not asking for enough from developers. Another major point of contention being local hire requirements.
In the case of the Crenshaw Mall, a 25% local hire agreement is in place.
“We’d like to see more,” adds Harris-Dawson, “but the truth is 25% is a very aggressive number for a project of this size. Most projects this size have a 10 or 15 percent goal.”
What’s more, Harris-Dawson is working to see that people don’t fall victim to gentrification.
“People are in serious financial pressure and I worry about it. We are trying to do everything we can to give people a place to go before the sell their house and give them assistance, particularly as more and more retirees have smaller pensions and it’s going to become more difficult for people to maintain their homes. We’re going to have an assistance program to help them do that.”
He also points out that in May, the City Council voted to approve the Unapproved Dwelling Unit (UDU) ordinance to safely permit previously unapproved housing in multi-family units while requiring, in exchange that property owners put an equal amount of affordable units at the same location on the market, which will help boost the City’s affordable housing stock.
“Too many Angelenos are already struggling to stay ahead of rising rents—and we must take action to protect our communities, and keep families in their homes,” said Mayor Garcetti. “This ordinance will improve the health and safety of our housing stock, add more units to the market, and bring us closer to meeting our affordable housing goals.”
“The ordinance will allow seniors and residents to rent that additional space and have another stream of income without going through a very rigorous permitting process and costly fees,” Harris Dawson explains.
“We’re also working with financial institutions and some city housing programs so that people can actually access funds to get the construction done and a program where the city will loan you say $75,000 as long as you commit to making those units affordable for X number of years. We’re working on a similar program with Airbnb.”
Yet, for all Harris-Dawson is doing, differences remain and Goodman says his coalition is not interested in negotiating “terms of surrender”.
“We’re going to fight and we’ll go as far as we need to make sure this project becomes what it needs to be; that other projects on their way recognize that this is a black community and you will serve black community interests; and that our public sector thinks about development without displacement.
“It’s not about being against development. It’s about being for development that’s for existing residents. We’ve made clear we will sue if we feel that’s necessary to protect the culture.”
While sensitive to the concern on all sides, Harris-Dawson believes the issues can be mediated, noting that delaying the project will “not do anything to forward their cause”.
No date has been set for the start of construction, which is expected to take six or seven years.