At a crossroads

The vacant Bethune site, a project in limbo after the closure of LA’s redevelopment agency.

The former site of the Bethune Library in South Los Angeles sits vacant.

Secured by a chain-link fence, what was once home to a community resource is now a dirt field littered with pinecones and discarded trash. Patches of proud grass peek through the earth, and a few out-of-place trees stand like sentries guarding a memory.

There is – or was – a plan for this peculiar tract of barren land on busy Vermont Avenue, tucked next to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and across the street from the University of Southern California. The Bethune Crossroads, a project planned by T.R.U.S.T. South L.A. and Abode Communities, calls for a 55-unit affordable housing structure anchored by a large retail grocery store. The California Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles took title of the property in 2008 and approved a preliminary development plan.

But as of February 1, CRA/LA no longer exists. In June of last year, the California Legislature passed a bill to dissolve redevelopment agencies across the state. In December, the California Supreme Court upheld the law, which went into effect in February. The property tax revenue that used to go to these agencies will now be distributed among the schools, cities and counties where they were based. And the fates of scores of redevelopment projects in Los Angeles are up in the air.

“It’s vast, the kind of impact that we’re seeing,” said Sandra McNeill, executive director at T.R.U.S.T. South L.A. McNeill recently participated in a strategy meeting with representatives of organizations based in neighborhoods across Los Angeles. “It’s just a lot of money for our neighborhoods which have been so denied for so many years.”

Bethune Crossroads is hardly the only vision at risk because of the dissolution of CRA/LA. There are 192 active projects in the city, many of those in South Los Angeles. Plans impacted range from the long-troubled Marlton Square development in the Crenshaw district to smaller projects such as beautification and market conversions.

“For all of our neighborhoods, after so many years of disinvestment, we’ve not just got the issues of how do you revitalize a community where income levels are low, but we’re also faced with the fact that our neighborhoods have been denied the level of services and infrastructure improvements that other neighborhoods have received,” McNeill said.

The Bethune Library, named for educator and civil rights leader Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, opened in 1975. After establishing a new branch a few blocks away in 2008, the city leveled the Bethune site and CRA/LA took over the property. T.R.U.S.T. South L.A. and Abode Communities, an affordable housing developer, proposed a development for the site. With the dissolution of CRA/LA, the property will be sold off, threatening the planned development.

“We still maintain an interest in ensuring that a housing development goes forward on the site,” McNeill said. “There are so many unanswered questions for the successor agency.”

Last June, the Legislature also passed a bill that would have allowed individual redevelopment agencies to operate if they made payments to the state. The California Redevelopment Association and the League of California Cities filed suit to get the two bills overturned. When the court upheld the elimination of the agencies but threw out the alternative plan, that spelled the end of the approximately 400 redevelopment agencies in the state.

“The split decision was incredibly complex and difficult and a nuclear outcome,” explained CRA/LA spokesperson David Bloom.

The CRA/LA successor agency holds the fate of the 192 active projects currently in limbo. A three-person board makes recommendations on enforceable obligations, which are then approved by a review board. The review board must be named by May 1.

What is defined as enforceable is up for interpretation.

“Generally speaking, if we had a contract in place that was approved by the city council and by the board of the agency, and contracts were signed, that’s an obligation,” explained Bloom, adding that the contract had to be in place before June 29, 2011, when the pair of bills were passed.

“It’s conceivable that under the law we have a project where we have paid for design work that’s never going to get built,” Bloom continued. “People have already walked part way down that road. Do we get to walk down the rest of the road and finish that project? Or are we going to have to walk away from projects that have been designed and are never going to be built?”

Another South Los Angeles project threatened by the dissolution of CRA/LA is the Community Market Conversion pilot program.

The CMC program is a CRA/LA initiative in partnership with the California Endowment and the L.A. County Department of Public Health. The program’s goal is to expand access to healthy food in areas designated as underserved. Four locally owned markets in South L.A. have agreed to participate in the pilot program.

While the program involves simple improvements as basic as putting up new signage and convincing storeowners to sell fresh produce, store renovations such as new refrigeration also play a major role.

With the dissolution of CRA/LA, and the threatened cessation of funds for capital improvements, the CMC pilot program may be grounded.

“The money is there, but do we have authority to spend it?” said Clare Fox, CMC Project Coordinator. “And do we have the authority to create a new contract with the new contractor?”

Fox recently asked for authority to continue with the pilot program, and the CRA/LA successor agency’s three-person board granted the request, contingent approval of the oversight board. Fox will learn the fate of the CMC program in May.

Fox said she would like to see the CMC pilot program continue in some fashion with or without CRA/LA support.

“There’s a lot of excitement, and it would be such a loss if that dissipated into thin air,” Fox said. “I think there’s the opportunity to continue this on some scale and through some new configuration of food partnerships.”

However, capital costs remain a major hurdle if CMC continues.

“I think there’s a couple of ways to look at it,” Fox said. “There’s the way of looking at it like, that’s the end. And then there’s the way of looking at it like, well, we’ve done so much already, we’ve come this far, if CRA won’t pay for these store renovations that are really ready to roll, who will? If there’s an opportunity somewhere else, maybe we can look into that. Right now, we don’t have any options.”

“We know CRA needs to close up shop, but we’re so close,” she added. “We’re really so close to finishing these projects. This is an enforceable project that needs to move forward.

What moving forward means for redevelopment is a bigger question beyond the fate of Community Market Conversions.

“There’s not a new model for what would be called redevelopment,” Bloom said. “That word should be considered no longer operative.” Bloom cited the work of business improvement districts as a potential source of development, but added that they are not a practical way to finance large capital investments in an urban environment.

“Some things are just gone,” Bloom said. “There are just some things that are unlikely to ever be put back into place.”

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