Los Angeles County leaders moved Tuesday to seize a large tract of land in South Los Angeles that has long sat vacant, defying protests from a company that had trumpeted plans to build restaurants, shops and a grocery store there.
The empty lots at the corner of Vermont and Manchester avenues have been a nagging reminder of the frustrated efforts to revive the neighborhood. The bulk of the land has long been owned by Eli Sasson, whose company held a groundbreaking ceremony two years ago for the Vermont Entertainment Village, a massive project touted as a destination to rival L.A. Live.
But little has happened since. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas complained that the vacant land had become a magnet for homeless encampments and other nuisances over the decades.
So the county said it had a plan of its own for the Vermont Avenue site: a new development that would include affordable housing, a charter school, a transit plaza and "community serving" retail.
At its Tuesday meeting, the Board of Supervisors voted to initiate the process of seizing roughly four acres through eminent domain, setting out a $15.7 million budget for getting that land.
The plan "will eliminate the legacy of public nuisances that have existed for more than two decades," Ridley-Thomas said.
He later added in a written statement that the spot was "particularly suited" for the proposed development because of "its unique location at the epicenter of an area of the county that has been starved of critical services" along "one of the more prominent public transit corridors in the region."
"I can think of no other site of similar scale that can be developed with such minimal impact, given that there are no existing occupants or tenants on site," Ridley-Thomas wrote.
Representatives for Sasson and his company, Sassony Commercial Development, protested the move, arguing there was plenty of other space in South L.A. for the county to roll out its plan and no good reason to block their planned project, which they said was finally ready to move forward.
Attorney Robert Silverstein said the Vermont Entertainment Village had been unexpectedly delayed as Sasson tried to buy the remaining parcels he needed from an obscure government agency — the successor to the Community Redevelopment Agency.
Sasson finally purchased that land a few weeks ago and had already spent more than $1 million in "soft costs" such as architects and permit fees when the county moved to take the property, Silverstein said.
"The government can't just use eminent domain willy-nilly because they either say they're tired of waiting or they don't like people," Silverstein said, arguing that the county had failed to meet the legal requirements for taking the land.
The Vermont Avenue tract was once the site of a swap meet that was torched in the 1992 riots after police officers were acquitted in the beating of black motorist Rodney King. It is the most notorious of the vacant lots that still dot South L.A. years after the unrest, marked by fizzled plans and pitched battles between city leaders and community groups.
At Tuesday's hearing, community members spoke up for and against the move. Some residents questioned whether the planned project unveiled by the county was what the neighborhood needed, or complained that they had gotten scant information about the idea. They urged the county to instead let Sasson move forward with his development plans.
"We're waiting a long time for this development to come to fruition," said Karen Lawrence, a member of the 108th Hoover Neighborhood Assn. "So please let the Sassony Group complete their promise to the neighborhood, to the community."
The company said it had turned in a petition with hundreds of signatures opposing the move and also got a letter of support from Rep. Maxine Waters, who wrote that it "seems highly inappropriate for the county to seize this property through such extremes and potentially pay tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds."
But other community members and lawmakers, including Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), countered that it was time for the county to step in. Harris-Dawson said the vacant land had suffered "criminal neglect" that had fueled mayhem including fires, attacks and shootings.
"For far too many years, this property has been undeveloped and unkempt," said Joyce Fantroy, who chairs the 90th Street Plus Block Club, calling the vacant property "an eyesore to the community."
Silverstein said Tuesday that if Los Angeles County proceeds with trying to seize the property, his client will sue. The property owner has already lodged a lawsuit against the county over another aspect of the dispute, alleging that it illegally denied public records requests for information about its plans.
6:05 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background.