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L.A. County wins ownership of long-empty South L.A. land

L.A. County wins ownership of long-empty South L.A. land
Torn fencing, tattered clothing and garbage are all that remain in the vacant lot in the 8400 block of Vermont Avenue near Manchester Avenue. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County this week won possession of a four-acre property in South Los Angeles that has sat empty since the buildings on it burned to the ground during the 1992 riots.

Over the decades, the site at the corner of Vermont and Manchester avenues has been a battleground for politicians, residents and the property's owner, each with their own ideas on how to develop them and revive the neighborhood.

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Most of the land has long been owned by Eli Sasson, who acquired the remainder in November. Sasson's company has repeatedly announced plans to build on the site and three years ago held a groundbreaking for a project he said would include restaurants, shops and a grocery store.

But the site remains undeveloped.

Flames engulf a row of businesses at Vermont and Manchester avenues during the Los Angeles riots.
Flames engulf a row of businesses at Vermont and Manchester avenues during the Los Angeles riots. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

In December, county officials moved to seize the land through eminent domain, which allows governments under certain circumstances to take private property for public use.

The county argues that the 16 parcels on Vermont Avenue in the two blocks north of Manchester Avenue have the right size, location and vacancy to accommodate affordable housing, a boarding school, a transit plaza and "community-serving" retail, developed with a mix of private and public funds. It has set aside $15.7 million in taxpayer money to obtain the land.

At Monday's court hearing, lawyers representing the county argued for immediate possession, saying it would be easier to obtain funding for the mixed-used project once they obtained the land. Waiting, said attorney Gregory Bergman, would would delay the county project by a year or two.

Karyn Jakubowski, a lawyer representing Sasson's company, argued that the county lacked the authority to file eminent domain. She said environmental and governmental rules could halt efforts to seize the property.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Daniel S Murphy ruled Thursday that the county would assume ownership by May 4.

County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the ruling paves the way for long-awaited action at the corner.

"Local governments have an absolute obligation to think imaginatively about our most pressing issues — job creation, quality education, transportation, and the development of affordable housing and community centers," Ridley-Thomas said in a statement. "With this project, we are taking an out-of-the-box approach to getting all of that done at the corner of Vermont and Manchester."

Not everybody is celebrating the seizure. Shamara McFarland, who lives nearby, attended Monday's hearing in hopes of speaking out against the county project. She collected 75 signatures from Vermont Knolls residents who felt the same.

McFarland, 45, said she thinks the county's plan is underwhelming and that she favors the kind of retail that Sasson had promised — stores, sit-down restaurants and a grocery store with organic produce — over a proposal that calls for a government building and otherwise undefined retail space.

"I don't want to be locked in the county's agenda," she said. "It's not in our best interest."

On April 29, 1992, rioters outraged over the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney G. King torched the intersection of Vermont and Manchester avenues. Dozens of buildings burned. Months later, Sasson vowed to rebuild, but after numerous project proposals and false starts, the city's community redevelopment agency moved to seize the land through eminent domain in 2008. Three years later, Gov. Jerry Brown disbanded redevelopment agencies amid a state budget shortage, a move that allowed Sasson to repurchase his land.

Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson said residents have long awaited a fresh start at that corner.

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"Over the course of almost three decades, residents endured crime, blight, violence, and neglect — all while waiting for empty promises and false starts to produce something real," he said in statement.

Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson said residents have long awaited a fresh start at that corner.

"Over the course of almost three decades, residents endured crime, blight, violence, and neglect — all while waiting for empty promises and false starts to produce something real," he said in statement.

Twitter: @AngelJennings

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