Preference for Blacks Sought in Crenshaw Mall Project

Times Staff Writer

With thousands of jobs and millions of dollars at stake, Crenshaw community leaders are demanding that blacks be given preference in the construction and operation of the new Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza, a $120-million shopping mall in the predominantly black area.

The joint venture by Los Angeles and the Alexander Haagen Co. is aimed at transforming the aging Crenshaw regional shopping center into a modern, fully enclosed mall capable of competing with popular shopping centers on the Westside and elsewhere.

Crenshaw community leaders, however, are not just pushing for another place to shop. They want the mall to be a source of jobs, leases and investments for blacks.

Mayor Tom Bradley, whose office has nurtured the project for more than six years, and the developer said they have the same ambition for the mall and that they are involved in a massive recruiting effort to attract more blacks. But critics contend that they are running out of time to keep their promises, especially with completion of the project only a year away.

"The problem is we just haven't seen it," said Anthony M. Essex, vice president of the Los Angeles branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. "And the bottom line is that more of the major players at this mall are going to have to be black folks. If not, then they will have a $120-million white elephant on their hands because we will boycott it until every tenant pulls out."

Essex and others said that the problem started in June when it was discovered that few of the demolition workers on the site were black. The Los Angeles Urban League, which has its headquarters in the Crenshaw community, conducted a count and found 26 whites, 20 Latinos and only 4 blacks.

"When we saw the first work force representing every racial and ethnic group except ours, that is when we hit the ceiling and raised hell," said John Mack, Urban League president.

Mack was also annoyed because none of the 300 candidates that his organization recommended to the contractor, Bayley Construction, were given jobs. He said he was told that they were placed at the end of the hiring list behind union members.

"The Urban League and our Crenshaw constituents will not stand idly by and allow unemployed blacks to be discriminated against by Bayley Construction, the union or any other party," he wrote in a July 9 letter to the contractor.

In addition to the concern over construction jobs, black store owners, who were interested in opening businesses in the mall, have complained that it has been difficult to obtain information from the developer. "Many still don't know what it takes to get into the mall," Essex said. Also, the project has been the subject of rumors that the Haagen firm is courting Asians as tenants instead of blacks.

These problems and more began to surface last month when it was also disclosed that the tentative agreement by the Haagen Co. to sell up to half of its share in the project to a wealthy black family for $15 million had collapsed. Haagen is negotiating with another group of black investors.

Growing Complaints

In response to a growing number of complaints, the city, the developer and the Urban League, which has a contract with the city to provide public information on the project, have been holding weekly meetings to find ways to increase the number of blacks involved in the project. They also convened meetings with neighborhood residents to discuss job and business opportunities at the mall.

"We are listening (to the complaints); we are not only listening, we are performing," said Andrew J. Natker, who heads the project for the Haagen Co. "We have literally been calling (minority) subcontractors to get them to submit bids, everyone is pitching in to make this a showcase. There is still lots of time; we haven't built anything yet. We are still pushing dirt around out there."

Natker said that critics have been too quick to judge the project. For example, he said, the project is exceeding its goal of having 25% of the construction work go to firms owned by women and members of minority groups.

Minority Participation

Of the $9.6 million in construction contracts awarded to date, minority- and women-owned firms have received amounts totaling $3.8 million or roughly 42%, according to figures released this month by the Community Redevelopment Agency. Included in the minority contract figures are six black-owned companies that have been awarded nine construction contracts totaling $1.2 million.

Natker said the Haagen Co. is negotiating leases with 26 minority-owned stores, including 22 black-owned stores.

"We are probably negotiating more with black tenants than we are with the national chain stores, and I feel very strongly that soon the majority of the workers on the project will be black," he said.

In all, more than 1,000 construction workers will be needed to build the mall, and about 3,500 workers to operate it. The Community Redevelopment Agency estimated that minority workers, mostly blacks, will hold more than half of the 1,000 construction jobs, based on current trends.

Under the joint venture in which the Haagen Co. and the Community Redevelopment Agency are partners, Haagen backed the project with $30 million, the redevelopment agency contributed $15 million, and the city Community Development Department added another $6 million.

Agency Monitors Project

The redevelopment agency agreed to monitor the hiring by the Bayley firm, the general contractor, to make sure that 28.3% of the jobs go to minorities and 6% to women.

However, in the Crenshaw community, where more than 80% of the population is black, a goal of 28.3% is considered by many to be unacceptable, leading to fears that the developer will bring in Asians and Latinos to fulfill his obligation to minorities.

Bradley sought to allay those fears at a recent NAACP meeting where he defended Haagen, saying that the developer had built two successful shopping malls in predominantly black areas--one in Watts and the other at Vermont and Slauson avenues.

"We are making an extra special effort to encourage the black community's participation in the construction phase, the rental and operation of the shopping center," Bradley told the gathering.

"If it were an 85% Hispanic community, then Hispanics would come forward and get those kinds of agreements (jobs)," he said. "I have no problem whatsoever in assuring people that in this case, it being a predominantly black community, that blacks are going to get those stores and jobs."

Bradley May Have Erred

Basil Kimbrew, a Crenshaw area businessman who attended the meeting, said Bradley may have erred by relying only on Haagen's verbal agreement to give blacks preference.

"It may turn out to be the biggest risk Bradley has taken," Kimbrew said.

The frustration over the lack of job opportunities was expressed by black job applicants who attended a seminar with union officials at the Urban League headquarters during the summer.

"I think many of the people who showed up were misled," said Willie Robinson of Laborers Union Local 300. "They were told they would work on the site but no one told them it was a union job and that they had to join the union and that there were no guarantees that they would work on that site."

To give blacks preference, "We would have to overcome longstanding (hiring) practices, which is not as easy as it sounds," said Richard Benbow, deputy for equal opportunity and contract compliance for the Community Redevelopment Agency..

Some of the construction trades, he added, have agreed to help identify eligible black workers for the project and to bend regulations to allow more apprentices on the work site.

Galanter Hears Concerns

In the meantime, City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, in whose district the mall is located, has been meeting with a number of community representatives to listen to concerns about the project.

In a letter to the Haagen Co., Galanter criticized the "lack of viable community participation" in the publicly funded project. She asked that rent subsidies and other forms of assistance be given to help local businessmen move into the mall and she called for guarantees that 60% of employees hired will be local residents.

The new mall will blend the art deco designs of the existing Broadway and May Co. stores, both built in 1947, with a planned Sears store. The enclosed mall will have 120 shops and will extend across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Forty years ago, the Crenshaw shopping center was among the nation's first regional shopping centers. But years of neglect and a reputation of shoddy merchandise drove many customers out of the community to shop in Beverly Hills, Westwood and Santa Monica.

The success of the mall will depend on its ability to bring back the thousands of shoppers from the largely black middle- and upper-middle-class communities of View Park, Baldwin Hills, the Crenshaw district, Leimert Park and other areas within a three-mile radius, where the average household annual income is $34,000, according to the developer.

Seek Community Support

For that reason, the city and the developer are seeking the support of the community.

According to Wilfred L. Marshall, director of the Mayor's Office of Small Business Assistance, the city has mounted a major effort to recruit black businesses for the new mall.

"We've been to Topanga Canyon, we've been to Lynwood, Redondo Beach, Venice, Sylmar, all over looking for black folks who might want to relocate," he said.

The one factor in which the city and developer acknowledge that there is a problem is in finding blacks to invest in the project. Haagen said he is negotiating with a group of investors following the breakdown in talks with Patrick Brown and his family, owners of a scrap metal business, a construction company and small grocery store.

Brown said the deal unraveled when Haagen refused to relinquish his control over leasing and management.

Dispute Over Terms

"It boils down to what we are going to get for our $15 million," Brown said. "Our agreement said that we would get 50% of his (Haagen's) position, but they would not give us 50% of the money made from leasing and management."

Natker said the Haagen Co. would not agree to give up control over the leasing and management of the mall. The fee for management is one of the few areas where a mall generates an immediate financial return.

"From our standpoint, the deal is over," Natker said. "They could put a cloud over the whole thing by filing a lawsuit, but right now we don't have a contract; we don't have an agreement; we don't have anything."

Natker said the Haagen Co. is negotiating with another group of investors. If that fails, he said, the developer is willing to turn over 10% of his interest to a nonprofit group from the community and will promise to pay the group $50,000 a year.

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