Stores vs. Houses: Feud Flares Anew in USC Neighborhood
A row over progress has erupted anew in North University Park, an island of architectural grace in the midst of a struggling neighborhood near USC. The dispute is dividing neighbors, pitting one Catholic priest against another and irritating racial sensitivities.
At issue is a proposed shopping center and the question of whether it is more important to the surrounding community than the homes that would have to be removed to accommodate the center. Besides eliminating at least 20 homes in the midst of a citywide housing shortage, the shopping center would change the character of a unique neighborhood.
North University Park boasts one of the largest concentrations of Craftsman-style bungalows and late 19th-Century Victorian houses in the city. Part of the neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The community faces a dilemma: Stores versus houses, both of which are needed in that part of town. The number of supermarkets in South-Central Los Angeles has shrunk from 55 to 30 over the last three decades.
The trend has made it much harder for the area’s many poor people to find food they can afford. A new supermarket would anchor the proposed North University Park shopping center.
Los Angeles City Councilman Robert Farrell, who represents the area, is the leading advocate of the shopping center. Two years ago, he asked the Community Redevelopment Agency to acquire by condemnation, if necessary, the land needed for the shopping center. At that time, Farrell envisioned a six-acre development that would displace 34 homes.
On Wednesday, the CRA unveiled two compromise plans for the shopping center. One plan would remove 21 houses and allow for four acres of commercial development. The second plan would eliminate 22 houses and make way for 4.7 acres of new development. The CRA proposes to move any threatened historic homes--up to five would be affected--to nearby locations.
Farrell spoke Wednesday at a CRA board meeting in favor of the more ambitious of the two compromise plans.
He said the larger development would generate more rental income for the developer and mean more shops and lower prices for consumers.
“You have to look at what benefits the most people. The more commercial space we have, the more shopping options we have. Right now, the consumers in that area don’t have the money or the options people in other parts of the city have.”
Officials of the CRA said Wednesday that the agency is prepared to help offset the costs of the shopping center by offering financial assistance to the developer, particularly if the project is limited to four acres.
“We’re going to push as hard as we can to make the private developer put as much into this as possible, but we may be offering some financial assistance,” CRA official Oscar Jauregui said.
The center would be developed jointly by the Boys Market grocery chain and Danny Bakewell, a prominent entrepreneur and civic activist. Boys Market has contributed $6,500 to Farrell’s campaigns since 1985. Farrell said at the meeting that he also has received campaign contributions from the project’s opponents.
Opponents of the shopping center contend that the CRA would be abusing its authority by subsidizing financially capable developers, by condemning homes during a housing shortage and by changing the face of a neighborhood that is not blighted and does not need to be redeveloped.
“The plan violates redevelopment law,” said Sarah Foster, a resident of Menlo Avenue in North University Park who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting.
Foster was one of several North University Park homeowners, all white, who spoke against the shopping center. They said they represented about 300 area homeowners, most of whom they said were black and Latino.
Bakewell criticized the homeowners for refusing to accept either of the CRA’s proposed compromises and said they were putting the interests of architectural preservation ahead of the needs of poor minority residents.
“I am not willing to preserve anything at the expense of black people or Hispanic people,” said Bakewell, who, like Farrell and most others who spoke in favor of the shopping center, is black.
The proponents characterized their adversaries as newcomers to the community, uninterested in its social well-being, who were speculating in the local housing market.
The meeting, which was attended by an overflow audience, was often the scene of intemperate remarks.
Mary Henry, director of a South-Central Los Angeles community center, ridiculed the preservationists as “nomads,” “carpetbaggers” and “a bunch of aesthetic fanatics.”
In reply, opponents of the shopping center said they were being made the targets of “reverse racism”.
Father Robert Walsh, representing a Jesuit novitiate on Menlo Avenue, said the shopping center would take two of the three buildings occupied by the novitiate and put an end to the social work done by the Jesuits in the surrounding community.
But Father Clint Farbaugh, pastor of nearby St. Agnes Catholic Church, said the majority of of the 1,000 mostly Latino families who belong to his parish are in favor of the shopping center.
“The issue is people versus houses,” Farbaugh said.
The CRA is scheduled to make its final recommendation on the matter early next month. After that, it will be up to the City Council to resolve the fight.