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Tug of War Over Revitalizing Vermont : Development: A political feud has erupted. Councilman Ridley-Thomas backs a housing and retail complex on the avenue. Rep. Waters says low-income housing should go elsewhere in the city.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A bank’s plan to finance an ambitious low-income housing complex in South-Central Los Angeles is swiftly emerging as a battle royal between two of the city’s top African American political heavyweights.

In one corner stands City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who hails the $10-million-plus First Interstate Bank proposal as the largest single private investment along blighted Vermont Avenue since Pepperdine University departed for Malibu more than two decades ago. Ridley-Thomas, who envisions the development as a housing and retail complex that would function as a flagship for the neighborhood, is serving on a judging panel for a statewide architectural competition to design the complex.

Leading the opposition is Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who says a strictly commercial use is essential for the 75,000-square-foot parcel, located just two blocks from her Spanish-style home in the middle-class Vermont Knolls neighborhood. Waters has sponsored community meetings and led the first of what she says will be a series of noisy public demonstrations. She has spearheaded an effort to offer funds received from the federal government by a riot recovery agency to buy up the bank’s option on the land.

The issue has led to charges of a “not-in-my-back-yard” mentality in a neighborhood far removed from the suburban communities that generally raise a stink about low-income housing being built in their neighborhoods. It has also provoked simmering questions about the relative responsibility of urban and suburban communities to house the poor, raised planning issues concerning the best means of redeveloping a chronically depressed commercial corridor, and cast a spotlight on a long-festering political feud between Ridley-Thomas and Waters.

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“I wish the relationship was such that our constituents would benefit in ways they are not currently benefiting,” Ridley-Thomas said. “The community deserves new housing stock.”

Waters counters that the councilman is misguided, that “my neighborhood has plenty of low-income housing already,” and that Vermont Avenue should be the subject of a sustained redevelopment effort that would turn the thoroughfare into a South-Central version of Old Town Pasadena or Santa Monica’s equally popular Third Street Promenade.

“We have gotten caught in the middle,” said First Interstate spokesman Rich Wyler. “Our intention is to sponsor a project the community will welcome. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll have 100% support anywhere.

“But we remain committed to the project.”

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First Interstate, one of many banking institutions long criticized for a dearth of inner-city investment, has pitched the 130-unit development as a centerpiece for the South-Central neighborhood and a model for projects that would spur private investment in neglected communities.

“We’re forging new ground here,” Wyler said.

The parcel in question consists of an empty lot and the long-vacant Pepperdine administration building at 81st Street and Vermont, an Art Deco landmark that will almost surely be incorporated into the final design of the housing and commercial complex.

To enhance the project’s quality, First Interstate launched a design competition last month headed by architect Donald Stastny, who has managed competitions to design the imposing Beverly Hills Civic Center and the far-out Walt Disney Concert Hall now under construction in Downtown Los Angeles.

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A judging panel will trim the field of 66 architects who have expressed interest. Three finalists, who would link up with affordable housing development organizations to produce joint entries, will each receive $25,000 from First Interstate to develop proposals.

The winner is scheduled to be selected in July.

The bank, which has pledged to finance the construction contract of $10 million to $14 million, would be paid back through government subsidies and rents on the low- and-moderate income units.

The concept fits into the broad guidelines of a 1992 Urban Land Institute report that recommended a mix of commercial and residential development to revitalize the Vermont corridor.

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“We basically felt that just a strip of commercial development is not the best approach,” the institute panel’s chairman, Smedes York, a former mayor of Raleigh, N.C., said in an interview. "(And) certainly affordable housing is a key component of any plan.”

The institute’s report suggested that the former Pepperdine building could become the focal point of a theater, dining and entertainment district along Vermont. But York said the panel was not wedded to any specific use for each building on the wide thoroughfare, which divides the well-kept Vermont Knolls enclave from a scruffy neighborhood of blighted apartments and houses to the east.

“The city, the county and many organizations have been very supportive” of the project, said First Interstate’s Wyler. “It’s interesting that someone who can be so critical of lack of investment in the community now is so critical of investment in the community,” he added without referring to Waters by name.

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However, Waters, who as an assemblywoman urged increased state funds for low-income housing, maintains that residents are staunchly opposed to this project.

With an 11% rental housing vacancy rate in her neighborhood, Waters said, government funds instead should go to rehabilitating structures.

“I’ve got low-income housing to the south of me,” she said. “And to the north of me. We just don’t need any more piled up on us.”

For too long, Waters added, inner-city neighborhoods have been saddled with the burden of accepting subsidized housing for the poor.

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“What we need to do is spread (new) low-income housing throughout the greater Los Angeles area,” she said. “The earthquake has just created a need for housing and the possibility of new locations for low-income housing. They have a great opportunity to go north to Reseda and Granada Hills.”

While insisting that her beef is with the bank rather than Ridley-Thomas, Waters said the councilman “is doing what elected officials normally do.”

“If a private individual comes along and says they want to do a project, elected officials will say sure. What they envision is they’re going to be able to cut a ribbon and say we’ve put in housing. They don’t think about or care whether it’s commercial land or whether they should be doing some planning.”

With the median family income of Vermont Knolls roughly equivalent to the citywide average (more than twice the $14,000 annual figure of the census tract to the east), Waters said the neighborhood can support additional commerce.

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“We need and would like to have things such as a bookstore, a bakery, a floral shop, restaurants, a mini-theater,” she said.

Last month, Waters and residents of her neighborhood met with Mayor Richard Riordan and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and won pledges of city and federal assistance to help prepare an overall community development plan for the Vermont corridor.

Waters said Community Build Inc., the agency she created and for which she helped win $3 million of funding after the 1992 riots, could serve as the vehicle for undertaking development projects. Recently, Waters introduced neighborhood groups to a Cleveland-based developer interested in putting together a multimillion-dollar financial package to fund extensive commercial development along the Vermont corridor.

In a letter to First Interstate last month, Community Build President Brenda Shockley offered to purchase the bank’s option on the former Pepperdine lot and suggested that the bank “join with Community Build and others to design the most attractive and feasible commercial development for the site.”

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Waters said last week that the offer is still on the table. “They can take my check for $90,000,” she said. “I’ll give it to them tomorrow.”

Waters added that there would be no problems using the federal monies granted to Community Build--which has yet to develop a significant project--to purchase the option. “It’s exactly what it’s for--economic development.”

Ridley-Thomas counters that the offer is, at best, just talk.

“The problem to date is that Community Build has not performed,” the councilman said. “So what level of confidence ought we have that they can deliver?”

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Ridley-Thomas said the First Interstate project is a major step in stimulating commercial investment and for improving living conditions.

“In my council district, most housing is pre-World War II,” he said. “Revitalization means you build modern structures. The biggest impediment to building is financing. And here we have a bank that has guaranteed up to $14 million of first-class affordable housing and commercial development.”


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