SOUTH-CENTRAL : 2 Local Developers Are Project Finalists

Two Los Angeles-based teams are among three finalists named to design and build a $15-million development expected to be the largest single private investment along Vermont Avenue in decades.

The developers are Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corp. and the Barker Pacific Group. They are competing with Caleb Development and related companies, a partnership that includes the architects Solomon Inc. of San Francisco, to develop a mixed-use project on a 75,000-square-foot parcel at 81st Street and Vermont Avenue.

The finalists were announced Thursday after a panel of six judges, including Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and John Outterbridge, the former director of the Watts Towers Art Center, narrowed the field from among 66 proposals after a nationwide search.

Community input and the need to have local companies take part in the project were among the priorities used by the panel in selecting the finalists, said Naomi Nightingale, one of the judges and a Vermont Knolls resident.

The development, which would include a mixture of low-income housing and commercial-use spaces, has sparked debate among residents of the largely middle-class Vermont Knolls neighborhood, some of whom argue that the project should be dedicated to the businesses needed to revitalize the area.

But supporters of the project say that critics have not presented an alternative. They point out that the development plans will include a commercial component.

"There is no competing alternative that is a viable project that anyone has been able to produce," Ridley-Thomas said. "The only other commercial-use proposal has been a swap meet, and that is totally unacceptable to me."

Opponents of the project, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) have said more low-income housing will not offer the economic stimulus needed to revitalize the depressed corridor.

First Interstate Bank officials, who are backing the project, said they remain confident that the project will go forward despite opposition from Waters.

"We're sensitive to this issue and we know there's a need to discuss and debate this in the community," said Bruce Willison, chairman of First Interstate. "There is ample evidence of support for this mixed-use project, and we feel very confident that a situation of commercial use only would not be appropriate for the site."

Although much of the project has yet to be finalized--including the type of businesses that would be housed at the site--proponents have promised that residents will have a say in the final plan.

A series of community meetings seeking input from residents is scheduled to begin June 22. The winning developer is expected to be announced by November, and groundbreaking could begin by early next year.

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