SOUTH-CENTRAL : Shopping Center Plan in Jeopardy

A little-used stretch of tracks threatens to derail plans for a shopping complex that area residents hope will bring much-needed services and jobs.

"There's no major shopping center east of the Harbor Freeway; we need this (project)," community activist Juanita Tate said of the proposed project at Slauson and Central avenues.

Tate, executive director of Concerned Citizens of South-Central Los Angeles, said the $12.5-million project will transform the run-down corner into a one-stop service outlet complete with a grocery store, laundry facility and perhaps a bank. The complex would be the area's largest retail center and provide 250 permanent jobs. In addition, construction is expected to create temporary work for 100.

But all that may never come to pass unless Southern Pacific Rail Corp. and two nonprofit groups spearheading the project can agree on scrapping an 800-foot-long rail spur that bisects the site of the proposed complex.

On the west side of the spur lies a four-acre scrap yard whose owners are members of the development group planning the center. Owners on the other side, however, recently lost the three-acre lot to foreclosure, and their creditors--eager to unload the site as quickly as possible--have put the property on the market.

Therein lies the problem.

Investors backing the shopping center refuse to finance purchase of the foreclosed property unless Southern Pacific abandons its rights to the rail spur.

So the race is on to coax the railroad into giving up the 23-foot-wide crescent of land before a vital portion of the project site is sold off.

If that happens, developers say, the project is dead.

Development consultant Sherri Franklin said the scrap yard property alone isn't big enough to accommodate a 52,000-square-foot center and amenities.

Scaling down the center would be difficult, Franklin said, because the project's private investors have agreed to finance only a large shopping complex. Any change in plans would require finding a new group of investors, she said.

What's more, the project stands to lose a $500,000 federal grant if ground isn't broken by the end of September.

For more than two years, Kramer's nonprofit group has been working with Concerned Citizens to bring a shopping center to the area. Residents must now travel at least four miles to a store.

Lewis Kramer, president of the South-Central-based revitalization group Incore, says Southern Pacific has signaled willingness to part with the rail spur but only on condition that Kramer's group take control of all the company's seldom-used rail lines in the area.

Southern Pacific operates roughly 14,000 feet of rail lines in a 137-acre industrial area that Kramer's group hopes to revitalize through creation of an assessment district to pay for beautification projects and beefed-up security. The site of the proposed shopping center lies in the northeast corner of the area that Incore hopes will one day be an industrial park.

Kramer says his group doesn't have the money to take on all the rail property and won't do so unless the City Council approves the assessment district, an issue that may go before the council in the summer.

Charles Gamble of Southern Pacific would not comment on the railroad's position.

Meanwhile, a for sale sign hangs on the foreclosed property at Slauson and Central, and proponents of the shopping center hope the poster-board announcement stays put.

Said Kramer: "This is the last, best chance for this community to have the shopping center it deserves."

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