The question raised by Francisco Pinedo’s plans to turn a few square blocks of South-Central L.A. into the leading furniture design mart on the West Coast is this: Can the city of Los Angeles get out of its own way?
Pinedo, 40, is already responsible for one of the more striking real estate transformations the downtrodden community has ever seen. This is the conversion of four derelict brick warehouses and factories on South Western Avenue into the L.A. Design Center, an architectural landmark he opened last December to provide 80,000 square feet of showroom space for his company, Cisco Bros. Corp., and a few other custom furniture makers.
The $3-million project, the financing for which Pinedo arranged himself, has been such a success in attracting tenants, buyers and attention that he soon began drafting a grander plan -- to nearly triple its size, in part by acquiring an adjoining 80,000-square-foot parcel to the south. The idea was to bring more of the hundreds of small furniture shops in the community together into a critical mass, one-stop shopping for decorators looking for original wares, and to allow South-Central to escape its stereotype as a hub of nothing but despair.
That’s when he discovered that municipal officials had a different plan for the property: They want to use the site for a dog pound.
Now, Pinedo has nothing against animal shelters per se. The proposed South-Central facility, a $10.5-million project that would include 270 kennels, would help combat the community’s genuine problem with stray dogs.
But Pinedo argues, sensibly, that if the pound goes in, the prospects for the most ambitious commercial-industrial project in South-Central go out. There would be no room for the expansion he envisions, and no chance to mark the district as a source of creative excitement.
“My argument is that you can put an animal shelter anywhere else in this community,” Pinedo says. “But what are the chances to build a concentration of industry -- to grow an industry -- in this community?”
To Pinedo this is far from an abstract question. After emigrating from Mexico with his family at the age of 13, he grew up in South-Central, a few blocks east of the Design Center. When an accident left his father unable to continue working as a laborer, Pinedo quit school and found a job in an upholstery shop, eventually parlaying his experience into the local management of a national furniture company, and then into his own firm, seeded with $10,000 of savings in 1990.
To dodge competition from mass-produced furniture built overseas, Cisco Bros. serves an elite market of decorators and custom retailers. In the seven years since Pinedo moved his factory from Vernon to downtown L.A., around the corner from the Design Center, annual revenue has grown to nearly $20 million and the workforce has expanded from 50 to more than 200. Most of these skilled workers earn $12 to $15 an hour.
Pinedo estimates that Los Angeles firms account for 30% of the country’s custom furniture business. Except for the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood -- a showroom for more traditional manufacturers -- these makers lacked a place in Southern California to display their handiwork.
The L.A. Design Center was conceived as the kernel that would start changing that. With its loft-like showrooms, a modern art gallery and a sunny courtyard that serves as a parking lot by day and a venue for community events by night, it began to attract visitors from all over the country, while hinting at a bigger rehabilitation to come.
“This is what I’d call a catalytic development,” says Renata Simril, who worked with Pinedo as an official of the nonprofit group Genesis L.A. before landing an appointment as deputy mayor for economic development last month. “South L.A. deserves this kind of high-quality design that brings in a different quality of clientele. Cisco is really changing the idea of what’s possible.”
The city says it wasn’t aware of Pinedo’s intentions for expansion until he actually sought to buy the adjoining parcel. By that time, officials point out, planning for the pound was well underway, and the property was already subject to an eminent domain proceeding.
This is a fair enough defense, as far as it goes. But is it unreasonable to think that the city, whose search for a suitable location for the animal shelter consumed more than a year, might have considered the pound’s
effect on the neighbors? Did anyone notice an architecturally sophisticated $3-million renovation project going up next door to the chosen site?
The City Council voted to start the condemnation process in September 2002, when construction work on the Design Center had been going on for more than seven months. The decision “may not have been as thoughtful as it should have been,” concedes Councilman Bernard Parks, who represents the neighborhood.
Alternatively, once Pinedo’s design center started generating community buzz, why didn’t anyone from City Hall stop by and say something along the lines of: “Cisco, this is a spectacular and courageous development you’ve undertaken in the heart of South-Central. Is there anything we can do for you?”
It is on this latter point that Pinedo really faults the city. “It’s hard for them to believe someone’s doing this with no agenda in mind,” he told me last week. “They expected me to ask them for tax incentives. You can tell they’re very suspicious.”
Indeed, the city’s policy for economic development in South-Central sounds like something deprived of oxygen at a very young age. Parks, who only assumed his council seat this spring, writes on his Web site of persuading the fast-food chains inundating the neighborhood to build warehouses and the like along with their cheesy restaurants. I suppose no community can ever have enough warehouses, but that’s not much of a master plan.
People who have dealt with economic issues in South-Central say such pedestrian thinking is widespread. Part of the problem may be redevelopment fatigue: City leaders have heard so many grandiose ideas for the community from developers who failed to get them off the ground that they instinctively tune out most new pitches that come along.
The very uniqueness of Pinedo’s plan initially fed their mistrust. “People had a hard time getting their heads around it,” says Simril. “They found it hard to take at face value that here was a business owner, facing all the problems of workers’ compensation and everything else, who wasn’t picking up and moving to Arizona, but trying to build something in South L.A.”
In the months since Pinedo’s plans first collided with the animal shelter project, some progress has been made at City Hall. “Everyone’s finally come to grips with the idea” that an expansion of the design center should be favored over a dog pound at that location, Parks told me. Most of the agencies with a hand in the issue -- from the community redevelopment agency to City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo’s office, which is managing the condemnation process -- say they’re searching for ways to turn the situation into a “win-win,” say by finding an alternate site for the shelter.
Yet they also talk about how the dog pound project is continuing as planned “at this stage,” as though they’re trying to corral a runaway train. Because the city is set to acquire the site as of Dec. 31, and it’s illegal to condemn property for one purpose and subsequently devote it to another, the City Council must take some direct action before the end of the year to forestall the process.
“The city is very far along in the proceedings for the animal shelter,” warns Assistant City Atty. Cecilia Estolano, who has presented officials with an analysis of their legal options and is awaiting the council’s instructions.
If all this sounds as though finding a way to assist an innovative project in South-Central has paralyzed the municipal government, that’s not surprising. One source of Pinedo’s frustration is the disrespect he believes his community receives from City Hall. Certainly, one imagines that if the same problem arose on the Westside or in parts of the Valley, there wouldn’t be so much dithering over the legal issues because powerful interests would send out the order, in Winston Churchill’s words, for “action this day.”
South-Central is out of that loop. “Business only happens among people who know the system,” Pinedo says. “There’s a whole network of people out there, but no one’s reaching out to the guy making furniture on 60th Street.”
Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. Michael Hiltzik can be reached at golden .firstname.lastname@example.org.