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City is stuck with a vacant eyesore

The affordable-housing project known as Buckingham Place has stood vacant for nearly a year, surrounded by a dirt lot, a chain-link fence and some very unhappy neighbors.

Community leaders in South Los Angeles call the 71-unit apartment building an eyesore. Electricians, plumbers and others who worked on it are owed millions of dollars. And at least a few elderly low-income residents who turned in rental deposits have not gotten their money back.

Although the structure is more than 90% finished, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, which provided $8.5 million in federal funds for the project, cannot hire another company to finish it because the site is tied up in bankruptcy court.

Months before the national recession halted real estate projects across Los Angeles, Buckingham Place had become a four-story monument to failure, a stuccoed symbol of the city’s disastrous effort to revitalize a stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard just west of Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in South Los Angeles.

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The building is a small portion of the 22-acre redevelopment project known as Marlton Square, which was approved by the Los Angeles City Council seven years ago but stalled after the developer was enveloped by financial woes. Work stopped in January 2008.

City officials have begun searching for a new company to build Marlton Square, which was supposed to offer restaurants, stores and hundreds of market-rate condominiums. First, however, they must finish the lonely building at Buckingham Place, which was originally envisioned by the developer, Buckingham Place Senior Housing LP, as three separate structures with 180 apartments for low-income seniors.

CVE Affordable Housing Partners is the general partner of Buckingham Place Senior Housing. In campaign contributions and court documents, real estate developer Christopher Hammond is listed as chief executive of Capital Vision Equities, a related company. Hammond did not respond to several requests for comment.

Redevelopment officials said they have made progress in talks to restart the project, meeting with its primary lender, Hanmi Bank, and a major creditor, the construction company S.C. Anderson Inc. Any agreement must be approved by a bankruptcy judge and go back to the redevelopment agency board for approval, a process that could take until March.

“All I can really say is that all three parties have a vested interest in having an agreement,” said Carolyn Hull, the redevelopment agency official responsible for South Los Angeles.

Of the three buildings proposed for Buckingham Place, one has not been started and a second has only a concrete foundation. But the third is so close to completion that it has appliances, carpeting and cabinets. Work remains, however, in the building’s hallways, stairwells and trash rooms.

Even in its nearly completed condition, the building has become a subject of derision, with one elected official calling it ugly and poorly built.

“The building, when you look at it, does not give you any indication that it’s well constructed or will be with us for many years. It’s a very cheaply constructed facility,” said City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who represents the Crenshaw area. It “was not the quality of architecture and craftsmanship that people were longing for.”

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Parks said he fears that portions of Buckingham Place were so shoddily built that a new developer may have to dismantle some parts of it. Redevelopment officials said they don’t believe that will be necessary.

Either way, construction cannot resume until the city has forged an agreement with the various parties that have filed lawsuits over the project. At least three companies have forced Buckingham Place Senior Housing into involuntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy documents for the project show a list of creditors and interested parties: companies that provided lumber, scaffolding, concrete, plumbing, engineering and construction services, among others.

Some of the smaller businesses say they have been devastated by their involvement in the project.

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Mel Freeman, owner of Modesto-based Mel L. Construction, said payments from the developer of Buckingham Place stopped in May 2007. Freeman said he remained on the job for eight months after receiving an array of promises from the developer. One was that workers would be paid once the first building was finished, he said.

“It harmed the company. It harmed me personally. It harmed me financially,” he said. “It’s in the process of wrecking my life.”

Marcus Beale, owner of Inter Faith Electric & Fire, said he is owed $286,000 for work on Buckingham Place. Last year, Beale put his Sylmar home up for sale in hopes of stabilizing his business.

“I was forced to basically sell my house to get the equity to stay above ground,” said Beale, who stopped work on the project in November 2007.

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Around the time Beale gave up on the developer of Buckingham Place, retired office worker Gloria Sanders was talking to a management company about a one-bedroom apartment. Sanders, 63, sent in a $535 deposit, plus $35 for her credit check, in November 2007.

After that, her phone calls went unreturned.

“I don’t know what [the developer’s] problem was . . . but it’s not right. It’s just not right,” said Sanders, who called Parks’ office asking for help. “I either want an apartment or my money back, because somebody’s got to be responsible.”

Redevelopment officials said that they have received numerous complaints from seniors who put themselves on the Buckingham Place waiting list in hopes of getting a one- or two-bedroom apartment. For now, they believe that three low-income seniors lost their deposits.

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Hull, the redevelopment official, said her agency had nothing to do with rental deposits, calling it a matter “between the developer and the potential tenants.”

The redevelopment agency moved to foreclose on the property in July, concluding that the developer would never meet the terms of its agreement with the city, said Deputy City Atty. Curtis S. Kidder. Buckingham Place Senior Housing defaulted on the $8.5-million loan provided by the redevelopment agency because it failed to finish the first building and defaulted on a separate construction loan from Hanmi Bank, Kidder said.

Had the company completed the project, it would not have had to repay the loan if the project had generated no profit. The federal government also has the power to forgive the loan once the project is completed, Kidder said.

Although redevelopment officials attempted to arrange an auction of the property, that was put on hold once creditors forced the company into involuntary bankruptcy, Kidder said. Redevelopment agency lawyers tried to jump-start talks three months ago, warning in court documents that the city could lose another opportunity to regain $13.7 million in tax credits for the project if the various parties did not reach an agreement.

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“There are only two rounds of tax credits per year, and if this round is missed, another six months will pass before the next round,” the city’s lawyers wrote. “Another six months that the development will lie fallow. Another six months of deterioration, vandalism and carrying costs.”

In the meantime, residents around Buckingham Place continue voicing their dismay to their local neighborhood council, formally known as the Empowerment Congress West Area Neighborhood Development Council. Damien Goodmon, the council’s co-chairman, said the project is a monstrosity and has drawn sharply negative reviews from his neighbors.

“Any time someone mentions tearing it down and starting over, there’s loud applause,” he said.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com


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