The Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to create an “urban village” of shops, town homes and a park and gardens to replace Jordan Downs, the notorious Watts housing project.
The unanimous vote gave final approval to a series of land use and planning laws years in the making. The move clears the way for an up to $1-billion transformation of one of the city’s most poverty-stricken and violent areas.
The idea is to turn the often-dangerous housing development of 700 derelict units into a mixed-income community of up to 1,800 stylish new apartments, along with chain stores and new streetscapes — all designed to attract higher-income people to move into the area and live alongside some of the city’s poorest.
To make it happen, city and housing authority officials last year hired a private development team, the for-profit Michaels Organization and the nonprofit Bridge Housing, to secure the funding, build the project and manage it when done. The retail portion will be handled by Primestor Development Inc., a Los Angeles company with a history of work in underserved areas.
“This is a great day for Watts,” said Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents the area. He called the plan “game-changing” and “life-changing” for the residents living in the 1940s- and 50s-era stucco buildings.
Some residents agreed.
“This is our opportunity to have our community built into a paradise,” said Socorro Diaz. “We have been promised and promised ... it’s time to take the next step.”
But there are still many hurdles before construction can begin. Chief among them is money. The city and the developers are counting on winning a $30-million federal grant, as well as millions of dollars available from the state.
If they don’t get those grants, the project would have to be scaled back significantly, said Douglas Guthrie, the head of the city’s housing authority.
The council vote also cleared the way for the grant applications to proceed. An $8-million grant was submitted to the state Wednesday morning; the federal Choice Neighborhoods grant application is due Sept. 10, and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority board is set to vote on awarding $5.7 million to extend Century Boulevard — a key part of the project — in late September.
U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro), who represents Watts and used to sit on the City Council, said she has already been lobbying for L.A.'s bid.
“There’s a lot of competing projects across the country that are all looking for federal dollars that seem to be getting scarcer by the day,” she said. “It will be a fight, but it’s worth fighting for.... We always looked at this as being not just better quality of life for the residents of Jordan Downs, but a chance for economic development throughout the region.”
Buscaino noted that developers could create up to 250,000 square feet of new retail space in Watts — an amount equal to nearly half the size of the shopping mall at the Grove in the Fairfax district. The project is expected to create up to 200 permanent new jobs, along with 6,400 jobs during construction, he said.
Still, some Jordan Downs residents said they fear they will be evicted to make way for wealthier residents.
“Tenants are worried about displacement,” said Thelmy Perez, a community organizer working with residents. She also criticized the council for approving the item without asking city planners or lawyers a single question during the hearing.
City and housing authority officials have repeatedly promised that, in contrast to what has happened in other cities where large public housing projects have been redeveloped, they will not carry out large-scale relocation of residents. Instead, officials have promised that the 2,300 Jordan Downs residents “in good standing” can stay in their old units until they move into new ones.
Officials reiterated that promise Wednesday, with Buscaino declaring that anyone with concerns should “worry not.”