In South L.A., there are more groundbreakings than ribbon-cuttings as commercial development lags

Betty Price was 14 years old when she visited the corner of Vermont and Manchester avenues to pick out the graduation dress she would wear in her junior high commencement.

Back then in the 1940s, the bustling intersection was lined with stores and restaurants, and Price, now 82, remembers her mother taking her there for shopping and the occasional meal.  

But time has not been kind to Vermont and Manchester. Decades of urban decay and the 1992 riots left the shopping district abandoned. The property is empty, save for a homeless camp. Last month, a transient set two people on fire here. 

Hope came a year ago when former Councilman Bernard C. Parks broke ground on the football field-sized property to mark a promised development of a $100-million entertainment district to rival L.A. Live.

The development is seen as a key test about whether the building boom that has brought massive new developments across Los Angeles can extend to the Southside.

South Los Angeles, which has some of the city’s poorest communities, has seen several major revitalization projects over the years announced only to see them stall.

Residents have long complained about a lack of quality shopping – notably supermarkets – in their neighborhoods. The city has designated parts of region as “food desert” and changed zoning rules to discourage fast-food restaurants and encourage supermarkets and more upscale restaurants. Studies, however, have found the effort has seen mixed results.

Some in the Vermont Knolls area are already worried about the Manchester Avenue project, seeing little progress since the big announcement.

“Everybody got excited,” Dana Gilbert, 57, said. Now, “everybody is losing faith again. It’s like being in a dream, where you want it to come true but knowing it won’t.”

The property owner, Eli Sasson, insists that he will build a world-class destination that will revitalize the neighborhood and create hundreds of jobs. He said the so-called Vermont Entertainment Village – which in artist renderings feature an open-air promenade with retailers like Urban Outfitters and Nike – will get back on track after some delays.

Three weeks ago, permits for seven structures of various levels for proposed retail, restaurant and supermarket space were submitted to the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, and they were “waiting for a soil report and approval letter to be submitted for plan check review.”

“My credibility is on the line,” Sasson told The Times last week. “I didn’t want to do the groundbreaking. But out of respect for the councilman, I did. That hurt, in a way, what I’m doing. We promised too early. We announced too early. I’m more of a do-er guy.”

But since then, the project seemed to enter into a kind of limbo. Price said that when she drives past the lot on her way to the doctor’s office and to the Crenshaw Christian Center, a 7,400-member church her husband founded, she feels sadness.

Price asked her daughter: “What’s going on with my project?”

Sasson said some of the holdups involve complications due to the need to reroute electrical wiring. 

He said he’s working with Congresswoman Maxine Waters to move the process along.

Harris-Dawson’s office said Sasson did not give a reason for the cancellation, and that the councilman was not scheduled to attend that meeting. 

Department of Water and Power spokeswoman Ellen Cheng said the agency met with designers of the proposed project in April and have been in regular email correspondence since then to discuss plans to move power lines that are over the property. However, she said DWP is not the reason for the holdup.

“Any delay on the project is not due to that,” she said.

Price’s daughter, Angela Evans, 59, said she has not given up hope that the corridor will return to the beautiful metropolis of her mother's childhood. Other neighborhoods similar to theirs -- USC and the corner of Slauson and Western avenues – have experienced renaissances.

“When? When? Can this happen for us?” she asked. “I believe it can happen because you see it around.”


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