Politics

Los Angeles: Leading the Nation in Vacant Lots

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Faster than you can say "We're from the government; we're here to help," along comes the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles with another expensive boondoggle that a) has already turned productive land fallow, b) has dragged on for decades without progress, c) destroyed a rare successful business in South L.A., and d) will almost certainly end up producing the one thing the CRA is good at producing: empty urban prairieland.

Once this building's gone, we'll have true economic justice.

Fall in love all over again with the Slauson Central Retail Center, a project that has been kicking around since the 1992 riots, and which is up for a new round of approvals and taxpayer soaking. The L.A. Times' Patrick McDonnell tries to tell a tale that—another hallmark of any deal involving the CRA—is about as straightforward as your intestines:

About $7 million in public subsidies are committed to the $15-million project, according to official figures. Advocates say it's worth it. They envision 300 "living-wage" jobs at a 6.5-acre site that is now a fenced-in eyesore at a busy intersection in South Central Los Angeles.

"What the community is going to get here is a wonderful reuse of an industrial site," said Jenny Scanlin, project manager for the Community Redevelopment Agency.

The agency seized the affected parcels through eminent domain from the former owners, including Kramer Metals, a family-run scrap-metal recycling business that has long been a fixture in the industrial zone.

As Ronald Reagan almost said, you can do a whole lot of nothing if everybody gets credit. The drivers of Central/Slauson include some of the greatest destroyers of wealth in California, among them the community group Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles (which has shown itself capable of making millions of dollars disappear [pdf] into a phantom soccer field) and Councilwoman Jan Perry (who has created more urban blight than any American since Col. Paul Tibbets).

But all you really need to know about this project is that the Community Redevelopment Agency is involved. The CRA's post-1992 involvement in South L.A. has produced a nearly unbroken string of million-dollar projects that don't get built. These projects come with big promises of affordable housing, high-end retail, world-class restaurants and private-public achievement. They proceed through costly subsidies and exploratory efforts. They nearly always involve eminent domain seizures of valuable land. They get gorged on by the friends and families of local politicians. And in the end, they produce vacant land.

The CRA maintains a euphemistic log of its failures, so you can see what I'm talking about. The 107-acre Watts Project has become nothing. The Normandie 5 Redevelopment Project has become nothing. The massive and heavily promoted Marlton Square project has become nothing. My personal favorite, the Vermont/Manchester project, has become nothing.

In this company, Central/Slauson has one distinguishing feature. Usually the CRA starves the project to death in two ways: The agency tempts the owner or owners of some unused land with promises of government support for a grandiose, Rick Caruso-style housing and retail project. At the same time, the city prevents the owner from building anything smaller and more sustainable through endless zoning demands, parking-space requirements and other nitpickery. When the CRA tires of tormenting its prey, it then seizes the land and ensures that it will remain empty forever. (That all of this happens in some of the poorest areas in L.A. County is just gravy.)

Here, however, Kramer Metals was an actual functioning business in this distressed neighborhood. It's now been shut down in favor of a hopeless project that makes no financial sense. So Perry, the CRA and the rest seem to have upped their game. They used to be satisfied just to prevent development in distressed areas. Now they're actively destroying stuff that's already there. For the most evil bureaucracy in America, that's a form of progress.