Zoning

Whole Lotta Nothing In L.A.

How the Community Redevelopment Agency is turning the City of the Angels back into a desert.

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How's this for bragging rights?

Big city real estate developers like nothing better than to point to a completed property, flush with tenants and thriving businesses, to justify the hardship, labor, and money that go into a major building project.

Yet here's how the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles, a 62-year-old agency that controls billions of dollars worth of L.A. property, describes its most important achievement on a development area valued at $111 million:

"CRA/LA successfully defended a legal challenge to our adoption of the Western Slauson Recovery Redevelopment Project Area."

Not impressed? Then check out this endzone dance in celebration of CRA achievement on a plot of land valued at more than $50 million:

"A master plan was completed to guide the redevelopment of the area's industrial core, bounded by Crenshaw Boulevard, Florence Avenue, Hyde Park Boulevard, and West Boulevard."

OK, but what about the CRA's yeoman work on the $279 million Marlton Square development in the city's Crenshaw district?

"After construction started on the senior housing units, the developer's legal and financial problems brought work to a standstill in early 2008. However, CRA/LA is working to resolve these issues."

These are just the projects for which the CRA even claims some achievement. In many cases the agency wisely says nothing at all.

The Community Redevelopment Agency describes its mission in terms that are as clear as the Salton Sea: "We make strategic investments to create economic opportunity and improve the quality of life for the people who live and work in our neighborhoods." But the agency is being modest. Its real goal, the one in which it has been spectacularly successful, is to turn Los Angeles back into a desert.

This is clear enough from the CRA's track record. You could not devise a better machine for creating and maintaining urban blight if you tried. The agency's board of directors—including such luminaries as the all-purpose activist and "living wage" crusader Madeline Janis * —is a nearly perfect collection of people who have never had to balance a checkbook.

The CRA's affinity for corrupt reverends, dubious community activists, and outright crooks is legendary: That developer with "legal and financial problems" in the Marlton Square debacle is the serial check bouncer and tax cheat Christopher Hammond, whose only visible skill is an ability to game the local political class. The agency's partner in the two-decade-old Slauson Central Retail Center project is the highly questionable community group Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, which has a long history of taking public money for projects that never get built.

Worst of all is the CRA's cockamamie funding mechanism, which relies on incremental property tax credits and thus ensures that it will be least effective in those areas it was set up to assist—the ones with the lowest land values. The agency's annual report [pdf] highlights successes in developments at Hollywood Blvd. and Vine Street (where Capital Records is), as well as Hollywood and Highland (where the Oscars ceremony is held). But take a ride down to the corner of Broadway and Manchester—a truly distressed area that remains undeveloped 18 years after the 1992 riots (or "civil unrest" in CRA language). There, we find that, "Redevelopment activities to date have been handicapped by the lack of significant tax increment funds."

Yesterday, L.A.'s city council approved—for the third time—an effort, girded by $7 million in public funds, to get a shopping mall built at the CRA's Slauson-Central project. If the past is any guide, the development will never be built, but the aftermath of the vote was interesting. L.A. Times reporter Patrick McDonnell provided a generally balanced view of the project, only to get the following rebuke from Concerned Citizens executive director Noreen McClendon, on a local list serve:

We were successful in getting this project approved for the third time today. The attempts to malign the reputation of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles did not work. The Los Angeles Times NEVER tells the whole story. When they discuss the court finding CCSCLA in breach of contract, what they don't say is that the City waited until there was approximately $5 million in eminent domain funds on the line to CLAIM a breach… The opponents of this project have paid the South Central Farmers, Jackie Sims formerly of the Watts Neighborhood Council, the Parents of Watts (Sweet Alice's folks) to come oppose our project. Not because we have done anything wrong, but simply to get paid. It is a shame that our folks are so hungry that they will take as little as $50 each to oppose a project in another neighborhood. Not to mention opposing a group of color working on behalf of low and moderate income people of color.

CCSCLA has been working diligently for 20 years to get this shopping center built. 

The only logical response to this is, "Twenty years is long enough. Time to let somebody else try." But that's a blink of an eye in CRA time. It's been nearly two decades since South L.A.'s civil unrest, or if you prefer, "economic referendum." Following the riot, the Community Redevelopment Agency, with enthusiastic support from local pols, was given a shockingly broad mandate to seize, assemble and develop land for development of high-end retail, housing, and restaurants. The CRA new controls nearly a billion dollars worth of real estate in South L.A., and almost none of it has been developed. 

They say failure is an orphan, but they're wrong. Everything the CRA touches generates a new class of illegitimate parents, as participants blame each other for the debacle. McClendon's complaint above is characteristic, but there are other hobgoblins. Eli Sasson, a developer who spent his own money to assemble several blocks of land for a development at Vermont Ave. and Manchester Ave., was denounced by Janis and other CRA officials in preparation for an eminent domain proceeding against him in 2008. Two years later, the status of the Vermont/Manchester project is cloudy, but the status of the project area is quite clear: Like almost all CRA areas, it is a vacant lot.

No less a figure than legendary Lakers point guard Magic Johnson served as a CRA scapegoat in 1999, when the itinerant local politician Mark Ridley-Thomas (then a city councilman, now a county supervisor) dumped him from the Marlton Square project in favor of the shady Chris Hammond. Then again, Magic is at a disadvantage in this game: He actually gets things built.

But the CRA, the Moriarty of public organizations, is the culprit at the scene of every crime. A bloated, self-perpetuating organization that turns poverty into penury; that could solve the budget deficit and revitalize the economy just by selling off its holdings and putting itself out of business; that elevates process over progress and political speech over any actual accomplishment; and that occasionally grabs the credit for successes private operators achieved in spite of the agency's interference: The CRA is more than just an L.A. problem. It's the perfect government agency.

Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to CRA Chairman Bruce D. Ackerman. Ackerman died August 26.

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  1. I don’t know for a fact the following is true. I lived in Morgan Hill CA for about 30 years. A friend who is a commercial realtor says the RDA accounts are corrupt and all cities run double books on these accounts.

  2. Uh, not to put too fine a point on it, but Tim posted on this himself the other day:

    https://reason.com/blog/2010/09…..the-nation

    1. But this was a wonderful, more in-depth expose’ on the horror that is CRA.

      Two thumbs up for both posts, which I’ve linked to my FB account, much to the choking, spittle-ridden, red-faced amusement of my Team Blue friends.

      Also, fuck California.

      1. I love it when you talk dirty to me.

    2. Yeah! Don’t be a lib-hatuh. An article this ballsy needs to be posted twice.

    3. I will certainly bookmark it or even subscribe to your rss feeds just to be updated on your new posts

  3. Bruce Ackerman, whom you mention as a director of the CRA, was neither a “corrupt reverend, dubious community activist, nor outright crook”. Mr. Ackerman, who passed away two weeks ago, was a leader among California’s economic development professionals and a very successful chief executive of several business and economic development organizations throughout his career. He most certainly knew how to balance a checkbook, in fact he was highly skilled at managing budgets. That he may have served with less qualified members of the CRA board does not diminish his contributions to the region or his credentials. You might want to check my opinion with Reason Foundation director David Fleming who I believe knew Mr. Ackerman well.

    1. Was Bruce Ackerman an embattled member of the CRA board?

      1. Thank you.

    2. Thank you for the correction. Article updated. My condolences to Ackerman’s friends and family.

    3. The glowing description you give of him says “CROOK” to me. Anyone that deep in the political shit has to be a crook. Al Capone gave out turkeys at Thanksgiving. A lot of mobster were active in the community and did a lot of charity work. They were still crooks. Same thing here.

  4. It’s the god damn sign ordinance. Send Drew Carey there. I don’t see why they can’t put a sign anywhere they want!

    1. Indeed. Sounds like they have plenty of empty lots – some signs might brighten them up.

      1. Big bright signs that say WE’RE SO FUCKED! and then some helpful neighbor could light them on fire for some extra light.

        1. I like the way you think, Meth

        2. In L.A. they probably would.

  5. Pretty typical when government agencies become the quasi-developer. City government’s across the nation are desperate to gentrify their downtowns. And more often then not, when they try to do it by force, this is the result.

  6. Hmmm. I think it’s “The City of Angels”. The “City of THE Angels” makes it sound like you’re talking about Anaheim.

  7. This result is unsurprising. Turning LA back into a desert and cramming the remaining people into as little land as possible (making their housing and retail shopping as expensive as possible) is in full accord with the anti-humanist “we need fewer people” left.

  8. The Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles is a 62-year-old agency …

    I’ve been told that there’s never been a redevelopment agency in California that has shut its operations down, no matter how old.

  9. Don’t you people understand that only intentions matter?

    You’re focusing on results. Results don’t matter. They’re always the fault of someone else.

    All that matters is the stated intent of the CRA.

    Once you get over your silly fixation on results, and focus only on intentions, will you be able to regress to the state of a mindless animal and call yourself a progressive.

  10. “Names Lanley – Lyle Lanley. I’ve sold monorails to Ogdenville, North Haverbrook, and Brockway.” Oh, wait, LA already has a monorail-thingie…

  11. Mr. Ackerman . . . was . . . a very successful chief executive of several business and economic development organizations throughout his career.

    So what did these organizations actually accomplish, again?

  12. So what did these organizations actually accomplish, again?

    Science, RC, try and keep up. They accomplished making Mr. Ackerman quite wealthy.

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  14. Thanks for pointing out the foolishness of having governments control development. I’m trying to decide how to divide the limited time that I have for protesting. For the next few Sundays, I’m joining the folks who support the right to build the Islamic Center at Ground Zero. After that I’m flying to Israel to try to get hired as a migrant construction worker. If I get hired, I’ll be building in Israel for several months. If not, I’ll be back near New York City. I also want to protest Colombia University’s expansion plan at some point. My heart goes out to the people displaced by the Brooklyn Yards project. If they have a rally, I might attend.

  15. that could solve the budget deficit and revitalize the economy just by selling off its holdings and putting itself out of business

    when the other parasites see such a fat host, it will be time to break that piggy bank open.

  16. I live in the heart of this area and now I understand a great many things. Thanks.

  17. Being corrupt is one thing, the mafia is corrupt. But the combination of corruption, incompetence and gall is incredible.

    Why aren’t these people in jail?

  18. I’m sorry, do we find returning LA to desert objectionable?

  19. Are you kidding me? LA is nothing but a bunch of suburbs filled w/ (guess what?) suburban mentality! It’s the most over-rated city(?) on the planet! There’s nothing there… BIG DEAL! you get to see someone “famous” sit next to you at a stop light, WOW!!!!!

    1. If you think theres nothing in Los Angeles then you’re probably basing this perception of the city on the (perhaps) 5% of the town that you visited or saw portrayed in movies. LA, actually the nation’s most dense metropolitan area, is home to an incredibly diverse, multi-ethnic and hardworking population. You can’t judge this vast city on something like the cab ride between LAX and beverly hills, which your comment seems to suggest. Just gotta defend a city that, in my mind, is constantly misrepresented and poorly understood!!

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