Marlton Square property emerges from bankruptcy; officials consider long awaited redevelopment

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Quyen Lovrich/KPCC

Los Angeles city officials announce that the long-stalled Marlton Square project in Baldwin Hills, Calif., is now out of bankruptcy. Officials touted it as a positive sign while some residents are skeptical that plans will go through as promised.

In South Los Angeles on Tuesday, city officials and business leaders announced that a parcel of land called Marlton Square has emerged from bankruptcy. That could clear the way for development people in the area have waited on for a long time.

It’s called Marlton Square now. But back when Martin Luther King Boulevard was called Santa Barbara Boulevard, the square used to be a shopping center known as Santa Barbara Plaza. More than a quarter of a century ago, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley called for the redevelopment of the large property adjacent to the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Mall. It’s been a mess ever since.

“I’ve only been in office since 2003, and yet I’ve been to at least four groundbreakings on this facility," said Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks standing in front of the Buckingham Place Senior Apartments. It’s the only structure in the area that looks new – because it’s not finished.

Some of Buckingham Place’s units already have carpeting and cabinets, but three years ago construction stopped on the affordable housing complex when its developer stopped paying contractors. L.A.’s Community Redevelopment Agency has bought some of the Marlton Square property and has brought on a new developer to finish Buckingham Place. Regional administrator Carolyn Hull said that’s just the beginning of a multi-use development its neighbors have waited for decades to see.

"The entire history of this project has been compromised by the fact that there were so many ownership structures and so many tenants over the years," Hull explained. "It was almost impossible to do any development on this project until you had site control. And that’s what we now have. But the most important thing for this community is to get rid of this blight."

With that, she pointed past garbage and a weedy field to old buildings on Santa Rosalia Drive. The plan is to tear them down, along with worn out structures on Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Seventy-two-year-old Barbara Alark was skeptical.

"One minute, they’re saying they going to be moving in and then about a month later, you see the fences up. Then two months later, they say it’s not gon’ move in: somebody ran off with the money," she said.

Alark has lived across the street from Marlton Square for 30 years. The abandoned buildings have attracted crime that’s made her feel unsafe at night, and she’s longed for businesses and restaurants within walking distance.

"As far as being a black person, they say, ‘try to keep your money in the community,’" she lamented. " Well, when you try to keep it in community, somebody comes along and tear it down. So I have to go to Beverly Center and Westwood and all those places out that way to get something decent."

Ken Lombard has built something decent down the street - and wants to do more. He’s president of Capri Urban Fund, owner of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Mall. Lombard says the blight of Marlton Square has made it hard to convince prospective investors that developing the property would be worth their while.

"Because as you come and they tour and they see this, it makes parts of the leasing story extremely difficult," he said.

Lombard was in business with former Laker star Magic Johnson, another businessman who took a crack at redeveloping Marlton Square and got bogged down in its complexity.

Some people consider the project "Exhibit A"of bad fiscal management by the Community Redevelopment Agency. But Lombard said the agency has hung in there through difficult times. LA City Councilman Bernard Parks, who’s running for reelection, was quick to defend the agency known as CRA, too.

“When we hear things such as ‘the state getting read to get rid of CRA, and all of the things to save, I will tell you personally, we would not be here today if CRA was not involved in this project," Parks said.

After this latest groundbreaking, the property’s neighbors say they’re eager to know where the development of Santa Barbara Plaza will be tomorrow.

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