In his search for money to balance the state budget, Governor Brown last year took aim at community redevelopment agencies or CRAs. They help fund new construction and affordable housing in neglected areas.
The governor and other critics say the agencies waste money and time. The legislature agreed, and voted to shutdown CRAs on February 1st.
But the end of community redevelopment agencies will leave a lot of projects in limbo – like one in South L.A. that's dragged on for years.
Back when Martin Luther King Boulevard was Santa Barbara Boulevard, this area was the Santa Barbara Plaza shopping center. Now it's "Marlton Square," and a year ago – on January 26th, 2011 – L.A. City Councilman Bernard Parks staged a news conference in front the only part that looked new: Buckingham Place, an affordable housing complex for seniors.
"I've only been in office since 2003," Parks told his audience then. "And yet I've been to at least four groundbreakings on this facility, and so we can see that those groundbreakings did not take us anywhere."
The 70-unit housing facility wasn't finished yet. Construction had stopped three years before when the developer stopped paying the contractors. But CRA-LA - the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles – stepped in and found a new developer to get the job done.
Bernard Parks (on January 26, 2011): When we hear things such as the state getting ready to get rid of CRA, and all of the things to save money, I will tell you personally, we would not be here today if CRA-LA was not involved in this project. :15
But that was a year ago and now we're just days away from the state's February 1st shutdown of CRA-LA and all the community redevelopment agencies in California.
And Buckingham Place ?
It's just about ready to move in its first seniors. Crews with contractor SC Anderson are putting on the finishing touches under the supervision of Ed Tyack. He says for several weeks, about 50 workers hustled so the project could meet a deadline for federal stimulus funds. The coming closure of the Community Redevelopment Agency added to the drama.
"Coming down to the line, we had daily inspections, which is very uncommon," said Tyack. "All inspectors came by our job site every single day to inspect whatever we had ready. It was during the holiday season. There was no holiday season for us other than Christmas Day and New Year's Day. That was it."
The recreation room on the ground floor of Buckingham Place opens out onto a neatly landscaped area with brand new barbecue grills and a sleek stone fountain. Carolyn Hull oversees the South Los Angeles region for CRA. She says seniors have been waiting for years for this facility, so it has to be nice.
"Despite the scenery on the Marlton Square side of it, you can see that this particular area is quite an oasis," said Hull.
Indeed, just outside the gates of Buckingham Place is the rest of Marlton Square: Twenty-two acres of muddy lots and buildings with windows boarded up or broken. Critics of redevelopment agencies say they‚re too quick to declare an area blighted. Carolyn Hull says those critics can't be talking about Marlton Square.
"In our area, as we look out, it is clear to us what blight means," she said. "And we have been working tirelessly to bring this community to a place where the blight is eradicated."
That's been a challenge at Marlton Square since 1984, when L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley called for its redevelopment. Developers have come and gone. Former Lakers star Magic Johnson even gave it a shot, but got bogged down in the Square's complexity.
When Tom Bradley sat here and talked about redeveloping Marlton Square, there were over 35 owners and 45 tenants at the site," said Hull. "That was a herculean task to bring that to a position to today, where there are three, four owners."
Hull says her agency has worked with those owners to bring in a new developer interested in turning Marlton Square into a mix of offices and retail space. But time is running out.
"It will be difficult after February 1st," said Hull. "CRA has been shepherding this project. We are in the midst of bringing something to this community that will bring over 600 jobs to this area, permanent jobs. Not to mention the 700 to 800 construction jobs that are now in jeopardy due to the nebulous status of CRA as of February 1st."
For now, the seniors lucky enough to land at Buckingham Place will have to make do with their apartments – and keep hoping that something good eventually will fill in the development desert that surrounds their Marlton Square oasis.