Since the 1920s, the Sears Roebuck building has sparkled as a Boyle Heights landmark — 11 stories tall. Several football fields wide. An Art Deco treasure that draws tourists.
But inside, there isn't much to see. Sears shut down what was one of its biggest distribution centers two decades ago when its mail order business dried up. A retail store still operates on the ground floor, but the rest of the building is gutted and covered in grit.
Ulisses Sanchez is unfazed. "I just see a lot of endless opportunity," he said.
Sanchez works for the development team that wants to transform the 1.8 million sq.foot building into a mix of shops, offices and more than 1,000 apartment rentals. Tenants would enjoy central air and heat insulation, and have access to a swimming pool, tennis courts, lounges.
"We don’t see that here on the Eastside, at least not when it comes to major development projects," Sanchez said.
It's more like what you would find in the Arts District on the other side of the L.A. River. But the planned reproduction of downtown living on such a large scale has raised concerns about gentrification in this working-class, predominantly Latino community of more than 90,000.
"It would be the very first project that jumps the river," said Maria Cabildo of the East LA Community Corporation, which builds affordable housing. "And I think for that reason it deserves to be heavily scrutinized by the community."
Ulisses Sanchez makes a presentation about the redevelopment plan for the historic Sears building at a meeting of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council.
Some residents have criticized the project's lack of affordable housing at community meetings with the developer.
But Sanchez maintains the project fills a housing void for Latino professionals searching for modern living in a community where most of the housing stock predates the 1970's.
"I see it as an opportunity to empower an area," Sanchez said. "We’re providing an opportunity for people on the Eastside to continue to be a part of the area."
Boyle Height's growing popularity
Pending city approvals, the team led by developer Izek Shomof wants to start construction early 2015, in hopes of finishing within 2.5 years.
Shomof bought the Sears building last November for a reported $29 million at a time when interest in Boyle Heights keeps growing.
Real estate site Zillow reports that home values in Boyle Heights grew 18 percent in the last year, while former "hottest" L.A. neighborhood, Highland Park, has seen its growth rate cool to about 4 percent.
Cabildo said that “really wonderful progressive white friends” have emailed her apologetically about being priced out of neighborhoods such as Highland Park, and having to look east.
“They want me to say it’s OK,” Cabildo said. “I understand. You’re going to keep searching for where you can afford to live.”
Real estate agents have marketed Boyle Heights as a cheaper alternative to downtown where it's walkable and easy to hop on the Gold Line, though this tack has only fueled fears about gentrification and generated local backlash.
This spring, a real estate firm apologized after residents assailed its flier titled "Why Rent Downtown When You Can Own in Boyle Heights?" The company cancelled the Boyle Heights bike tour it had advertised for prospective clients.
Resistant to change
But some community leaders say that Boyle Heights will not change as dramatically as some fear given favorable housing conditions for residents. According to a report by the city's Housing and Community Investment Department, 71 percent of the Boyle Height's residents are renters living mostly in rent-stabilized units.
"They’re not going to want to move and the city's not going to push them out," said L.A. councilmember José Huizar.
Huizar said Boyle Heights residents are also committed to preserving the neighborhood's Chicano identity.
"The Chicano movement started here in Boyle Heights and the general East L.A. area," Huizar said. "This is where Chicanos started to identify what it means to have a political mind, political activism.”
Carlos Montes was a leader in that movement, and now sits on the neighborhood council. It makes him happy when younger, more affluent Latinos return to live.
"The sons and daughters of families that moved out to go to school or to work — they’re moving back which is a good trend. I really like it and promote it," Montes said.
It's called gentefication — as in 'gente' ... Spanish for ‘people.’ What Montes doesn’t like is when outsiders come in and displace residents.
As a boy in the 1950s, he remembers watching TV and seeing Mexican-American families evicted from Chavez Ravine to make way for Dodger Stadium.
"They were literally picking people and throwing them out," Montes said. "I’ll never forget about that."
Montes wiped his eyes, surprised by how close the memory cuts.
Tale of a 'gentrifying hipster'
Singer-songwriter Steven Kopp moved to Boyle Heights three years ago.
As a white homeowner living off Cesar Chavez Avenue, Steven Kopp is very sensitive to his neighbors' concerns around displacement.
"A lot of people will look at me and say, 'oh, there’s a gentrifying hipster," Kopp said. "I get bad looks, and I totally understand."
After a search for affordable homes in Northeast LA, the singer-songwriter bought a house three years ago that he rents out, while he lives in the backyard, in a tiny house, with a roommate, two cats and a dog.
"I wanted the mortgage paid off as soon as I can and hopefully the rent can be income when I’m older," Kopp said.
Kopp said he’s here to stay — even though he lives in a gang injunction zone, he feels safe, and his neighbors are friendly. He doesn't even mind the man across the street who blasts his music.
His hope is that Boyle Heights keeps its character, and he doesn’t think the Sears proposal serves that purpose.
"The idea behind a lot of these developments is to make money and I think they could care less about the history and uniqueness of the neighborhood," Kopp said.
But others think it’s high time the Sears building get a makeover, like Jacky Moreno who works at the Sears jewelry counter.
"Just to beautify it, it would definitely help the community," Moreno said.
Moreno grew up in Boyle Heights – she’s 28 now – and said she's been noticing more and more new faces.
But Moreno points out before Latinos became the majority, the neighborhood was home to many Jewish and Japanese immigrants.
"You know, Boyle Heights has always had everything," Moreno said. "It’s always going to recycle itself or not, whether we want to or not."
She said she just hopes she can afford to stick around to see whatever happens.
Jacky Moreno, 28, works at the Sears jewelry counter, and grew up in Boyle Heights. She welcomes new faces in the neighborhood, pointing out before it was predominantly Latino, it was an enclave for Jewish and Japanese immigrants.