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County Wins Control of Vermont/Manchester Lots in Superior Court Ruling

Juan Carlos Mercado and Miguel Sanchez stand in a vacant lot at Manchester and Vermont. The former swap meet site saw a groundbreaking three years ago but the mall project, planned by developer Eli Sasson, never materialized. And the buildings behind the youth – occupied by homeless folks from the area – burned down in February. Sahra Sulaiman/ Streetsblog L.A.

The County is celebrating a major victory today, having finally gained control over the fate of the vacant lots at Vermont and Manchester.

Thursday's ruling by L.A. Superior Court Judge Daniel Murphy approving the County's bid to acquire the lots from developer Eli Sasson via eminent domain effectively closes the book on the 26 years the community has been held hostage to blight.

The site of a former swap meet that burned to the ground in 1992 (see photo), the lots are more than a testament to how hard the neighborhood was hit by the unrest and how slow it has been to recover. They have come to symbolize both the many barriers the whole of South Central has faced in taking control of its own destiny and the many promises that were made to the community that never materialized.

And while the ruling means that actual structures will finally rise from the ashes, the County's proposed project has struggled to please everyone.

A rendering of the affordable housing, boarding school, and transit plaza planned for Vermont/Manchester. Source: Mark Ridley-Thomas
A rendering of the affordable housing, boarding school, and transit plaza planned for Vermont/Manchester. Source: Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas
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In order to justify the use of eminent domain, the County had to demonstrate that the lots in question were essential to the project going forward - that the project's success hinged upon the lots' unique characteristics and location. And because public monies would be used, the project also had to serve a public purpose - the County couldn't just replicate the developer's mall plans.

Within those tight constraints, the County's project still manages to be quite innovative: a mixed-use development including a six-story structure housing 180 affordable one-, two-, and three-bedroom units, a first-of-its-kind-in-the-area public charter boarding school aimed at giving area students a supportive 24-hour learning environment (including a six-story structure housing 200 dorm rooms and 20 faculty apartments), a career technical education center (to funnel participants into transit careers), neighborhood-serving retail (including a supermarket), community rooms/spaces, and a transit plaza (serving the Bus Rapid Transit service planned for Vermont Avenue).

The draft arrangement of the boarding school, transit plaza, transit vocational training center, community spaces, parking, and retail sited for the lots between 84th and Manchester Streets. Housing would rise above the training center and retail spaces. Image: Meridian Consultants
The draft arrangement of the boarding school, transit plaza, transit vocational training center, community spaces, parking, and retail sited for the lots between 84th and Manchester Streets. Housing would rise above the training center and retail spaces. Image: Meridian Consultants
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County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' press release regarding the victory touts the significance of a college-prep school and transit-specific job training center in a community where so many youth have been left behind, noting that a sizable percentage of Metro employees will be eligible for retirement in the next few years and that "Measure M has generated funds to support 778,000 new jobs over the next 40 years."

Moreover, Ridley-Thomas says in the release, that brighter future will arrive sooner rather than later, as the ruling paves the way for the project to move into the development and implementation stages.

Arguing that “Local governments have an absolute necessity to think imaginatively about our most pressing issues – job creation, quality education, transportation, and the development of affordable housing and community centers,” he hails the project as an "out-of-the-box approach" to ticking all of those boxes.

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The proposed grocery market. Source: Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas
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Eighth District Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson is also quoted in the release as declaring the ruling to be the "fresh start on Vermont Manchester" that the community deserved after enduring 26 years of "crime, blight, violence, and neglect – all while waiting for empty promises and false starts to produce something real."

And while the ruling may mark the resolution of what Harris-Dawson described as a "longstanding injustice," it's still a far cry from the shopping center so many residents had pinned their hopes on.

At the Board of Supervisors meeting last December, a number of community members had stood to express disappointment that the move to reclaim the lots would finally dash all hopes of seeing the full range of retail and services they had clamored for for decades.

The college prep boarding school. Source: Mark Ridley-Thomas
The college prep boarding school. Source: Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas
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It is indeed unfortunate that the only way a disenfranchised community can take control of blight and uplift itself is by agreeing to tie its hands and limit its aspirations.

But it is also clear that the project is designed to push the boundaries of those bonds as far as it can while laying the groundwork for the kind of long-term sustainable growth and development in the area that would attract other community-serving investments.

Says Metro CEO Phillip Washington in the release, “We have projects, we have jobs and we have funding — but not nearly enough skilled workers. This new workforce education model represents a shift in how Metro plans to prepare the next generation of workers."

The ruling means the County can take immediate possession of the lots. As such, the release states, the Supervisor's office plans to begin working with residents on elements of the project. Information regarding that process will be posted as soon as it becomes available.

For more background on the Vermont/Manchester lots, please see the articles below.

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