Santa Barbara Plaza - our blight - finally in the spotlight

Ted Rohrlich of the Los Angeles Times
wrote a great story about a decades long problem - Marlton Square/Santa Barbara Plaza.

"Los Angeles leaders gambled on a check-bouncing, politically connected developer to shepherd the project. And after $15 million in government subsidies and more than $30 million in private investment, taxpayers -- and the community -- have lost," Rohrlich writes.

Let me take a second and ask everyone to write an email to Ted and tell him how much we appreciate him taking an interest and getting it right. ted.rohrlich@latimes.com

And I want to say a big thank you to the Empowerment Congress West Neighborhood Development Council who hosted the packed meeting that attracted a packed house to a recent meeint, which led to this story!

What Ted found is that the city put its faith in Chris Hammond, a successful developer of low-income housing and a prolific political fundraiser. Hammond was endorsed by councilmen from the area: first Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is now a state senator, and then his council successor, Bernard C. Parks. Both are now candidates for county supervisor. Who will do right by us?

But Hammond was bouncing checks - a total of more than $200,000, according to the LAT. He was in default on mortgages on both of his houses, in Malibu and Los Feliz. Three times, Hammond had agreed to settle lawsuits over bad debts, only to bounce the settlement checks. And even his initial good-faith deposit check to the city for the Santa Barbara Plaza project was no good.

Despite a last-minute warning from City Controller Laura Chick about Hammond's troubled finances, Hahn and the council approved his continued stewardship.

PASSING THE BUCK? Ridley-Thomas had invited Hammond, among other developers, to pursue the project in the first place. But said he did not know then that Hammond had serious financial problems. Any problems emerged after "my direct responsibility ended," he said.

Parks, who succeeded Ridley-Thomas on the City Council in 2003, said: "I didn't pick the developer. . . . He was part of the project when I came into office. I backed the project."

Former Mayor Hahn said these problems came as a surprise to him. "As far as I knew he had success at Chesterfield Square," he said.

And now we pay: Last year, the state treasurer's office rescinded a promise to provide $17 million more in federal subsidies, saying it was fed up with delays.

"What we see . . . is no longer tolerable," said Lark Galloway-Gilliam, the neighborhood council president, at the recent meeting. Lark also spearheaded Save Leimert.

Rorlich described the center as a "a decaying 20-acre shopping center at the foot of the affluent Baldwin Hills ...
a collection of dead or dying businesses surrounding a vast parking lot with weeds pushing through large cracks. The largely middle-class, African American area is stuck with a mostly deserted commercial slum."

P.S. The housing for low-income seniors, which was supposed to have been finished in 2004, is only partly built. After an $8.5-million investment by the federal government for the purchase of land and other preliminary costs, a Hammond-led firm managed to erect just one of three planned buildings, and even that one is partly covered in scaffolding. Work stalled after the main contractor, S.C. Anderson Inc., walked off the job in September, saying in a lawsuit that it had not been paid.

Rorhlich: Besides failing to check the credit of Hammond and his companies -- which would have revealed federal tax liens, among other things -- the city has not kept close watch over some of the public funds it has provided him, records and interviews show. When a Hammond-led firm acquired the parcels for the senior housing, the city did not have the properties independently appraised, as is typically required, before handing out federal funds to pay for them.

City officials could not explain why appraisals were delayed or why the government paid much more than market value for the properties.

The City Council approved the redevelopment agency's purchase of two Santa Barbara Plaza properties for $5 million.

Federal officials would not comment on the case. Hammond did not respond to repeated requests for comment, the Times reported.

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