L.A. officials envision revitalization for Jordan Downs housing project in Watts

The city is making plans to replace the 700 rundown units with a $1-billion mixed-use development, in hopes that bringing businesses to the area will reduce the influence of gangs.

By Ari B. Bloomekatz and Jessica Garrison
February 28, 2009

Los Angeles officials are embarking on a $1-billion plan to tear down the notorious Jordan Downs housing project and turn it into a “new urban village” — an effort aimed at transforming the Watts neighborhood that would be one of the city’s largest public works projects.

The city wants to replace the project’s 700 dilapidated units, which were built more than half a century ago, with taller “mixed-use” buildings that would house not just low-income residents but also those paying market rates. The new development could include as many as 2,100 units.

By creating a denser community that serves people of different incomes, officials hope to draw businesses to the complex, such as coffee houses, supermarkets and eateries. Officials believe this would help reduce the influence of gangs in an area that has long been the base of the Grape Street Crips and create better lives for Watts residents. Included in the price tag is a proposal to turn Jordan High School into what officials describe as a cutting-edge model campus.

“This will have a transformative impact not just on the Jordan Downs housing project but on the surrounding community as well,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. “In order to make these communities thriving, you have to have a . . . retail component.”

Already, L.A. officials have spent $31 million to purchase a 21-acre piece of land adjacent to the existing project on which they plan to expand. They have earmarked millions more for planning. The financing for the project would combine federal redevelopment money, state tax credits and private investments from retailers and developers of market-rate housing. Officials hope to get some money from President Obama’s stimulus package and from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

City officials plan to hold their first meeting between the private planning firm they have hired, WRT-Solomon, and community members at Jordan Downs today.

What remains to be seen is whether Los Angeles and its housing authority, which until recently has been plagued by scandal and mismanagement, can carry out such a bold transformation, especially in such grim economic times. Past efforts to modernize Jordan Downs have ended badly, with housing officials fired or forced to resign amid allegations that they broke rules or embezzled funds.

City officials argue that they have turned the authority, the largest housing agency west of the Mississippi, around in recent years. And they argue that the bad economy actually helps their cause, because in tough times, private developers find government-funded projects a safer investment than the vagaries of the open market — a point on which real estate experts agree.

Development experts said the city’s plan has possibilities but will not be easy to execute. Private developers may be eager to partner with the government in the current economy because a subsidized housing project brings with it income they can count on, they said.

“The question is, are you going to find retailers who want to go there?” said Tracey Seslen, a professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business. Another big challenge is building attractive enough –and safe enough — market-rate units to attract people who could live elsewhere.

In addition to the economic challenges of mounting a major redevelopment project, city leaders will also have to navigate difficult political waters. Some leaders warn that city officials must do a better job of reaching out to residents of Jordan Downs to make sure they are part of the process. On Friday, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who represents the area, issued a statement calling on Villaraigosa to get input for his plans from civil rights, religious and education leaders. Waters chairs the House subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, which oversees redevelopment projects.

Some community activists see considerable promise in the project. “A lot of people from the outside community were scared to come here because they didn’t know what we were about,” said Betty Day, a community leader. “Give these people a chance here, because there’s such beautiful people here.”

In some ways, Los Angeles is taking up what other housing authorities around the country began doing two decades ago: redeveloping isolated, moribund housing projects that social scientists believed trapped the poor into a cycle of violence and poverty. Cabrini-Green in Chicago, Centennial Place in Atlanta and High Point in Seattle are examples they are looking to.

What makes Los Angeles’ plan unique, according to John McIlwain, senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., is the chance to use the redevelopment of Jordan Downs as a catalyst to transform a large swath of South Los Angeles.

“Watts has a national reputation” as a high-crime, low-income neighborhood, he said. “Here is the possibility that they could actually turn Watts around.”

Plans call for residents to move from their current homes into buildings that would be constructed on the 21-acre parcel. Once they have moved, the old buildings would be demolished.

Jordan Downs is among the city’s oldest housing projects — and long one of its most troubled. It was built as temporary housing for factory workers during World War II and was taken over by the housing authority in 1955. Over time, poverty and neglect took their toll. By the 1980s, Jordan Downs had become a bleak, often dangerous place — so rundown that some City Council members said residents should not have to pay rent. Today it houses about 2,300 residents, most of them single women and their children who live on an average annual income of about $15,500 and pay 30% of their income in rent.

For years, the Grape Street Crips claimed the project as their turf. The gang’s hold was so pernicious — and the housing authority’s management so bad — that until a few years ago, gang members had seized some apartments and used them for drug dealing, prostitution and even dog fighting.

Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Phil Tingirides said crime has dramatically decreased in Jordan Downs in recent years, with serious crimes dropping 50% between the end of 2002 and the end of 2008. Still, it remains one of the more dangerous parts of the city.

But Jordan Downs is also a tight-knit community, where some families have lived for generations, watching out for each other’s children, caring for each other’s aging parents and helping each other get by.

Patricia Caranza, a single mother who works cleaning houses, said she hopes the revitalization will enable her to give her five children a better life. The 43-year-old moved to Jordan Downs from Inglewood 14 years ago because she could no longer afford to pay rent on the open market. She said she has found good people in the project but is frightened of the gangs, the shootings and the drugs.

To help convince current residents of the possibilities of redevelopment, the housing authority has been sending a select group to visit revitalized projects around the country. The group is scheduled to head to Atlanta in May.

Among them is Keyon Johnson, 22, who grew up in the project and still lives there with his mother and younger brother. Johnson said he is worried officials will not keep their promise that all residents will be able to move into the new urban village.

“Right now they’re selling the dream,” he said. “Everything under the sun has been promised to Jordan Downs, but nobody ever delivered.”

Still, he’s excited about the upgrade. The current feel of his community, he said, “looks like bunkers. It has the feel that there’s war going on.” His mother, he said, deserves better.

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