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Frustration and skepticism were the dominant emotions residents  and business owners in Leimert Park expressed to a panel of city and  county officials at a meeting last Wednesday of the Empowerment Congress  West Area Neighborhood Development Council.
They were frustrated  about the lack of progress with the Marlton Square development and  demanded that officials clean up the site immediately and eliminate what  they said were serious hazards including suspected hazardous waste.
At  the meeting, which was attended by more than 50 people, residents also  asked for an update of the project and offered suggestions on how  officials could better  communicate with the area residents and  businesses.
Marlton Square, formerly Santa Barbara Plaza, is a  $155.9-million-dollar mixed-use retail and housing development set on 19  acres in the Crenshaw District. It is bounded by Martin Luther King,  Jr. Boulevard to the north, Marlton Avenue on the east, Santa Rosalia  Drive to the south, and Buckingham Road on the west. An additional  three-acre site for a 180-unit senior housing complex adjacent to  Marlton Square, called Buckingham Place, is also part of the project and  was initially projected at $27 million.
In addition to the senior  housing, 140 single-family homes and 150 residential condominium units  are supposed to be constructed on the site.
The Marlton Square  development project was approved by the city in 1984 and actually  includes the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Mall, which was completed in 1995.
Plans  for the Santa Barbara Plaza portion have been in the works since 1990,  when the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) amended its redevelopment  plan for the area to include the former shopping center. Initially  envisioned as a retail-only project, market forces and rumored conflict  between then-Eighth District Council Mark Ridley-Thomas and the chosen  developerMagic Johnsonthrew the project off track.
According to  Joyce Perkins, chair of the Community Advisory Committee for the Marlton  Square project, the 1992 civil unrest prompted city officials to expand  the redevelopment area and that plan was approved in 1995.
Another  developer who also had some ownership stake in the plazaCapital Visions  led by Christopher Hammondresponded to a request for proposals  solicited from owners of the land, and he too proposed all retail, said  Perkins. But difficulty interesting retailers in investing in the site,  as well as an inability to amass the money needed to buy the 39  individual owners out to assemble a decent retail parcel in a timely  fashion, prompted local officials to look in other directions.
Perkins  said this is when the idea of a mixed-use development was proposed by  Congresswoman Diane Watson.
Federal and local money was assembled to  underwrite the project and this included tax credits for the senior  housing portion.
But inspection delays, city certification problems,  funding issues, and problems with the construction lender caused Capital  Visionswhich formed a partnership with the Lee Group called MSA  Acquistionsto miss its deadlines and consequently lose the tax credits.
Currently,  the first building in the 180-unit Buckingham Place senior housing is  97 percent complete, but construction halted in February because  developer Capital Visions does not have enough money to complete the  project, in part because delays have caused costs to escalate and the  lost money from the tax credits must be replaced.
Additionally,  because Capital Visions was unable to acquire eight properties, LNR, the  company brought in to develop the retail portion, terminated its Retail  Implementation Agreement Sept. 15, 2006. The unacquired properties  include Jerrys Flying Fox, Maranatha Church, and the swap meet on the  corner of Marlton and King Boulevard.
Now the Lee Group, who had  partnered with Capital Visions to construct the market-rate housing  portion of Marlton Square, is reportedly negotiating to take over all  phases of the development.
Additionally, the CRA has begun to  purchase property on the site, with the intention of being able to offer  a potential retail developer the land needed to build. There is also  $18 to $19 million in Federal Community Development Block Grant Section  108 loan money that is awaiting approval by the city council for use to  purchase additional land.
And finally, a new retail developer and  plan must be approved.
The key, said CRA chief, Cecilia V.  Estolano, who has actually been connected with the redevelopment project  since she was an aide with former councilwoman Ruth Galanter, is  acquiring control of the retail properties and the giant parking lot  that sits in the middle of the site. This requires obtaining control of  the eight remaining properties (about four acres) as well as the land  that is controlled by MSA Acquisitions.
All of these delays have  frustrated and angered residents, who said that developer misfires and  city inaction have led to Marlton becoming an unsightly and dangerous  place.
There are abandoned buildings with broken windows fronting  Santa Rosalia and abandoned cars parked in the lot. People are also  camping out on the property.
At the same time, business owners like  Lloyd McCloud of Sincerely Yours Luv Unique Gifts as well as artist and  framer Thomas Fitch, continue to operate their companies in the midst of  the struggling development.
Nobody knows whats going on, said  McCloud about the project. We have no clue where we are, whats going  to happen, or when its going to happen. We live in fear all around. Why  do we have to react to what you do? You dont listen to us, McCloud  told the assembled officials.
Other residents expressed similar  sentiments about being in the dark and ignored, and one community  member, Taylor Mayfield, voiced doubts about the city being the owner of  all the property. Im not comfortable with the city owning the  property because they can build what they want; they might even build a  jail there.
While a variety of suggestions were put forward, the  primary action city officials agreed to take was to form a task force to  address the blight at the project site. The group will be composed of  officials such as the City Attorneys office, Building and Safety, as  well as the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
A community  representative would also be part of the body. Among the action that the  task force members will begin are to obtain permission from the  property owners for a no-trespassing order, which can then be used by  the police to cite people and the city attorneys to prosecute.
Building  and Safety is in the process of doing a complete inventory of the  property to assess code violations and other infractions, and then will  notify owners to take action on these issues.
The task force is  expected to report back to the next neighborhood council meeting.