This initiative would create a cultural and convention center and maintain the Afrocentric environment along Degnan Blvd.
By Jason Lewis
Leimert Park Village is on the verge of major changes. The fear is that those changes will dramatically alter the culture that has defined that community since Black people migrated over from the Central Avenue area into the Crenshaw Boulevard area. There is also a fear that people living in the community will not have much of any say in what those changes are.
Over the last 50 years, Leimert Park Village has been a hub for Black culture in Los Angeles. The music, art, food, and culture have been created by Afro-centric people who are from America, the Caribbean, and Africa. But with new developments happening all over the city, that Afro-centric culture could fade away.
Community members who are seeking to keep Leimert Park Village’s culture intact created the 20/20 Vision Initiative: A Revitalization Strategy. Recently, Empowerment Congress West Area Neighborhood Development Council and Leimert Park Village, Inc. held the 5th Annual Leimert Park Village 20/20 Vision Initiative Charrette in March of 2019 at Hot and Cool Cafe on Degnan Boulevard.
“The focus is to facilitate the revitalization of Leimert Park Village, in concert with the Metro Line coming on board by 2020,” said Sherri Franklin, CEO of the Urban Design Center. “Our goals are to maintain local ownership of the properties so that we can make sure that there is a focus on African American and African diaspora culture.”
The goal of this initiative is to raise funds to acquire properties, most notably the building on the west side of Degnan, which houses Hot and Cool Cafe, Eso Won Books, the World Stage, We Can Foundation, Ride On Bike Shop, and the California Jazz and Blues Museum; build a cultural arts and convention center on the publicly owned parking lot that is adjacent to the Vision Theater; assist the existing businesses with marketing and branding; and to create more foot traffic through events.
Owning buildings will ensure that the existing businesses will be able to stay on Degnan Boulevard, however, the reported price for the building on the west side of the street is $6 million. At that price, a new developer that does not have attachment to the community would more than likely make business decisions that do not include the existing tenants.
“The main thing is to make sure that it remains a cultural venue in perpetuity,” Franklin said. “Anyone who is looking at it at the $6 million price point that the owner is asking, and the current rent there is under $2 a square foot, which is affordable; if anybody buys that building they’re going to bring in a different level of tenant that can pay them $4 to $5 a square foot to pay that mortgage. In order to make that price point work, they’d have to look at a new development or replacing the existing tenants. We want to save businesses and preserve the cultural arts in Leimert Park and build on their capacity to survive.”
A new owner could seek mainstream retailers to the village, which may not fit into an Afro-centric environment. A new owner could also decide to tear down the existing structures and build whatever the new owner pleased, which could be retail, office space, or housing.
“We’re not trying to bring large credit tenants to Leimert,” Franklin said. “We want to make the Vision Theater our anchor tenant. We want the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Theater, the California Jazz and Blues Museum, World Stage, Eso Won Books, KAOS Network, Sika, and Hot and Cool Cafe to be our anchor tenants. Those are the businesses that we want to draw people to Leimert Park, and then people can explore and shop with all of the other businesses here. That’s our approach to building up a culturally centered commercial district.”
The center piece of the revitalization is the Vision Theater, which is in the process of being renovated. When completed, it will be a 750-seat state of the art theater that can attract people to the village multiple times a week. South Los Angeles has a number of performing arts programs, including the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center, Lula Washington Dance Theatre, and the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. This theater will give those artists a venue in their own community to perform in. It would also mean that people would not have to travel outside of their community for entertainment.
The proposed cultural and convention center will be a new addition to the village that can generate foot traffic throughout the week. Franklin said that they would attract local and national Black organizations to hold their conferences in the village, opposed to those organizations using meeting spaces in downtown or near the airport. The foot traffic would generate revenue for the small businesses along Degnan Boulevard.
A cultural center would also attract tourists to the village. After visiting the cultural center, tourists can visit the California Jazz and Blues Museum, then eat at Ackee Bamboo Jamaican Cuisine and then have coffee at Hot and Cool Cafe. The redevelopment of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza will include a hotel, so there is a potential to attract tourists to the village throughout the year.
One major goal of the initiative is to keep Leimert Park Villages’ Afrocentric culture.
A rough estimate of the cost to build a cultural arts and convention center, and to purchase and renovate buildings on Degnan Boulevard is in the ballpark of $40 million. Franklin is looking at different models to raise the funds. One model would be similar to the Market Creek Plaza in San Diego, which had a community investment structure. Local residents could purchase shares, with a minimum investment of $200. Many people made much larger investments. With this structure, people in the community would have a say in how the village is revitalized, which is not typically the case when redevelopment happens.
“This is of, for, and by the community,” Franklin said.
Franklin also said that they would utilize crowdfunding, bond financing secured through the city of Los Angeles, and EB-5 visa foreign investors from African diasporas.
People can find out more about this project and get involved by visiting www.leimertparkvillage.org, where they can register and indicate their interests in this initiative. They will receive information about workgroup meetings that will discuss the various aspects of the development process.