Dear LAist: What's Going On With The Jordan Downs Redevelopment?
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On the northwest side of the Jordan Downs housing community in Watts, rows of two-story salmon-colored apartment buildings sag under the weight of decades. Patches of green grass run between them, and laundry lines tether many of the units together.
These are the old structures, and they're not long for this world.
Just a few blocks east, right off the main road that bisects the complex, new construction rises. It's a track of modern-looking, three-story buildings lining Century Boulevard, with even more scaffolding and wooden skeletons loping towards the horizon.
The construction is Phase 1 of the Jordan Downs redevelopment project, a venture over a decade in the making that includes the demolition of 700 low-income housing units to make way for up to 1,450 new ones, as well as a 115,000 square foot retail space, nine acres of park space and a 50,000 square foot community center.
Once complete, it will change the neighborhood, but it's unclear exactly what the changes will be. To that end, reader Billy Montenegro wrote in, asking us: "I am curious about the Watts project or what they are calling 'Jordan Downs Plaza.' People displacement, Gentrification, will it make it $?"
Here's a brief rundown of what we know.
A "UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY"
To answer Montenegro's question, let us first address a slight misconception therein.
Jordan Downs Plaza is the official name of the retail space that's being erected next to the housing units. But what he calls "the Watts project" is likely a reference to the redevelopment of the entirety of Jordan Downs, which includes both the retail space and the new dwellings.
With that out of the way, let's delve into a bit of background.
Originally built as housing for steelworkers during World War II, Jordan Downs was converted into low-income public housing in 1955. For many years, the nearly 50-acre square-shaped plot of land was also home to a steel manufacturing facility, and later, a truck storage and repair operation.
In 2008, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles — which oversees all public housing in L.A. — began its efforts to rebuild Jordan Downs. John King, the director of community engagement at HACLA, says that the then-vacated complex was selected for redevelopment because of its potential.
"We have a lot of properties that have a lot of need," he says. "But [Jordan Downs] has this great opportunity to bring in 21 acres of land. That created a unique opportunity unlike any other in our portfolio."
The redevelopment project hit controversy after controversy over the following decade, the most public of which was the discovery of contaminated soil on the site of the former factory. But finally, after years of meeting with community groups and activists, securing funding and selecting developers, construction on the project began in 2017. It's projected to cost approximately $1 billion.
HACLA has partnered with three organizations to develop Jordan Downs; Primestor is working exclusively on the retail center, and BRIDGE Housing along with The Michaels Organization will oversee the construction of the new residencies.
The majority of the approximately 1,400 units will be reserved for low-income residents, with a few hundred left available for rent or purchase at the current market rate.
Among the main concerns of existing residents, though, is the question of displacement.
"Whenever the local government is redeveloping a neighborhood, it typically goes very badly for the people that are already there," says Bruce Lemon Jr., the artistic director of Watts Village and co-creator of the play A Jordan Downs Illumination. "There's plenty of reasons to distrust it."
City officials seem well aware of these concerns, though, and have repeatedly assured activists and tenants - many of whom have lived in the development for decades - that their families will be guaranteed a home in the new residences, and that their rent will remain the same.
"All the existing households that we can find in good standing - that essentially means that they are not being evicted, and currently there is no one in the eviction process - are eligible" to move into the new units, King says.
But not all residents are convinced that things will go as promised.
"Watts in general has been in need of a lot of resources for a very long time," says Lemon, himself a native of the area. "No matter how many assurances you get... people won't believe it until they get their keys and spend the night and spend a week and finally get their rent and it's the same rent they paid before. Then people will finally believe and trust it."
Still more locals are conflicted about the development itself. Raymond Bradford, a former resident of Jordan Downs who still lives in the surrounding community, likes the city's plans for redevelopment, but notes that not everyone agrees.
"They are updating the living facilities, making it convenient for senior citizens and keeping riff raff out of the place," says the 66-year-old. "Some people is not [happy about it]. Some people is, 'Why are they tearing down Jordan Downs? This is a monument, it's been here a long time...' I feel for people, but certain things happen that you have no control over."
THE MOVING TRUCKS
The process of moving residents into new units is slated to happen in six cycles. As construction is completed on apartments, says King, a group of tenants will move from the old Jordan Downs homes to the new ones. Their old units will then be demolished, new buildings will go up in their stead, and another group of residents will move in.
Tenants who don't want to move into a new unit in Jordan Downs will be given the choice to move into another public housing complex, or take a Section 8 voucher (although there is no guarantee that landlords will take those vouchers). According to King, HACLA has enlisted the help of a relocation consulting organization that will assist individuals and families navigate their moves.
To date, 120 households have been informed that they are among the first group of people to move into the new units. King notes that of that group, just over a dozen have accepted Section 8 vouchers.
The date for the first wave of residents to move into the new units at Jordan Downs hasn't been determined yet, although King estimates it will be towards the end of this year.
Until all the moves are complete, though - which might not be for several years - it remains unclear whether the city will make good on its promises or not.
"A lot of people are really, really excited about these new homes they'll be moving into soon," says Lemon. "But on the other hand, a lot of people question whether or not this is for them, and if they are really going to have a place here."
Editor's Note: Bruce Lemon is the host of Unheard LA, a storytelling show produced by LAist's parent organization, Southern California Public Radio.
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