‘Gimme Shelter’ with Daniel Gehman: Watts’ Up?!?

Wonderful change is afoot in one of LA’s most notorious neighborhoods. Jordan Downs, located in the heart of the community of Watts, in South Los Angeles, is targeted for redevelopment. The design team, led by the capable staff at the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) is

Wonderful change is afoot in one of LA’s most notorious neighborhoods. Jordan Downs, located in the heart of the community of Watts, in South Los Angeles, is targeted for redevelopment. The design team, led by the capable staff at the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) is in the midst of the community outreach for the project. Jordan Downs may be noted as one of the last public housing projects to be developed in the city of the angels back in the 1950s. Regrettably, it is probably better known for being in the middle of the neighborhood that gave birth to LA gangs knows as the “Bloods” and the “Crips.”

Last Saturday I attended the fourth stakeholder outreach meeting, my second in the series, which was held, as always, in the community center located at Grape Street and Century Avenue. At the former meeting, there was a modest security presence, with uniformed officers generally keeping watch over folks arriving on Grape Street by car. This time, however, the detail was beefed up a bit, complete with orange traffic cones demarcating a drop off zone by the front door. I had heard there would be “special guests,” so I supposed this was for them.

As it turned out, the dignitaries on had for this event were Antonia Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, and Maxine Waters, the congresswoman for the district in which the community is located. For having such star power on hand, I expected a massive turn-out, with standing room only for us “observer” types. But this was not the case. Attendance was marked (as the LA Times pointed out) by a handful of residents, and a bevy of consultants, handlers, and onlookers.

The mayor, dressed down in jeans to look approachable (as he himself quipped) offered a mellow, uplifting encouragement, along with a pledge of the City’s devotion to the project. Ms. Waters, who, admirably, was recognized by a handful of residents as well as most of the JD Advisory Committee and vice-versa, was a bit more animated. She made a very interesting point: without weighing in on what direction the re- development should take, she emphasized that the burden on the designers and HACLA was to engage the community in every step of the process, “from planning to picking paint palettes.”

This noble commitment is riddled with challenge. There are many, many layers to the “community” of Jordan Downs. As mentioned above, there were only a handful of residents present. (The community consists of 700 apartments, suggesting a total population of at least 1500 persons; there were perhaps 40 at the peak of the activities.) It was mentioned that some residents don’t attend out of fear of retribution. From whom wasn’t quite clear. What was clear was the wild proliferation of half-truth, rumor, innuendo and ignorance. It was disheartening, but comprehensible.

What this milieu set up was a context in which the design team, which included Dan Solomon and John Kaliski, spent the majority of their presentation time de-bunking bad information that had to be cleared up before anything resembling a design discussion could occur. Then, in what was an eye-opening experience for me, it became necessary to always search for the “question behind the question,” to have a decent shot at answering what was being asked, because it was extraordinarily easy for misunderstandings to occur due to the lack of even a basic design vocabulary. Dan and John, to their credit, avoided pontificating in “architect-ese”, which would have been especially dreadful in this instance, where two groups of people where already reaching WAY beyond their comfort zones to communicate with the other parties.

In brief, the proposed project envisioned a “Hope VI” type of arrangement, that would replace the 700 public housing units on a one-to-one basis, then add 700 units of “work-force” housing, plus 700 units of market rate housing. This 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 approach has been very successful in other parts of the country. Good thing HACLA was able to purchase an adjacent 21-acre parcel, which would enable them to start a first phase with enough replacement units to allow a “rolling” redevelopment of the site without any residents actually needing to leave the community. Even with that land included, the average density of the new neighborhood would more than double that of what it is today. This, naturally, was of grave concern, for a collection of reasons, to almost all residents who spoke,.

This project, as they say in developer lingo, “has a lot of hair on it.” Props to HACLA and the development team for diving into it, believing in the vision, and having the love and patience to continue to work with the community to seek out not just consensus, but even a common language basis from which to begin a dialogue! This is where design really hits the streets.

The spokesperson from my break-out table, who presented to the overall assembly the ideas developed there, spoke with passion of how the residents’ hopes had been raised before, only to be dashed when re-development plans were scrapped. Some were dumped, incidentally, due to overwhelming negative feedback from residents that created insurmountable political hurdles. Let’s believe (stronger than hoping) that this time the process will be successful, that the proper leaders will emerge to shepherd a dramatic transformation of a “project”, and by extension, it’s neighborhood and community.

(Daniel Gehman is principal at Thomas Cox Architects. He can be reached at DanielG@tca-arch.com)