2023 YEAR IN REVIEW: Transit connector project was top priority in 2023

By Emilie St. John

Contributing Writer

INGLEWOOD — The Inglewood Transit Connector project dominated headlines for the better part of 2023.

Because of the pending construction of the Inglewood Transit Connector, the city released a draft relocation plan in early February, which indicated the project would impact 41 Inglewood businesses located along the 1.6-mile path of the project.

Due to community uproar, adjustments were made that didn’t impact a long-standing grocery store.

“The City Council and I understand that any construction on the Vons site would be disruptive to businesses, residents and employees” Inglewood Mayor James Butts said. “To put it succinctly, we heard our constituents and we made the project better based on their input.”

Inglewood continued to secure the necessary funding to construct the transit connector project through a combination of sources.

In May, the city announced the South Bay Cities Council of Governments voted to re-prioritize more than $100 million originally allocated to fund a proposed Centinela grade separation project, to instead serve as a “backstop” or reserve funding, for the transit connector.

“The entire South Bay has participated in Inglewood’s Renaissance, and we couldn’t be more pleased with the continued support demonstrated by this vote,” Butts said at the time. “We aren’t just individual cities; we are managing an ecosystem of transportation solutions designed to propel and support commercial and housing development and economic growth in a way that benefits the entire region.”

The Inglewood Transit Connector project was initially expected to cost $1.2 billion to construct but has now increased by $400 million. The city of Inglewood has secured roughly $765 million from multiple sources.

Two months later, by mid summer, the city voted to authorize taxpayers pony up $7.6 million annually towards maintenance and operations of the project should the transit connector be built.

“Inglewood is all in on the ITC,” Butts said after the vote. “The ITC is a crucial component of the Inglewood Renaissance. We are growing our economic base exponentially, but we are also managing that growth responsibly. Today we’ve shown that we are not just asking other stakeholders and government agencies to support transportation in Inglewood, but rather to join with us.”

Inglewood was forced to use taxpayer funds after a ballot measure failed during a special election held in 2021 that was expected to bring in $4.5 million annually from an increase to real estate transfer taxes.

Inglewood continues to face ups and downs in its quest to expand housing and transit projects in anticipation of the 2028 Summer Olympics.

The year kicked off on a sad note as the family of a woman who died during childbirth sought answers from the city’s only hospital.

The family of April Valentine gathered in front of Centinela Hospital Jan. 17 to demand justice for Valentine, who died Jan. 10 after giving birth in its maternity ward. Her daughter survived.

“Aniya is going to have to grow up without her mother,” said Mykesha Mack, Valentine’s cousin.

State investigators found lapses in care that violated federal requirements in ways that could jeopardize patients, including by failing to properly assess and treat birthing patients to reduce the risk of blood clots.

The hospital was fined $75,000 after being faulted for “deficient practices” that led to a patient dying while admitted there for labor and delivery in January.

“Centinela Hospital Medical Center has had the privilege of delivering tens of thousands of babies to Inglewood families, and the decision to close our program means we will redirect resources to where there is a greater community need,” the hospital’s statement said.

Inglewood Unified School District welcomed its eight appointed administrator since the state took over the district in 2012.

“I am very pleased to share with you the appointment of James Morris as the new county administrator for the Inglewood Unified School District,” said Debra Duardo, superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education in a statement announcing his appointment.

In March, voters in Council District 1 elected Gloria Gray over incumbent George Dotson as its newest member of the Inglewood City Council.

Gray concurrently serves on the West Basin Municipal Water District and remains defiant in not stepping down from that seat despite receiving a legal opinion from West Basin’s general counsel.

Under state Government Code Section 1099, a person may not simultaneously hold two offices if there is any significant clash of duties or loyalties between public offices. To find that two offices are incompatible, a conflict doesn’t need to actually occur; it is sufficient that a conflict could occur in the regular operation of the offices.

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón has declined to pursue removing Gray from her seat.

During Women’s History Month in March, Karen Slade, general manager of radio station 102.3 KJLH was honored.

“I have been with the station for 34 years and I have loved every minute of it,” said Slade as she sat in her office filled with memorabilia and plaques honoring her work over the years.

During her tenure, Slade has increased the station’s viability by doubling the effective radiating power from 2.25 watts to 5.6 watts, which enhances the station’s reach and market penetration.

“Engineering is crucial as you find your signal may overlap another signal that has protected circumference and stations are required to stay within the circumference of your city of license,” Slade said.

Long-time Councilman Eloy Morales Jr. came under scrutiny for not disclosing outside income on annual statements of economic interests forms.

Elected officials are required to report annual statements of economic interests in accordance with guidelines established by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

In 2019, it was reported that Morales received outside income from consulting contracts from Pacific Waste & Recycling, a subsidiary of the city’s trash hauler Republic Services, and Lee Andrews Group. Morales voted in favor of a $100 million contract with Republic Services in 2012, and has voted annually in favor of trash rate increases since its approval. Most recently, the city voted to increase trash rates in March.

By November, Inglewood raised trash rates for the second time in 2023 due in part to Morales’ urging, according to Mayor Butts.

“The first increase is produced by the federal government as applied by the [consumer price index] and happens every year and the special rate for the new time window which is what Councilmen [Eloy] Morales and [Alex] Padilla lobbied for and it covers the cost of doing business of picking up trash in a shorter time window as well as amortization of new signage in the city,” Butts said.

Councilman Padilla was not present for the March vote, but voted alongside the council to increase the rates in November.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office confirmed it was investigating the matter the week after the council voted.

The D.A.’s Public Integrity Division is reviewing a complaint that alleges Morales is possibly in violation of Government Code 1090 for reporting income received from a subsidiary of Consolidated Disposal/Republic Services, which has held a trash contract with Inglewood since 2012, according to assistant head deputy Bjorn Dodd.

Inglewood continued to invest in its infrastructure by refurbishing two of the city’s three libraries with unused rent relief funds from federal funds received under the American Rescue Plan Act and a $2.7 million grant from the state.

Assemblywoman Tina McKinnor announced during Library Week that the Inglewood Main Library received a $2.7 million grant to improve the facility.

“Our libraries are among the most important public resources available to communities across California,” McKinnor said.

Under the terms of SB 129, the city is required to match funds under the project.

The funds are being used towards the Inglewood Main Library and the Morningside Park Library, which is projected to reopen in early 2024.

Once it reopens, construction will begin on the Main Library.

Housing projects were also hot button topics in Inglewood as the city opened a 42-unit affordable housing project in Council District 2 and Assemblywoman McKinnor passed laws to increase affordable housing stock across the state.

The city and Thomas Safran & Associates celebrated the opening of Beach Terrace, a 42-unit affordable housing complex. The complex, designed for veterans, senior citizens and families, features a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units.

“The city of Inglewood is pleased to work once again with Thomas Safran & Associates to help steadily improve affordable housing availability in the city,” Butts said in a news release. “When developers, cities, and lenders come together like this, it’s a win-win for everyone, especially veterans and families that are an integral part of our community.”

McKinnor made affordable housing a priority in her district as her first piece of legislation was to address the shortage of affordable housing across the state.

Assembly Bill 1743 was part of a 38-bill housing package signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom designed to increase housing production, expand housing financing and help millions of Californians access safe, affordable housing.

“We can solve California’s housing crisis through partnerships between government, developers, nonprofit and faith-based organizations,” McKinnor said. “By harnessing the innovative will of Californians, necessary public and private investments and a legislature and governor truly committed to solving the housing crisis, I am confident that we can help all Californians find a safe and affordable place to call home. AB 1743 will give the public and policy makers an important metric necessary to guide our efforts to expand housing opportunities to all Californians in the future.”

McKinnor also took time to recognize Inglewood-based nonprofit Social Justice Learning Institute as her district’s Non-Profit of the Year.

“The Inglewood renaissance is underway in large part because of incredible community partners and nonprofits like the Social Justice Learning Institute who work selflessly to meet the immediate needs of neighbors, while helping to build a new generation of young leaders,” McKinnor said. “For over 15 years, [the institute] has done the essential work necessary to build a vibrant community and I am proud to recognize them as the 2023 Nonprofit of the Year.”

Derek Steele, took over as the nonprofit’s executive director after its founder D’Artagnan Scorza left in 2020.

“This is a tremendous honor,” Steele said. “2023 has been an amazing year for Social Justice Learning Institute and this is the perfect way to underscore the impact and success that our team has contributed to Inglewood, the County of Los Angeles, and the state of California. The need is growing and so will our work and dedication.”

Towards the end of the year, a joint project between the Social Justice Learning Institute and Venice Community Housing were awarded 59 project-based vouchers towards the construction of an affordable housing project on a site currently occupied by a shuttered church.

With the new Inglewood Sports and Entertainment District chugging along as the Kia Forum and SoFi Stadium are fully operational, sports and entertainment were again major focus of Inglewood in 2023.

The Dodgers Foundation kicked things off by investing in two Dodger Dreamfields at Edward Vincent Jr. Park.

The $1 million project included a new playing surface and grass, enclosed fields and fencing, upgraded dugouts, upgraded irrigation systems, new pitchers’ mounds, bases, home plates and scoreboards.

“It was great to celebrate the two Dreamfields at Edward Vincent Park and more importantly celebrate all the different improvements being made to our parks,” Butts said.

“I want to thank Parks & Recreation Director Sabrina Barnes who has been a good shepherd for all that we’ve done,” Butts added.

Barnes retired from the city in October after working in the Parks & Recreation Department since 1991.

In July, NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens celebrated the launch of his wine brand, 81 Wines, at 1010 Wine and Events.

His Eighty-One Wines is a partnership with Lasorda Family Wines, the family business started by the late Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. Lasorda Family Wines runs its winemaking operations from the Paso Robles region.

“During the pandemic, everyone was pivoting and my marketing rep knew the Lasorda family who were looking to collaborate with athletes and my name was on the list,” said Owens, who had no experience with wine at the time.

“I’ve tried wine since being drafted in 1996 by the San Francisco 49ers and being from Alabama, we aren’t known for drinking wine, and within the Black community we aren’t known for drinking wine, and so that was part of the reason to be more vested and more knowledgeable about wine,” Owens said.

1010 Wine and Events features over 100 wines produced by Black vintners.

City officials then celebrated the opening of a new movie theater July 21.

Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas Hollywood Park is the first movie theater to open in Inglewood in 30 years.

“As we continue to innovate our concepts to meet the needs of our ever-evolving moviegoers, we are exceptionally thrilled to introduce such a special cinema experience to the Inglewood community,” said Luis Olloqui, chief executive officer of Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas. “Immersive by design, our latest partnership with IMAX provides cutting-edge entertainment coupled with refined luxury and convenience to underscore Hollywood Park’s status as a world-class sports and entertainment destination for all to enjoy.”

The movie theater is located inside Hollywood Park which is already home to SoFi Stadium, YouTube Theatre and the Wesley Apartments.

“We could not ask for a better partner to open Hollywood Park’s retail district than Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas, one of the world’s leading movie theater operators,” said Jason Gannon, managing director of SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park. “From the beginning, our local community identified the movie theater as being an important component of the Hollywood Park project and with the opening of Cinepolis, this will be the first movie theater in Inglewood in nearly 30 years.

“We look forward to welcoming Inglewood and greater Los Angeles to enjoy Cinepolis’ incredible entertainment experience and share in Stan Kroenke’s vision to turn Hollywood Park into a year-round destination for the community.”

Inglewood kept the good times rolling with two of the world’s biggest selling female artists taking up mini residency’s at SoFi Stadium.

Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour rolled into Inglewood over a six-day period between Aug. 3-5 and 7-9 to capacity crowds. Beyoncé followed with three performances Sept. 1, 2 and 4.

Chief of Police Mark Fronterotta returned to work in mid-September after suffering a near fatal medical emergency in January.

Upon his return, Inglewood police officers were involved in the fatal shooting of Inglewood resident Ivan Solis Mora, 34, who was shot in the driveway of his family’s home on Sept. 21.

“We’re going to make sure that the city pays,” attorney Christian Contreras said on behalf of the family. “And we’ll do anything and everything to bring justice to this family.”

The family has filed a claim against the city which is a precursor to a formal lawsuit.

The violence didn’t end.

October saw seven people killed in shootings and a fatal car accident across the street from the Sports and Entertainment District.

Five men were shot while sitting in their vehicle in the 3300 block of Manchester Blvd. on Oct. 7. Two of the men were killed. An hour earlier, a man was killed after a car sped through a red light.

Four others were shot between Oct. 7 and Oct. 31 with Mayor Butts attributing them all to gang violence.

“The reality is lately there have been a number of gang-related shootings and all of the victims have been gang members,” Butts said.

The previous week, the City came to a settlement agreement related to a multi-vehicle crash caused by the mayor near USC.

“The city of Inglewood has settled with my client Karina Gomez in the amount of $425,000 and tentatively with her son for $25,000,” said Dylan Dordick, the attorney of record for Gomez.

“The case against the city can’t be dismissed until the court approves the settlement for Ms. Gomez’s son, which we hope to have done within the next 30 days,” Dordick added.

The case was settled prior to a deposition being taken by Butts, according to Dordick.

The damages arose from Butts reportedly making an illegal turn on a red light near USC in 2019.

The following month City Manager Artie Fields announced his retirement after being with the city for more than a decade.

“By now, you may have heard that I will be retiring effective Dec. 29,” Fields wrote in an email to city staff Nov. 6. “I have enjoyed working for the city of Inglewood for more than 12 years and I am excited to move into the next chapter of my life that focuses on raising my son to be an outstanding young man.”

The city named former City Manager Mark Weinberg interim city manager effective Jan. 1.

“[Weinberg is] the perfect municipal executive to help guide the city during the current period of transition to a new generation of leadership in the city manager’s office,” Butts said.

The month ended with annual turkey giveaways around the city with the largest taking place at Faithful Central Bible Church in conjuction with the Magic Johnson Foundation.

Earvin “Magic” Johnson and the Magic Johnson Foundation hosted Holiday Hope, an invite-only, drive-through community giveaway event at Faithful Central Bible Church Nov. 18.

Holiday Hope assisted more than 800 families from Inglewood and Los Angeles in receiving food and other items through the generosity of Johnson’s Foundation, Feed the Children, Mattel, Cricket, Starbucks and others.

“I’m inspired to give back because of my mother,” said Johnson, before the start of the event. “During Thanksgiving, my mother would make enough food to help other families in our neighborhood and my job was to deliver the plates so it stuck with me what was expected of me as a child and subsequently, as an adult.”

The year ended with the big announcement that SoFi Stadium will play host to Super Bowl LXI in February 2027.

NFL team owners unanimously approved the venue selection during league meetings in Dallas.

“We are very excited to bring the Super Bowl back to Los Angeles for the second time in five years,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “The city did an outstanding job hosting Super Bowl 56 in the incredible SoFi Stadium and we believe that Super Bowl 61 will be even more memorable. The Los Angeles Rams, the Los Angeles Host Committee and many other outstanding partners will help create an unforgettable week of events culminating in Super Bowl Sunday in 2027 that will celebrate the region as an epicenter of sports, entertainment and culture.”

SoFi Stadium played host to its first Super Bowl in February 2022, which saw the Rams defeat the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 in Super Bowl LVI.

“On behalf of the city of Inglewood, we are pleased to welcome the NFL and Super Bowl LXI back to Inglewood in 2027,” Butts said. “Given the success of the 2022 event, we are certain the NFL will find SoFi Stadium and the city of Inglewood ready to deliver an exciting and memorable Super Bowl LXI.”

Emilie St. John is a freelance journalist covering the areas of Carson, Compton, Inglewood and Willowbrook. Send tips to her at emiliesaintjohn@gmail.com.