By Darlene Donloe
BALDWIN HILLS — One of L.A.’s most talked-about stories during the contagiously unfunny year of 2020 has been the high-profile volleying between developers interested in purchasing the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza and the community activists hell-bent on thwarting any sales that wouldn’t be community controlled.
A quick walk down memory lane unearths the forced closing of the beloved shopping center due to COVID-19 mandates from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, and the frenetic back and forth that began in May surrounding who would eventually own the 869,000-square-foot facility considered one of the cornerstones of Los Angeles’ Black community. The mall was eventually allowed to reopen, but only at a reduced capacity.
For months, developers pleaded their cases for buying the mall, promising much-needed updates, additions and community involvement.
As months went on, two very vocal factions of community activists emerged, each concerned about the future of the mall. The drama surrounding the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza has played out like a soap opera.
It all started in April when CIM Group agreed to buy the mall with a bid of more than $100 million for the property, which was accepted by Deutsche Bank.
There was a slight problem, as far are Black leaders were concerned — no one had consulted them.
In May, local Black leaders were caught off guard with one calling it a “sad day for Crenshaw” and a city councilman referring to it as “brazen” upon learning the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza would be sold to CIM Group, a Los Angeles-based developer with plans to remake the once-booming shopping center into a mixed-use complex that included offices for rent, but didn’t add housing, which had already been approved by the city from plans submitted by the previous owner.
In 2018, the mall site had received city approvals for an additional net 2 million square feet of new development, which included a 400-room hotel, apartments, condominiums, office space and additional stores.
Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents the 8th District where the mall is located, was quoted in a local paper as saying, “None have been so brazen as to do a press release about their plans for the mall without talking to the council office.”
By June, CIM had backed out of the deal after Downtown Crenshaw and other community organizers put pressure on the company to back out of the deal once it was learned CIM had ties with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser.
At that point, Downtown Crenshaw declared victory and all was quiet on the plaza front. No one knew it at the time, but soon another developer would come calling.
In October, it was learned that LIVWRK, owned by Asher Abehsera and DFH Partners (a woman-led, New York-based commercial real estate investment firm) had been selected by Capri Urban Investors (the current owners) to acquire the 40-acre property. It was also learned that LIVWRK also had dealings with Kushner.
LIVWRK and DFH Partners agreed to purchase the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza for about $110 million, according to The Wall Street Journal. The mall’s Macy’s department store and IHOP restaurant were not included in the impending sale. The mall had previously lost its anchor stores – Walmart and Sears.
Not to be outdone, Downtown Crenshaw members sought to purchase the plaza themselves, putting together a $100 million bid that was rejected in favor of LIVWRK.
Other bidders who were Black and reportedly made higher offers also were rejected.
Damien Goodmon, a Downtown Crenshaw board member and executive director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, said in a statement that the Downtown Crenshaw development team, which is reportedly backed by global award-winning firms, had an offer that “remains 5% over the next most credible offer.”
At a press conference held near the iconic shopping mall, Goodmon and several Downtown Crenshaw board members, were joined by local Black pastors and community activists to, once again, voice their opposition to the sale of the mall. Neighborhood groups warned a sale to LIVWRK could accelerate gentrification in the area.
Abehsera, 37, admitted that LIVWRK has active real estate projects with CIM Group, but Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza is not one of them. Abehsera also admitted to partnering with Kushner on past real estate ventures.
“Neither Jared nor his family has any investment in my company or this deal,” Abehsera said. “I have had no involvement with Jared since he went to work with his father-in-law, President Trump.”
Downtown Crenshaw cried foul.
On Nov. 10, after weeks of silence, a coalition that included Najee Ali, Tisha Greene, co-chair of the Baldwin Hills Estates Homeowners Association Land Use committee; community activist Gina Fields, John Gonzales, financial co-chair of the Baldwin Hills Estates Land Use committee; and Teresa Humphrey, president of the Baldwin Hills Estates Homeowners Association, all threw their support behind the sale of the mall to LIVWRK and DFH Partners.
The group said due to other organization’s continued “bashing” of the project, it was time their voices were heard.
The coalition’s approval of the sale pit them against Downtown Crenshaw.
Also in November, Abehsera participated in a virtual meeting with the Empowerment Congress West Neighborhood Development Council. During the meeting, he emphatically told more than 300 community members that the allegations about the inclusion of CIM Group, Jared Kushner and President Donald Trump in the impending deal for the plaza, were not true.
On Nov. 19, a media advisory was released by Goodmon announced that black leaders would protest and rally in Century City that day to stop the sale of the Crenshaw Mall to New York City-based real estate company, LIVWRK.
The media advisory suggested that LIVWRK was “both unqualified and was chosen over more qualified Black bidders including some with higher offers.”
Downtown Crenshaw put together a team to buy the mall that included the architecture firm Smith Group (National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.), Phillip Hart (West Angeles Church), local architect Cory Henry; real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle and MASS Design Group.
In November, it was revealed that LIVWRK had a Dec. 1 deadline to buy the mall. In an effort to keep its opposition campaign going, Downtown Crenshaw laid out a seven-day plan leading up to the deadline. It included a social media storm, a Black Friday canvass of Crenshaw area businesses, a grocery store information picket, and a canvass in LIVWRK CEO Asher Abehsera’s Beverlywood neighborhood.
There was also a town hall Zoom and a human billboard at the mall.
Reportedly, LIVWRK and DFH Partners failed to make a payment on the property after 60 days, and allegedly requested a 10-day extension, which expired without a payment. That’s when the deal is said to have crashed.
On Dec. 15, through a press release, Downtown Crenshaw announced that the sale of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza to LIVWRK and DFH Partners was terminated on Dec. 11.
It was the second time in seven months that the community-based organization had stopped the sale of the mall.
In the same Dec. 15 statement, Goodmon said, “Downtown Crenshaw remains steadfast in its desire to purchase the mall, place it under community control, and redevelop it using principles of community wealth building.”
The latest collapse marked yet another setback for Capri Urban Investors, which bought the mall in 2006.
By mid-December, the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza was back on the market, leaving its future up in the air — again — as we head into 2021. Stay tuned.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.