By Darlene Donloe
BALDWIN HILLS — A coalition of community activists, business owners and other stakeholders have thrown their support behind the sale of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza to New York real estate companies LIVWRK (Asher Abehsera) and DFH Partners, the team selected by the current owners (Capri Urban Investors, LLC) to buy the 40-acre property.
At a Nov. 10 press conference, Najee Ali, community relations ambassador for Operation Hope; Tisha Greene, co-chair of the Baldwin Hills Estates Homeowners Association’s 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, presented a united front in their approval of the sale and said due to other organization’s continued “bashing” of the project, it was time their voices were heard.
“We are a group of very impassioned, concerned stakeholders in the community who want to see this mall redeveloped,” said Greene, who also is a member of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Neighborhood Planning Alliance. “We want to see upgraded amenities and resources and economic opportunities for our communities right here in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw area.”
The coalition’s approval of the sale now pits two community groups against each other. Downtown Crenshaw, a community organization formed earlier this year, opposes the sale of the mall to LIVWRK, claiming the developer has ties to Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law.
Downtown Crenshaw and its founder, Damien Goodmon, were recently accused of “misleading” the community by also having ties to Kushner through Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate services company currently working for Downtown Crenshaw, which tried to buy the mall this year but was unsuccessful.
In an blog written by Najee Ali and published on The Wave’s website Nov. 9, Ali said, “The reality is that many area residents and stakeholders near the mall support the sale to Abehsera as long as Black ownership is included.”
He went on to say he received an email from a Crenshaw resident, which said a Google search revealed JLL and Kushner have partnered on projects.
Reached by phone, Goodmon said, “The truth is, Damien and Downtown Crenshaw have the same ties and speak of hypocrisy and it speaks to them exploiting and using the community,” Ali said at the press conference.
Goodmon, who is also the founder and executive director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, admitted a relationship with JLL but added he would “not dignify” the allegations with a response. Instead, he referred to the Downtown Crenshaw website where he said the organization’s relationship with JLL was “transparent.”
A phone call to JLL, a global company, was not been returned by press time.
Under the Downtown Crenshaw Development Team page it says, “Real estate powerhouse Jones Lang LaSalle will provide master developer services as ‘developer for-fee’ (no equity interest, only client interest).”
According to the Commercial Real Estate Dictionary, “Developer for fee,” means JLL is only a service provider.
According to a Los Angeles real estate firm, the definition also means JLL does not get profits from the project, which would be contrary to the alleged Kushner participation, which would include an equity stake.
“A developer who develops for a fee has no ownership stake,” said Philip S. Hart, Ph.D., founder and managing partner of BioMed Development Group, LLC. “The bigger picture in the Crenshaw District is how white developers are taking over major projects in the Black and brown community — from CIM Group at 30th and Crenshaw to Watt Companies at Crenshaw Crossing to LIVWRK at BHCP.”
Hart, an adviser to Downtown Crenshaw, and project manager for the planning and construction of West Angeles Church of God in Christ added: “In the instance of the mall, a white developer was selected over two Black developers and Downtown Crenshaw Rising. That is the story as the Crenshaw District gentrifies.”
During a recent virtual meeting with the Empowerment Congress West Neighborhood Development Council, Asher Abehsera emphatically told more than 300 community members that the rumors, whisperings and allegations about the inclusion of CIM Group, Jared Kushner, and President Donald Trump in the pending deal for the iconic mall, were not true.
The CIM Group tried to buy the mall earlier this year but backed out due to community pressure.
“I have zero connection with Trump, never met him, never been a part of anything, you know, around him,” Abehsera said. “I used to have a relationship with Jared Kushner.”
Abehsera said he and Kushner “Did five deals together.” After those deals were completed, Abehsera said, “I have no business with his family, not ongoing or new business. They are not investors in my company.”
In a previous interview, Goodmon countered saying, “Ivanka Trump’s filings show he’s in dealings now. He has misrepresented his relationship with Donald Trump since the beginning.”
“I don’t want to make it as if those ties should necessarily be a disqualifying factor for anybody,” said John Gonzales, the financial co-chair of the Baldwin Hills Estates Land Use committee. “I find it somewhat hypocritical that a key tenet of why we should throw out LIVWRK is this tie — when the group putting that out there — their main development partner has the same tie.”
Gonzales, who has been meeting with Abehsera with the rest of the committee, said he was concerned about gentrification happening in the area.
“We’re concerned about gentrification so we need to push this developer for a reasonable amount of affordable housing and local jobs,” said Gonzales, who is in the real estate and construction business. “He knows we’re all advocating for that. This person has stepped forward with a certain amount of track record to be able to do this scale of a project and he has also stepped forward with the ability to raise the $1 billion for the visionary project he’s proposing to us.”
Members of the coalition said they received “assurances” from Abehsera that he would continue to engage the community on his plans for the mall.
“I definitely support the sale of the Crenshaw Mall,” said Teresa Humphrey, president of the Baldwin Hills Estates Homeowner’s Association. “The owner, Asher, has assured us that he is going to continue to engage with our community and work with us. He does have ties to the community because he grew up in the Los Angeles area so there is a trust factor there.
“A lot of our residents in the Baldwin Hills community and the surrounding areas always travel outside of the community to find local, great restaurants, food choices, and retail stores. We should have the same affordable options here.”
“We’re tired of blight,” said Gina Fields, a community activist who lives in the area. “We’re tired of empty caverns that don’t turn into community projects. At this point, we feel that LIVWRK offers the best option for this mall to become viable again. Whether that’s a mall combined with offices, combined with residences, including affordable housing, we just need to move forward. This area is a desert for shopping, a desert for food and this mall area can bring back some of that vitality.
Daniel Signani has lived in Leimert Park for seven years and is looking forward to “change.”
“I’m a concerned resident,” he said. “This is an opportunity for our community to come together, much like our country needs to. We need to work on solutions. We are tired of going outside our own community. We want to keep the dollars in our community. When do we say enough is enough?”
Greene called Abehsera, “a buyer who is uniquely situated with lots of experience in mixed-use developments.”
“This is a buyer who is willing to engage with us now, have a seat at the table with us now to hear our concerns about local development, about providing opportunities for local businesses and community members, about our concerns with affordable housing, about having a cultural slant on this development that gives nods to the cultural community that is resonant here in the Baldwin Crenshaw area,” she said.
Greene said, “it would have been great to see the Black developer who currently owns the mall to have developed the plan, the mixed-use retail plan that was approved in 2018.”
“That plan was stymied by litigation from the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, which is affiliated with Downtown Crenshaw,” she said. “Now, those same folks are trying to obstruct further development of this property again by obstructing the current sale to LIVWRK. We feel that is a disservice to our community.
“That mall is on life support,” Greene added. “They are bleeding over there. The risk for us as a community in not supporting this sale is that if that mall closes down, and we have lost opportunities, lost economic opportunities for the businesses there, and lost amenities for the community and a blight similar to what we’re seeing at Marlton Square,” an adjoining shopping center.
“It seems that they are pro-active in integrating the community, along with the expansion and investment needed to advance this piece of property,” said Tony Jolly, owner of Hot & Cool Café in Leimert Park, who approves the sale to LIVWRK. “It seems as though it’s a win-win. I would have loved it if it was all Black, but I don’t believe Black dollars can sustain such a project.
“You have to be creative to develop this mall. The last thing it should be is a mall. It needs to be a campus for a corporation to come in where you can bring in the revenue to sustain it and then build out housing and then build out retail. If it’s 100% retail, it will go dormant again.”
While no price has been disclosed, previous offers to buy the mall exceeded $100 million. The sale is expected to close by the end of the year.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.