By Alfredo Santana
BOYLE HEIGHTS — Residents are pushing back against a proposal from the owner of the historic Sears building at Soto Street and Olympic Boulevard who wants to convert the structure into a recovery center for thousands of homeless.
Hundreds of residents marched outside the empty building Sept. 28 with signs that accused the owner of dumping the homelessness crisis on their neighborhood.
They also berated the current building owner, Izek Shomof, for not reaching out to local residents before he submitted his proposal to city and county leaders in search of financial backing and compared his plans to open the proposed Life Rebuilding Center to warehousing the homeless.
East LA-Boyle Heights Coalition member and long-time Boyle Heights resident Nadine Diaz said the former Sears facility represents a part of the neighborhood’s history where her parents and grandparents purchased appliances, patio and home furniture, and tools and clothing for their families. Many local residents worked there earning wages to pay rent, mortgages and raise their families.
Diaz said Shomof, a Beverly Hills resident, has a shortsighted approach to renovate the building because “his goal is to recover the $20 million he invested” in the purchase.
She said her neighbors have long fought to have better services such as affordable housing, improved schools, clean air, more grocery stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables and safer streets, not a shelter for homeless people from outside the neighborhood.
Those petitions have fallen on deaf ears of elected politicians for decades, she said.
“We lack the proper assessment of the community,” Diaz said. “Deficiencies outweight the assets. The quality of food is not important to those living in other communities. We need quality commercial businesses that bring quality food. We also need more green spaces.”
A professor of social work at Cal State Dominguez Hills, Diaz said that many Boyle Heights residents suffer from asthma, cancer and other ailments due to high levels of carbon emissions from trucks and cars riding on the nearby Santa Ana (5) Freeway and Soto Street, and the last thing they need is another headache that poses more danger to them.
“Today, the homeless have mushroomed into a large problem,” Diaz said. “Even the elected officials have no plans” to solve it.
Diaz said she worked on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles for 12 hours a day until 2005 and witnessed the homeless population and the problems they faced on a regular basis.
She said that many homeless people are veterans who need special medical and psychological attention and they should not be paired with others reeling from drug addiction, alcoholism and job or family losses.
She also blamed City Councilman Kevin De León for failing to return the coalition’s phone calls requesting to hold town hall meetings to ease concerns related to the Sears building proposal, and to devise ways to lift the community.
“De Leon ran and was elected in the district not to represent the district, but to run for mayor,” Diaz said. “We need to sit down and develop a plan for the well-being of the community and our constituents.”
De León’s chief of staff Jennifer Barraza recently told the Los Angeles Times that the councilman is not convinced of the Sears’ project’s merits, but would be open to dialogue.
Bill Taormina, who was the project manager for the original proposal, told The Times that the original plans for the Life Rebuilding Center were scratched in response to community feedback, and that the owner would invest $400 million to bring the facility built in 1927 up to code and pitch the property to the city for rent or purchase.
The Life Rebuilding Center’s website indicates that the 1.6 million-square-foot facility “will serve as a national model on how private and public partnerships can come together to bring about a real solution to addressing the homeless issue” by providing beds, medical and dental services and job training.
Shomof pledged to remove concrete from the parking lot and turn most of the area into green spaces, in addition to remodeling the ground floor to house police and fire department substations, clinics and develop commercial space for retailers.
The modified version would provide about 3,000 permanent supporting beds for the unhoused and create more than 1,000 jobs.
The Art-Deco building fell into disrepair with multiple broken windows visible from the streets after Sears closed the store last year.
Diaz said that with community input, a good renovation blueprint for all neighborhood stakeholders would envision apartments for high-, medium- and low-income tenants, noting that the building would require expensive retrofitting to withstand earthquakes, with new sewage, electrical and water lines.
“But ultimately it’s Shomof’s building. It is his property and he will decide what to do with it,” Diaz said.
Shomof has owned the building since 2013.
In a video from a June 27 meeting with Taormina and Boyle Heights residents, De Leon’s Communications Director Pete Brown scolded Taormina for not meeting with the community before launching the project and told him to listen what the community wants for the building’s future.