The specter of gentrification follows The Reef, a proposed South LA development

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Downtown Los Angeles has been through a renaissance over the last several years, and now it’s spreading south.

About a mile from the massive entertainment complex L.A. Live, on the other side of the 10 Freeway, Washington Boulevard looks untouched by downtown’s development boom. It’s clogged with traffic, surrounded by nondescript or rundown commercial buildings. But developers have a $1.2 billion plan to transform the area. That plan has brought the citywide fight over gentrification into sharp focus in South L.A.

The new Reef development fills two city blocks and will surround the current building. Photo: Aaron Fallon
The new Reef development fills two city blocks and will surround the current building. Photo: Aaron Fallon

The project is called The Reef, and it would turn what’s now two parking lots into a sprawling, 10-acre complex of housing, retail and open space. It’s planned to have a pair of high-rises with 14-hundred mostly market rate apartments and condos, a hotel, a grocery store, restaurants and public gardens. It’s scheduled to go to the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee for a vote on Nov. 1.

Supporters say that The Reef will erase blight and bring much-needed housing and jobs to one of the poorest parts of the city. Opponents call it a harbinger of gentrification.

“We’re concerned that the impact of this project threatens the lives, households and small mom and pop businesses of 43,000 people in the area,” said Benjamin Torres, president and CEO of CD Tech, a nonprofit focused on economic development in low-income neighborhoods.

He and other opponents want to see more on-site affordable housing in the project, more green space and more investment by the developers in things like anti-displacement programs to help current South L.A. residents.

The Reef developers, a pair of medical doctor-turned-real-estate-investor brothers named Avedis and Ara Tavitian, declined to be interviewed. They also developed the Atwater Crossing arts complex in Atwater Village.

L.A. City Councilman Curren Price who represents South L.A., argues that “this project would be much more complicated if we were removing housing to build this project.” But, he said, “We’re not. It’s two parking lots.”

The area surrounding the proposed Reef development is already one in transition. Photos: Aaron Fallon

Price says there are more than 500 new affordable units in 11 different projects in the pipeline for South L.A. The city’s Planning Commission has also recommended that The Reef contain five percent affordable units, and the developers have agreed to pay $3 million for community benefits such as youth programs, plus another $15 million into the city’s affordable housing trust fund, which pays for low-income housing all over L.A.

However, Torres argues it’s important to maximize the concrete, immediate benefits to people already living in South L.A. in a project like The Reef.

“These set precedents,” he said. “Once this project goes through, there will be other projects that come in, and you know, developers don’t like to upend each other… in terms of, I’m gonna provide more benefits than the last developer.”

Local residents and business owners are similarly split.

Vivian Bowers (L) says The Reef could be a spark for the neighborhood. Photo: Aaron Fallon
Vivian Bowers (L) says The Reef could be a spark for the neighborhood. Photo: Aaron Fallon

Debbie Alvarez, 60, is a home care worker who lives in a dilapidated building about a mile from The Reef. She shares a studio apartment with her husband, where the walls are covered with snapshots of her grandchildren. Together they earn about $1,400 a month. Half goes to rent. Their building recently sold to the affordable and market-rate housing developer Amcal, and Alvarez is afraid they’ll eventually have to move if the property is redeveloped.

“It’s going to affect so many people even though they say they’re not displacing anybody,” Alvarez said of The Reef. “All the apartment buildings, all the housing around there is affected.”

While Alvarez’s situation is not directly connected to The Reef, opponents say it’s a sign of the kind of changes the project will bring.

Real estate speculation in South L.A. “is absolutely being exacerbated by The Reef,” said Joe Donlin, associate director and director of equitable development for the nonprofit Strategic Actions for a Just Economy. “The Reef is emblematic of the massive development that’s going unchecked throughout the city.”

Property owners, meanwhile, see The Reef as a boon.

Vivian Bowers, who runs Bowers & Sons Cleaners, a dry cleaning shop about a mile and a half southeast of the development, is one of them. Her parents opened the business in South L.A. more than 50 years ago. “My parents really thought my brothers would be here instead of myself,” she said. “So – Bowers and sons.”

To Bowers, The Reef represents an exciting future for South Los Angeles, where the neighborhood becomes a destination for other Angelenos.

“It’s a spark,” she said, “It’s a spark of life. It says, ‘you know what? Over there isn’t so bad.”

Vivian Bowers at her business. Photo: Aaron Fallon

When that spark might come to life is unclear.

There’s no groundbreaking date for The Reef. After it goes to the city council’s PLUM committee on Nov. 1, it will need to gain approval from the full council before it can proceed. If it gets that far, the developers have twenty years to build it before their plans expire.