September 30, 1990 - From the September, 1990 issue

Watts Redevelopment Plan: A Non-Starter Without Citizen Participation

Following the introduction of The Watts Redevelopment Project, Billy Mills reminds developers the importance of keeping the local residents in conversation. Mills is not opposed to development, in fact he advocates it in the underserved communities of Watts. As an attorney, and more importantly as community activist and a lifetime resident of South Central LA, Mills comprehends the delicate balance that redevelopment must straddle to ensure that the projects benefit residents of Watts.

The Watts Redevelopment Project represents a plan with the vision to begin addressing South Central Los Angeles’ problems of the kind which contributed to Watts’ violent eruption in 1965. The Project, recently expanded to three square miles and over 2000 acres, is expected to have a significant impact on the region. But unless the residents of Watts and the other areas affected are involved throughout the planning, development and operation of the Project, it cannot completely succeed.

The Project will no doubt proceed once the current review (initialed after local residents branded the Project unacceptable due to the potential loss of their homes) has been completed. When and under what terms it will proceed remain at issue. However, this must be a development in which the community participates fully.

Besides being a community on the dangerous edge of poverty and violence, Watts is composed of many proud and concerned residents for whom its simple dwellings offer the only affordable housing option. For almost as many others committed to remain in Watts and to work to improve it, the redevelopment of South Central Los Angeles, including Watts, represents an urgent challenge.

In the past, South Central Los Angeles residents have insisted on participating in similar projects affecting its residents, such as the Baldwin Hills Shopping Center reconstruction project. There, an initial lack of such involvement led to substantial community resentment and political complication. Involving the community, not merely in contributing to those purely residential or social components, but in the commercial components, will assure that at each level, the Project remains acceptable to local residents.

The Role of the Private Sector

In addition, private sector involvement, especially from minority-owned businesses, is essential to the fulfillment of meaningful development in South Central Los Angeles. Watts needs new businesses and business people as much as it needs jobs and job training.

Underlying the complaints that triggered the Project’s stoppage is a legitimate fear that the plan, like many of its predecessors, will be implemented without sensitivity to the impact on Watts’ residents. Those residents want change, and certainty need change, but not change to which they have not been introduced and have not been permitted time to understand.

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Make no mistake, South Central Los Angeles desperately needs “development,” and especially the residential and commercial forms outlined in the Project’s plan. Yet it needs more than mere structures. It requires development that seeks to improve the quality of life for the people of Watts.

Remember the Human Factors

Unless the community’s leaders remain faithful to the goal of redeveloping Watts and reinvigorating its people, the Project cannot ultimately succeed. Planners and developers will have ample opportunity to capitalize on the new opportunities in Watts, but as they do so the City’s leaders must assure that those involved in the development remain mindful of the human factors, and remember that Watts is a community of people who want and deserve involvement in the improvement of their area.

The Watts Redevelopment Project represents an opportunity, not only to begin building and reshaping the appearance of South Central Los Angeles, but an opportunity to provide the entire region a needed symbol of hope and opportunity. Developers, planners, or businessmen interested in participating in the new redevelopment area must believe the Project can work.

The Project will work if residents are permitted to stay involved and help it work. Until then, the true redevelopment of Watts will remain a dream, even after the Project’s last brick is set and the paint has dried.

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© 2022 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.