Developer has tough row to hoe

One of downtown’s most prized parcels is finally entering into the beginning stages of its eventual transformation from an unused piece of prime land into an important piece of real estate with many possibilities.
As City Hall inititates the process of selecting a developer for 9300 Culver Blvd., known as Parcel B, some of the names of the potential firms being considered have drawn interest among nearby residents and could elicit a variety of emotions and memories from residents in the southern portion of the city.
Champion Development is one of 12 development firms that redevelopment officials have issued a Request for Qualifications and a Request for Proposal to transform the one-acre parcel into a destination location in downtown Culver City.
While Champion has a long history of development projects in Los Angeles and other cities, a proposed mixed-use complex that its owner sought to build in Culver City several years ago quickly became one of the most controverial of the last decade.
Many homeowners and businesses along the south Sepulveda Corridor recall how Champion’s proposed development would have included the displacement of nearly two dozen local businesses between Sawtelle Boulevard and Slauson Avenue along Sepulveda.
Within weeks, an opposition group of citizens and merchants was created and eventually emerged as a citizens action committee that pressured the Redevelpment Agency to recsind the proposal.
Several Sunkist Park residents, who live blocks from the proposed projects, helped spearhead the opposition.
Robert Champion, the founder of the development group, said the Parcel B project is “very different” than his ill-fated mixed-use Sepulveda Boulevard plan. “There is no preconceived idea” with Parcel B, he said. Regarding the Sepulveda project, Champion explained, “we did not use the RFP process and the city has asked us in that case to come up with a development plan.”
Tom Supple, a Sunkist Park homeowner, said not only did Champion want to build a sprawling project that would have forced many businesses to relocate and would have been a dense project for the residents living behind Sepulveda, the lack of public input on the development plan was also a determining factor in generating neighborhood animosity.
“I took issue with the process and how the city handled it,” said Supple. “It seemed like he had connections, like there was someone in the city (government) that wanted him to build here.”
Former City Councilman Alan Corlin was on the council at the time and rememembers how quickly opposition to the planned massive project gelled.
“The city created a void by not completely explaining what was going on and there were more than enough people that were ready to fill the void with fear and apprehension,” Corlin recalled. “My only hope is that ( Parcel B) is done with community support and that whatever takes place there will be good for the entire community.”
Steven Gourley, who served on the council from 1988 until 2006, does not fault the developer for the animosity that led to the ultimate failure of the proposed Sepulveda project. “That was not so much Mr. Champion’s problems. It was more of a tragic mistake by the city council,” said Gourley, now a member of the Culver City Unified School District, referring to the lack of public outreach by city officials.
Champion entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with the redevelopment agency on Oct. 16, 2006. The staff report indicates that the developer approached city officials with a mixed-use proposal that would span two blocks.
While the developer was slated to finance the planned project himself, if the business owner did not agree to be bought out by Champion, the redevelopment agency would have been required to use eminent domain to obtain the properties.
A Feb. 14 redevelopment agency staff report indicates that the agency is of the opinion that some developers may be reluctant to respond to RFPs due to the intense level of preparation. “They may be more inclined to do so if they have been selected from the short list of RFQ respondents,” the report states.
Meghan Sahli-Wells is not swayed by that explanation. “It seems like the developer is being preselected,” said Sahli-Wells, who heads the Downtown Neighbors Association and attended a workshop on Parcel B last year. “And why would this developer, who has a difficult history in Culver City, be preselected to develop this central peiece of property?”
Champion said the downtown project also differs in other ways from the Sepulveda project. “We’re proposing to bid on [Parcel B] with the understanding that has community support,” he said.
One element that Champion said he believes will be critical to the success of whatever is built at Parcel B is the design of the structure. “It has to have extraordinary architecture,” he said.
Corlin concurs. “It should be something that is attractive and is a good mix with our downtown,” the former councilman added.
Supple said that he would be willing to give Champion the benefit of the doubt if he is ultimately chosen, but added that first impressions are at times hard to forget.
“I wouldn’t necessarily hold [ the planned Sepulveda project] against him, but if I was a little suspicious before, I think that I would be again,” he acknowledged, adding “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Champion is aware that there may be some residents who still remember that the city gave him the greenlight to build along Sepulveda. “It think it’s sad and unfortunate but we understand,” the developer said. “We don’t propose anything that the city doesn’t want.”
Gourley said he believes that doing string community outreach – no matter who is chosen to develop Parcel – will help avoid a repeat of the Sepulveda debacle.
“If you don’t learn from your past mistakes, you’re bound to repeat them,” he cautioned.
Redevelopment Agency Administrator Todd Tipton could not be reached for comment on the status of the development firms that have been solicited.


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