A proposal to convert Boyle Heights’ historic Sears building and tower into a resource center for the homeless is being withdrawn, after community activists meeting Monday at Resurrection Church resoundingly expressed their opposition to the project.
“Este proyecto está muerto,” said Wiliiam Taormina, the Orange County businessman and advocate for the homeless who proposed the idea of creating a Life Rebuilding Center at the iconic building, and to eventually develop permanent affordable housing in the nine acres of undeveloped land surrounding it, potentially impacting up to 10,000 people.
Speakers at the meeting said they feared that some of those 10,000 new residents may have mental health issues and could potentially add to criminal activity that’s already high in the neighborhood. They said that attending to that large population’s needs would diminish health and other services that are currently stretched thin in Boyle Heights.
There was standing room only at the church hall when the meeting started promptly at 6 pm, though the crowd started to thin out after two hours. Many said they empathized with the homelessness issue, but that the proposed Life Rebuilding Center was unattainable and unsustainable.
Halfway through the three-hour meeting, after every community member who took the microphone vehemently shut down the project, Taormina said he would tell the developer who owns the building that he should disregard the proposal.
That developer is Izek Shomof, who bought the $1.6 million Sears property in 2013 and originally planned to convert it into a high-end residential and commercial complex. In February, a column in the Los Angeles Times revealed that Shomof had agreed to forego the housing and commercial project after meeting with Taormina, who has spearheaded similar homeless projects in Anaheim.
At first, Taormina said that he would advise Shomof to go back to his original luxury development idea. After meeting organizer Sofía Quiñones said that the community also opposed the high-end development, Taormina asked speakers to suggest possible alternative uses of the Sears structure.
One by one, speakers then suggested a number of ideas for the building – from a trade school for Boyle Heights youth to a mixed-use project that included a Trader Joe’s market.
“This is what I needed to hear,” said Taormina, who committed to participating in future meetings organized by the Boyle Heights East Los Angeles Coalition. The grassroots advocacy group has been meeting on Mondays at the church hall under the auspices of Monsignor John Moretta, the church pastor and a well-known community activist.
Watch a recording of the meeting on Facebook Live:
Even though Taormina stated in his presentation that the homeless project had not been reviewed or approved by city or county officers, several of the speakers at Monday’s meeting incorrectly blamed area Councilman Kevin de León for pushing through a project that the community opposed.
A Telemundo reporter who went live on the station’s Monday evening newscast with a story about the meeting while it was happening quoted a statement sent to the outlet by De León’s office, stating that “the voice of the community is very important in this type of project and should be listened to” and that he “welcomed any project that could help resolve the homelessness problem.”
That’s similar to what De León told The Times in February:
“I welcome people who want to productively work on solving this humanitarian crisis and house people as quickly as possible. This is a gargantuan problem that requires all hands on deck to solve, so I am open to all solutions that can address the suffering we see with homelessness.”Kevin De León
At one point Taormina said that he made several requests for meetings with De León and that the only response he received was from a fundraiser, asking for a donation for the councilman’s failed campaign for mayor. Taormina said he told the fundraiser: “No, I don’t think De León deserves to be in office.”
Attention shifts to Kevin De León
Eventually, Monday’s meeting degenerated into a vociferous condemnation of De León’s tenure as councilman for the 14th district, with community members stating their perceived lack of responsiveness from the elected official.
One community member who said he volunteers to pick up trash said that he approached De León for help and that the councilman told him that it was the community member’s responsibility to do the cleanup. Another activist said that De León had used the council district as a “stepping stone” in his failed mayoral campaign, and told attendees of De León’s formation of a committee to run for lieutenant governor in 2026.
When De León staffer Susana Lopez took the microphone to express De León’s posture on the Sears proposal, she was booed by attendees asking why the councilman was absent from the meeting.
Later, De León’s press representative Pete Brown took the microphone and began to enumerate a number of ways in which De León had helped Boyle Heights, including during his time as a California senator. When Quiñones asked him to limit his statement to the Sears project, he said that the councilman had advised Taormina about the importance of having community input.
“The councilmember and his chief of staff and his planning director made it very clear: ‘you come to the community, you listen to what the community wants, you see if it fits with the image, with the idea, with the hopes and dreams of what the community wants,’” Brown said, before turning to Taormina. “Tonight’s the first time you’ve seen him here. So what took you so long, Bill?
Taormina’s quick response included a four-letter word: “Are you kidding me… you’re full of sh*t.”
After that, Quiñones took the microphone away from Brown and some in the crowd started shouting “¡Fuera!” Eventually, Brown, Lopez and their small entourage left the meeting as people in the room pointed to the exit.
Boyle Heights Beat reached out to Brown, requesting a comment from De León, without response as of this story’s posting.
Before Monday’s meeting ended, someone brought in a number of signs for an ongoing De León recall campaign and passed them around, and several of the few people who remained in the room held them high – possibly signaling the direction in which the coalition’s activism may be headed.