Photo by Art Torres

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Passions flared at a lively discussion on the future of the historic Sears Tower complex at a community forum hosted Saturday by Boyle Heights Beat.

Setting the scene for a community debate that is likely to play out in the coming months, the conversation swirled around whether the need for more affordable housing in Boyle Heights can be balanced with investors’ interest in earning a profit, with most attendees expressing support for restoring the now decaying Sears building to its days of glory in the 1920s.

The developer, Izek Shomof, and his team painted a picture of an urban renewal centered around a long- neglected site, winning praise from property owners who attended the gathering. But low-income renters gave emotional testimony about the need for more affordable housing in Boyle Heights. They shared fears that gentrification represented by this development could drive up prices for low-income residents and asked whether the construction project would create jobs for local residents. Cries of support from property owners punctuated the emotional meeting and a protestor holding a hand-held sign that said “No Gentrification in Boyle Heights” had to be asked to leave.

Youth reporter Yazmin Nunez, a senior at Roosevelt High School, moderated the meeting held at the Boyle Heights Youth Technology Center before a standing room crowd that swelled to 80. Earlier, she interviewed Shomof for Boyle Heights Beat. Youth reporter Lesly Juarez provided instantaneous translation from English to Spanish.

Nunez invited prominent downtown developer Shomof to participate in the meeting to share his plans for the historic site, which once served as a regional hub for Sears. The site houses a nine-story building and a 14-story Art Deco tower that youth reporter Nunez described as a “gateway to the community.”

The meeting Saturday represented the first time that the developer has spoken to the public about his plans since purchasing the building and 23-acre site for between $29 and $32 million last year. Boyle Heights Beat hosted the meeting as part of its mission to serve as a community information source.

Community residents share their memories, wishes for Sears Tower in the storytelling video booth below:

YouTube video

Shomof, along with his team, presented renderings of the proposed project that included plans for: a ground floor that invites foot traffic with retail stores, and restaurants, approximately 1,000 studio to two-bedroom residential units on upper floors and a rooftop dotted with skylights, patios and courtyards.

The second floor units would have 25-foot high ceilings making them ideal spaces for Eastside artists, Shomof’s team said. Other design elements include a planned 300,000 square feet of office space and a 35,000- square foot market.

Shomof’s team also said they are entertaining the possibility of housing a community music space modeled after one in Manhattan Plaza, a landmark building occupied by many artists in New York.

On a one-acre parcel fronting on the railroad tracks, the developer plans to create a green space with an urban feel that would be open to the community, said his partner Leo Pustilnikov. Shomof would develop the 13-acre parcel around the building first and then tackle the remaining 10 acres.

Shomof, who has redeveloped 11 other historical buildings, says he sees the project as transforming an “eyesore” into a vibrant community hub. Already, he has worked with police to try to change the vibe in the industrial zone that residents in the audience described as an area with acts of prostitution and other illicit activity.

Shomof plans to work with architect Karin Liljegren, who has been involved in many new residential development projects in downtown L.A., on the renovation project. Robert Chattel, the historic preservation consultant who worked on the Boyle Hotel, would also be involved.

Fill out our survey: What Should the Sears Tower Become?

But when it came to community questions about whether Shomof would build affordable housing, the developer made no promises. José Fernandez, also a speaker at the Boyle Heights Beat forum, explained the planning process to residents and described how a successful lawsuit by a downtown L.A. developer in 2009 limited the city’s power to require that private developers include affordable units on new developments.

Fernandez, community plan organizer at East Los Angeles Community Corporation, urged the audience to get involved in the planning process. Community benefits such as markets, recreation areas or more affordable housing units would only become part of the approved plans as part of a negotiation process involving residents, property owners, housing activists, the city and the developer, he said.

Community member Fanny Ortiz told an emotional story about how she has been saved from homelessness because of rent control.

In response, developers say they are going to try and accommodate the community, but “don’t want to promise the world.”

When asked about bringing jobs to the community, developers said they would bid jobs openly and hope that the local workforce would participate.

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Boyle Heights Beat

Boyle Heights Beat is a bilingual community newspaper produced by its youth "por y para la comunidad". The newspaper and its sister website serve an immigrant neighborhood in East Los Angeles of just under...

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