LOS ANGELES—In an effort to thwart gentrification in their South Central neighborhood, a grassroots coalition of Black organizers, leaders and real estate professionals have mobilized to buy the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza for the community.
Downtown Crenshaw opposes sale of the mall to the developer currently in escrow for the property, alleging Asher Abehsera, founder and CEO of LIVWRK, has strong ties with President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. The coalition sees Mr. Trump as an enemy of Black and Indigenous people and cite his poor record of property and real estate development, particularly discriminatory practices against Blacks with his properties, as examples.
Downtown Crenshaw blocked the sale of the mall to L.A.-based retail estate investment firm CIM Group for its connections to Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner, and because its proposal included high-end commercial office space only—no housing, retail, dine in restaurants, or community meetings to discuss their plans.
The grassroots coalition launched a “Save the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza!” petition on change.org, which garnered at press time over 13,000 signatures, the support of over 350 community groups, faith leaders, business leaders, former elected officials, tenants groups and residential associations.
CIM Group, which has denied having any business dealings with nor any backing by Mr. Kushner or his father-in-law, abandoned plans to buy the mall situated at 3650 West Martin Luther King Boulevard at Crenshaw Boulevard in June after community pressure.
Downtown Crenshaw alleged Mr. Abehsera is part of the Trump faction who still wants the property, and that LIVWRK is just CIM Group by another name.
“This is modern-day colonialism. This is taking over Black and Brown land to enrich outsiders and at the expense of the existing community,” said Damien Goodmon, co-founder of Downtown Crenshaw and executive director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, which works toward community involvement and empowerment in the Metro Transit Authority’s $2.1 billion Crenshaw-LAX Light Rail Project.
“We are an organization and as a community rising up saying we don’t want current business partners of Jared Kushner, who is the son-in-law to Donald Trump, and a company who is completely unqualified, taking control and closing on our mall,” said Mr. Goodmon.
“We know if we rise up and have a very loud and proud Black community voice saying this will not go down, this is not going to be permitted, that they will have to back away,” Mr. Goodmon told The Final Call.
Mr. Abehsera said he has never had any connection with Mr. Trump and has never met or been around him, and that he used to have a relationship with Mr. Kushner. They’ve done five deals together since starting his business in 2013, said Mr. Abehsera. They have not worked on anything since Mr. Kushner left to go work for his father-in-law, he told 300 participants during LIVWRK’s first public presentation, which was before the Empowerment Congress West Area Neighborhood Development Council’s virtual meeting on Oct. 29.
The council is a self-governed, self-directed and independent organization empowered by the Los Angeles City Charter to play a role in the city’s decision-making process affecting their communities. It joined the city-wide system in 2002.
Mr. Abehsera further said, he has three active projects with CIM Group as partners and investors in New York, but they are not involved in any way in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall project.
“I have trouble believing a word this man says, because I’ve paid too much attention to what he has done,” said Mr. Goodmon.
Mr. Goodmon told The Final Call not only has Mr. Abehsera admitted in a news article that he and Mr. Kushner talked every day and have a cohesive relationship, but they were doing refinancing deals together like New York’s Dumbo Heights development in 2018, well into the Trump administration.
“And then we find that based on Ivanka Trump’s own federal disclosures signed in June of this year—these are not simply allegations, these are facts—she is invested still in projects that involve this man in Dumbo Heights, still in the 184 Kent Avenue project, where Kushner and LIVWRK specifically engaged in an attempt to push out the lower (class),” said Mr. Goodmon.
“I mean, these were middle class White people they pushed out, because they could get more affluent White tenants in, in selling their condos, so why do you think that these people give a damn about these Black and Brown businesses in the Crenshaw Mall who were struggling before Covid and definitely are now? Why do you think that they’re not going to try and push them out and turn it into a tech center like the other guys at CIM wanted to do,” he continued.
The private equity fund Capri Urban Investors bought the 43-acre mall for $136 million in 2006. The group, led by the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association (LACERA), also includes UC Board of Regents, New York City Employees Retirement System and the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, are the sellers.
Mr. Goodmon says people think that the one controlling the sale and assets of the mall dating back to 2018 is a Black man, Quintin Primo, III., co-founder, chairman and CEO of Chicago-based Capri Capital Partners, but it’s controlled by Deutsche Bank subsidiary DWS (German Corporation for Investment Saving). Deutsche is another Trump connection, and the managing entity that bypassed three qualified Black development teams in a second-round sale and awarded the contract to LIVWRK-DHS partners, he charged.
Downtown Crenshaw said a bid by its powerful development team, including experts with over 200 collective years of experience in finance, acquisition, and development, “was not fairly considered.” Capri Capital was also passed over.
Downtown Crenshaw argued the confidential data had been made available to large developers like CIM Group 13 months prior. Despite a reasonable request for a 60-day extension of the offer due date, Downtown Crenshaw indicates they were inexplicably denied.
A host of local civil rights leaders and pastors asked in an Oct. 29 letter that California and New York Attorney Generals Javier Becerra and Letitia James, respectively, look into the bidding process and what conflicts of interest exist between Deutsche Bank and LivWrk-DFH Partners, but has received no response yet, several signatories told The Final Call.
Critics of Downtown Crenshaw told The Final Call and said during a Nov. 10 press conference that they do not support the sale of the mall to Mr. Goodmon and Downtown Crenshaw because the grassroots coalition does not have the funding sources, and because of their tactics in criticizing developers seeking to buy it.
Mr. Abehsera said he saw an opportunity where a local capable investor didn’t buy it so where they failed to engage the community he did. His plan does not include a community benefits agreement, but it’s still early, and he intends to invite people like architects from the community to participate, he stated.
His deal also includes five Black business partners who signed a letter of intent that gives them the opportunity to open the partnership or investments up to other Blacks, but he said he could not identify them due to confidentiality mandates.
The Final Call has not yet received a response from Mr. Abehsera to several calls for a request for an interview.
Najee Ali, an activist and ambassador of Operation Hope, a financial literacy non-profit, said he supports the sale to LIVWRK mainly after meeting with Mr. Abehsera. “He agreed to ensure the mall had Black ownership in it, because there was no way I would support this project going through otherwise,” stated Mr. Ali.
“I have been in conversations with some of the Black business people in L.A., and entrepreneurs who are investing and will be part of the Black ownership of the Crenshaw mall, and these are leaders in the Black community who have a long track record and their reputations are above repute,” Mr. Ali told The Final Call.
Tisha Green, a real estate broker and co-chair of the Land Use Committee for the Baldwin Hills Estates Homeowners Association told The Final Call the viability of the mall already struggling before Covid-19 is at stake.
“They’re retailers who couldn’t afford to come back and the sale of the mall has been precipitated by the larger institutional investor for the current owner who doesn’t want to continue the losses,” said Ms. Green. If the current sale is obstructed or falls through, the mall could be shut down, the community could lose what little resources it has, and it could be shut out of any future sale process, she stated.
It’s not that advocates for the sale love Mr. Abehsera, who was selected for the ability to perform on the seller’s terms in a competitive bidding process, but he is willing to engage with the community at a point where it’s very atypical for a buyer and developer to do so, Ms. Green continued.
“These people that allege that this guy (Abehsera) is so great and so wonderful, why won’t he return our phone calls? Text messages, phone calls, emails, he won’t return anything, and the reason is because he think he’s got his favorite negroes to make massa’s selections okay doing what he wants to do,” argued Mr. Goodmon.