The proposed Transit Connector would be a public subsidy for private profit. It would have major implications for small businesses in downtown Inglewood and along historic Market Street.
“In building a modern transportation system, the displacement of a small percentage of the population is often necessary.” So begins the relocation brochure sent by the City of Inglewood in late February to the owners of 44 shops, eateries, and offices that were identified for possible relocation to make way for the Inglewood Transit Connector (ITC). The city has since adjusted the plan to keep a Vons and its neighboring retailers in place, reducing the number of businesses in the crosshairs for relocation to 41.
Although these businesses will likely be eligible for some relocation support from the city, several owners fear the relocation could leave them worse off. Inglewood City Council will hold a public hearing on the relocation plan at its April 11 meeting, but several owners suggest their concerns will go ignored.
Knock LA reviewed a 25-page packet of relocation materials sent to business owners in February. Of the eight business owners Knock LA spoke with, four asked to remain anonymous because they were concerned speaking publicly might jeopardize their relocation support.
Plans for the ITC envision an elevated rail line that would run 1.6 miles from the new Downtown Inglewood Metro station along historic Market Street before heading to the Kia Forum, SoFi Stadium, and Intuit Dome. The city hopes to relocate businesses between late 2023 and 2025 to allow ITC construction to begin in 2024 with the goal of beginning service in time for the 2028 Olympics.
Construction is projected to cost $1.56 billion, up from the $1.15 billion estimated in 2021. According to figures provided by the ITC’s management team on April 3, the city has so far secured $754 million, primarily state and county funding, and is currently seeking a grant from the Federal Transit Administration. (The ITC management team initially told Knock LA the city had secured $765 million. But a breakdown of funds provided by the management team did not add up to $765 million, and they later confirmed the figure was $754 million.)
According to Inglewood’s relocation plan released this year, 38 of the 41 businesses identified for possible relocation are located either in the Market Street shopping center across from the Metro station or in Holly Park Plaza on Prairie Avenue, as both plazas could be entirely cleared to make way for two of the ITC’s three stations.
Inglewood is offering to cover moving expenses and some re-establishment costs for eligible businesses and to support businesses with “dedicated relocation agents” and “referrals to replacement sites.”
The relocation plan states that “it is the policy of the Displacing Agency that displaced business shall not suffer unnecessarily as a result of programs designed to benefit the public as a whole.” But at a March 14 city council meeting, members of the public following along on Facebook wondered why a train was necessary at all when extra shuttle buses could run along the same route on event days at a significantly lower cost, and could be paired with incentives to discourage driving.
Others questioned the “public benefit” claim. The project’s 2021 Draft Environmental Impact Report estimated that just 414 people per hour would ride the line at peak times on a “normal” day, compared to 11,450 per hour after an NFL Game. The intense traffic and car pollution the ITC is intended to mitigate were created by the privately owned stadiums. Yet the general public is being asked to foot the bill while local residents shoulder disruptions like relocation.
Uncertainty for Local Business Owners
Business owners say they are receiving mixed messages. On the one hand, representatives from consulting firms contracted by the city have been doing inspections to assess moving costs and have sent letters about “assist[ing] you with the relocation program.” On the other hand, notices sent out by the city state they do “not constitute the City’s determination to acquire any new property for the Project” and do “not establish eligibility for relocation payments.” Within the span of single city council meetings, councilmembers and project coordinators pivot from “if and when” language to discussing the plan as if it’s a sure thing.
“If we don’t know what’s going to happen, we do not know which way to increase our business or decrease our business,” said Amar Kohli, the owner of Amar’s Wholesale florists. Kohli said he initially moved to Inglewood to cut down costs, adding: “From here, I don’t know where I’m going to go.”
The uncertainty is exacerbated for non-native-English speakers, some of whom struggled to parse the thick stack of papers sent out in February.
The February information packet stated business owners would “be given at least 90 days advance written notice” to relocate once the city acquires the property where they operate. One notice in the packet emphasized: “If you move or are evicted before receiving such notice, you will not be eligible to receive relocation assistance.”
This warning attempts to stop business owners from moving before the transit project is finalized, but it leaves some feeling stressed about the narrow window for finding a suitable new place, and somewhat unable to act in the meantime. Two owners told Knock LA it was their understanding that they could not even be seen to be looking for potential sites to relocate to before the city gives the 90-day notice because their move could be then viewed as ‘voluntary,’ rendering them ineligible for relocation payments.
Some of the biggest businesses initially in the crosshairs of ITC development no longer face uncertainty. On March 29, Mayor James Butts announced a change to the planned location of the rail line’s maintenance and storage facility in order to keep the Vons on Manchester Avenue in place. The revision allows the Planet Fitness and US Bank branches in the same lot to stay in place as well. While this adjustment responds to local residents’ concerns about temporarily or permanently losing access to their grocery store, it leaves all the small, locally owned businesses on the relocation list at risk.
Compensation for Relocation?
Several owners of smaller businesses do not trust the city to compensate them fully and fairly for the costs of relocation, particularly given the challenge of finding a comparable place at the same (relatively) low rents they pay currently.
One business owner in the Market Street shopping center pointed out that his small operation benefits from sharing a lot with CVS and DD’s Discounts, bigger stores that draw customers to the area. He is worried any new location would not be as well situated. It is a potential problem not only for his business needs but also for his customers, many of whom live in nearby senior housing and may struggle with the dispersal of their neighborhood shopping plaza.
Amelia Hernandez is the owner of Selwyn Jewelers, which her family has operated in Inglewood for sixty years. She said the city is still offering only “the bare necessities of what we might need,” so she and her fellow neighboring businesses may have to “sue to get what [we] need” to stay in business. “We will not be able to afford our next location,” she worried, “considering that if we read through the package that Inglewood sent us, they’re talking about only paying a certain amount of our lease adjustment.”
According to the information materials, businesses “may be eligible” to receive up to $25,000 for expenses pertaining to re-establishing their business in a new locale. This includes increased costs of operation at the replacement site — such as higher rent, tax, insurance, or utility charges — “for the first 2 years.” After that, any increased costs will fall on the businesses.
City officials have raised the possibility of moving some relocated businesses into currently empty units along Market Street, which has been the focus of a succession of attempted revitalization plans for years. According to Hernandez, the city moved Selwyn Jewelers out of Market Street with just 30 days notice in 2017, citing development plans for the street.
That process was stressful and expensive for Hernandez. Now, she is concerned about moving back and paying higher rents on a street that could be torn up and under construction for the ITC for four years, potentially deterring her customers.
An FAQ about the relocation plan states the city will establish a $5 million business assistance fund “to deal with any potential disruptions during the construction process.” This fund will require an application that is separate from the relocation support process. According to Lisa Richardson, a spokesperson for the ITC project, the fund will be available both to businesses that relocate to new locations along the alignment and to businesses that stay in place along the line.
Additionally, the February information packet contains contradictory details about payment timing. The relocation brochure mentions the possibility of “advance payments,” but the “General Information Notice Non-Residential” states relocation payments will be made “after the person has moved from the premises,” suggesting that businesses will need to cover their moving expenses up front. The relocation brochure also cautions that, because “federal dollars are anticipated for this [ITC] project,” relocation payments could be considered taxable income by the IRS.
Underlying these business owners’ concerns is a sense that city leaders do not care about the majority of local small businesses.
For Hernandez, “they don’t recognize the work the community puts in; they think we’re a joke.”
Kohli, of Amar’s Wholesale, said he has attended many of the city’s public meetings but reflected: “The city doesn’t listen to you. They listen to the big people and to who knows who in the office of the city. And we hardly know anyone. Even if we object it doesn’t matter. Small guys like us don’t get heard.”
Some owners are more hopeful about the relocation plan. Karolyn Plummer is the owner of Sweet Red Peach, a bakery that has enjoyed a partnership with the Clippers in recent years. She sees a potential upside of relocation out of Holly Park Plaza, where the traffic that crawls past along Prairie Avenue on event days makes it hard for her regular customers to access her store.
The city puts out advisories cautioning locals to avoid Prairie Avenue on event days, and there are reduced parking spots for customers because the plaza owner rents some out to event attendees. Plummer said the Super Bowl, for example, was “one of my lowest days” for business. Although some event attendees come by the store, she knows “they’re not the customers that will keep me in business.” She said, “As long as the city stays true to their promises,” the relocation “will be a good thing for my business.”
Who Wins, Who Loses?
According to program manager Lisa Trifiletti, the scheduled public hearing on the ITC relocation plan was initially delayed from March 14 to April 4 to allow more time for community outreach around the project. Then, just hours before the April 4 council meeting, the hearing was further delayed to April 11. At the March 14 city council meeting, Mayor Butts defended the project. “There are some people that are upset about the project. I don’t think they look holistically at the fact that this is a $1.6 billion project,” he said, suggesting the scale of the project was a justification in itself. He called the ITC an “ambitious, visionary, future-oriented project that was good for the long-term health of the city.”
The mayor has previously demonstrated little patience with concerns about long-term Inglewood businesses disappearing. “Businesses that have a desirable product that can sustain the operating costs of the business, and that includes leasing costs, not only survive, they thrive,” he told Curbed LA in 2019. Missing from his recent or prior comments is any acknowledgement that the ITC would function as a public subsidy for the long-term health of billionaires’ stadiums.
The stadium owners are not the only ones whose businesses stand to profit from the ITC. The wholesale clearance of two entire plazas could open up more land than required for the ITC’s stations and parking spaces, opening new profitable opportunities for developers. “We know we’re on a goldmine,” said one business owner who may be displaced from Holly Park Plaza, across the street from SoFi Stadium.
Thomas Safran & Associates now owns multiple lots along Market Street, and could also benefit from the relocation of displaced businesses into his properties. The relocation “specialist” firms consultants hired for the project include Monument, Epic, and Del Richardson & Associates, whose founder Del Richardson is the wife of LA City Councilmember Curren Price.
In recent Olympics host cities, flashy transportation projects tied to the games have fallen behind schedule, leading local governments to scramble for millions or even billions in extra dollars to rush to complete construction by the manufactured Olympics deadline.
Similarly, the race will be on for Inglewood to complete the ITC by LA’s 2028 Olympics. If construction falls behind schedule, as many recent and ongoing rail projects in LA have, will Inglewood have to fork out more money to rush to finish? Regardless, taxpayers will be on the hook for the ITC’s operational and maintenance costs once it is up and running.