From Magic Johnson Development being ready, willing and able, to Capital Vision Equity bouncing checks – now in foreclosure – Marlton Square is a hot mess with no end in sight.

The Marlton Square Shopping Plaza, located next to the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall has been and remains a concern for property owners, business owners, neighboring residents and elected officials.

It was scheduled for sale May 14 at a trustee’s auction, but the beneficiary postponed the sale as of press time. The sale has been postponed on three previous occasions and the status of the development is still in limbo. Whoever purchases the site still has to relocate the remaining businesses, negotiate the remaining lands purchases and then develop the site. The square has a ten-year plus history of urban blight, deterioration, bounced checks and broken promises.

Developing the Marlton Plaza has been an enigma that according to public record, has been a joint partnership between Chris Hammond of Capital Vision Equities and Jeff Lee of Lee Homes. But the development started completely in the hands of community developer Christopher Hammond and Capital Vision Equities. Over the past several years Hammond has brought in several partners including Pacific Retail Trust, LNR Properties, Football Star Keyshawn Johnson and now Lee Homes. Each of these partners for various reasons has come into the deal, left and been replaced with another partner.

One local developer who chose to speak to the Sentinel on the grounds of anonymity said, “Hammond has screwed this deal up so bad that at this point no one wants to touch it as long as Hammond is around—Chris is just a bad guy, he cannot be trusted.”

Magic Johnson Development Company was to be the original developer for the site, according to public record. Reportedly the former Los Angeles Laker turned businessman had an exclusive negotiating agreement with the Community Redevelopment Agency to develop the plaza but he and then councilmember, Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas had a falling out about the NFL’s efforts to get a team back at the Coliseum. Despite former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan’s support of Johnson, Ridley-Thomas opposed MJD development and arranged for Hammond’s Group to get the project.

MJD representatives have maintained that they were ready, willing and able to develop the site.

Many residents and business leaders have questioned why Ridley Thomas would entrust such a vital project in the community to a developer who has a history of questionable credit-worthiness and reliability as well as a reputation for writing bounced checks, and a number of warnings from City Controller Laura Chick as well as a number of lawsuits against Hammond for unpaid contractors and creditors. One of Hammond’s current lawsuits is with his former Chesterfield Square and Marlton Square partner NFL and USC gridiron great Keyshawn Johnson who is now suing him and his related companies.

In an interview with All Business Magazine in November of 2002 Ridley Thomas was quoted as saying, “The development team knows this market and has a successful track record. All of this makes me confident that Marlton Square will indeed be very successful.”

The Los Angeles Sentinel has received numerous complaints from many of the residents and decided to find out why this massive urban blight has been allowed to deteriorate for so long especially since it was taken away from developers with successful track record and the resources to get it done, and allow it to be turned over to a developer with a tainted past, limited resources and now to be in development “limbo.”

Dave Roberts, the economic development deputy for the 8th District said, “Prior to the finance issues that led to them (Hammond and Lee) losing site control, Marlton Square Associates had 80 percent of the parcels in control. We are hoping that a single entity could get control of that 80 percent again. It was a very difficult piece to assemble; at one time, there were 36 different property owners and over 300 different businesses and tenants in the site. The other issue now is that since December 2006 eminent domain authority was lost, so the city, CRA, does not have the authority to use eminent domain to assemble those parcels again. Chris Hammond owner of Capital Vision Equities had assured the city that he would be able to assemble the properties without eminent domain but has been unable to do so.”

“The city and the CRA entered into an agreement with a master developer, several years ago, to develop a retail shopping center, single family homes, condominiums, and in a separate but related transaction, affordable housing on the site that is known as Santa Barbara Plaza. There were a number of benchmarks that the developer was suppose to meet prior to any financial subsidies being awarded,” said Redevelopment Agency CEO Cecilia V. Estolano on why the project has been repeatedly stalled.

It appeared that the developer contracted a retail specialist to do the retail portion of the project and they evidently had a falling out. The specialist exercised their option to terminate the agreement and left because they found out that the developer was unable to acquire all of the property necessary to develop the retail shopping center.

“Since that time, we’ve been trying to attract a new retail developer for the site,” Estolano said.

“So because that has not panned out, the development remains in chaos and an eyesore to the community, especially the nearby residents. [But] Marlton Square is an important retail project for the community. The community deserves a high quality shopping center there and CRA remains committed to delivering such a retail center to the community.”

It appears that the real victims throughout this never ending saga are the business owners who once occupied the center. Healthy African American Families a community based non-profit had been operating from Marlton Square since 1995. Loretta Jones the agencies director said “Chris Hammond was a nightmare”. “To date he still has not paid me all of my money, but because of a confidentiality agreement he made me sign I cannot tell you how much I agreed to relocate for or how much I still have not been paid.”

“The on going question is why would you choose to get rid of a developer who can do the project and then give us this joke [Chris Hammond],” said Reggie Bass of the My Child Says Daddyy Program, formerly housed at the Marlton Square site in the days of Magic Johnson.

“Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and just sold out for nothing.”

The Los Angeles Branch of the NAACP also had to move because of problems with Hammond. Apparently, he did not pay the water bill and they were in the building for over two months with no water until they finally had to move. To date the NAACP is still awaiting there relocation funds even though they moved out of the building almost a year ago.

Joyce Perkins, the chair of the Crenshaw Advisory Committee for the Redevelopment Project, was asked about the status of Marlton Square and what is the next move after the auction. She said, “From what I understand, it has to do with the lender of the previous developer, Chris Hammond, apparently his loans went into default and this has nothing to do with the city.”

Perkins further expounded on the relationship, indeed the difference, between the CRA and the developer(s), “ I imagine that whoever the new owner is would be the person who would work with the city. It’s a redevelopment area and as such, it is entitled to certain redevelopment incentives. I can’t speak for the city but they seem ready to move the project forward as a mixed development project. But this private funding thing has to be worked out. Once the amended redevelopment area was adopted, then the city sought a developer for the site and Magic Johnson entered an agreement with the city and was trying to develop the site for retail, and worked very hard at doing that.” It appeared that the loss of Ridley-Thomas support pushed Johnson out of the picture and resulted in the plaza in its present condition”.

When asked about this development and the history behind these problems, current City Council-member Bernard Parks responded “The Marlton Square Project is a very sad case of what could have been. If the previous Eighth District Councilmember had supported the efforts of Magic Johnson, the people of this community would be shopping there today. I’ve spent the better part of my five years in office untangling the mess left behind by the previous administration. Now, that my staff has helped reveal the problem, hopefully a brighter future for the project is on the way.”

Efforts to contact Chris Hammond and Jeff Lee were not returned..