Column: Can a giant, empty Sears building help solve the problem of homelessness in Los Angeles?

Izek Shomof and Bill Taormina stood in the parking lot of the huge, long-abandoned historic Sears distribution center on the outskirts of Boyle Heights. Together they were about to launch me into one of the boldest civic projects I have ever heard of.

Shomof, 62, bought the 1.6 million square foot property in 2013 and then bragged to this newspaper that he could “develop a whole neighborhood” there. For years, his company has promised a hipster, mixed-use center under the Mail Order District brand with a food hall, live-work lofts and offices.

Businessmen Izek Shomof, right, owner of the Boyle Heights Sears Building, and William Taormina, left, inside the 1.6 million square foot building.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

That plan – which promised to “revitalize” the industrial district around the Sears building – is still posted on the Shomof Group’s website. But when I met Shomof to hear about his new proposal, he had a radically different view:

Convert a concrete icon of LA’s Eastside into a full-fledged campus helping the homeless.

“I’ve been in LA for over 50 years, and I’ve seen homeless people here that long,” said the multi-millionaire developer. “It is time it was fixed once and for all. And after meeting with Bill, I think we found a solution. Here, we can work a miracle.

That’s what Shomof and Taormina, a 71-year-old Anaheim businessman long involved with homelessness issues in Orange County, want to do:

In nine acres of undeveloped land surrounding the Sears building, the two say they can house 2,000 people immediately in temporary shelters. On the first floor, Shomof and Taormina would build a one-stop shop for the homeless – a pharmacy, a vocational training center, spaces for dentists and barbers, and even a kennel for pets – to get them out of the street and on a better way.

The second floor would house a medical center and offices for Southern California groups that serve the homeless, to foster a spirit of collaboration. Floors 3 to 10 – each the size of 3½ football pitches – would contain more than 700 beds each in spacious dormitories for a total of almost 5,900 beds in the building, with a capacity of more than 10,000.

Inside the Sears building in Boyle Heights.

Inside businessman Izek Shomof’s Sears building in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

To put that number into perspective, the 2021 Housing Inventory County conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found that Los Angeles’ housing capacity was 14,854 beds. One of the largest homeless centers in Los Angeles, Union Rescue Mission, can accommodate about 1,000 people.

Shomof would spend around $200 million on initial construction, while Taormina would bring together a coalition of homeless nonprofits to oversee day-to-day operations under the auspices of a joint Los Angeles-Los County authority. Angeles. And once the so-called Life Reconstruction Center is completed, the parking lot would become the site of more than 1,000 permanent affordable housing units for graduates of the facility’s six-month rehabilitation program.

All of this makes the California Aqueduct as big a feat as mowing the lawn.

And all of this, frankly, sounds delusional.

I told Shomof that his proposal was too good to be true. He smiled.

“It’s true.”

We entered the dusty, empty Sears building, reduced to pillars and a cement roof. Construction workers in neon green vests and bright orange long-sleeved shirts were buzzing. The remains of an old boiler lay in the center of the floor.

“To construct [a complex like] that today would be completely impossible,” Shomof said. “You can’t even get that much concrete anymore.”

We took an old-fashioned freight elevator to the second floor. “I want you to feel the light,” Taormina remarked softly, pointing to large windows with magnificent views of Boyle Heights and beyond. “It won’t be a warehouse, a bunk bed and a bag of Cheetos. Come broken, leave restored.

Two men in a freight elevator inside the Sears building in Boyle Heights.

Businessmen Izek Shomof, left, owner of the Boyle Heights Sears building, and Bill Taormina inside a freight elevator at the building in Los Angeles.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Shomof and Taormina shared their idea for a Life Rehabilitation Center with potential partners and members of the Los Angeles City Council and County Board of Supervisors, but are now making it public. They say everyone who heard of it was impressed, even flabbergasted, by its ambition.

This is the reaction I got when I contacted some of those in the know.

“I welcome people who want to work productively to resolve this humanitarian crisis and get people housed as quickly as possible,” Boyle Heights council member Kevin de León said in a statement. “This is a gargantuan problem that requires everyone to be on hand to fix it, so I’m open to any solutions that can address the suffering we see with homelessness.”

“It’s big, isn’t it? chuckled Sean Kelsey, general secretary of the Southern California branch of the Salvation Army, for which he is also the Los Angeles Metro Coordinator. He visited the Sears building last fall and said his organization “is honored to be a resource for them to see if this might be a solution.”

“It’s a bit big,” said Illumination Foundation CEO Paul Leon. The Orange County-based nonprofit operates homeless shelters in Orange County, some funded by Taormina. “But if it is built, we will definitely participate. I wish there were more people like Bill.

A 50-page white paper claims the Life Rebuilding Center will be “known nationwide as the ultimate solution to addressing homelessness issues in cities of all types and sizes.”

An impossible promise, I said to Taormina, as we stared at the enormity of the void around us.

“It’s not just about getting people off the streets,” he replied. “It’s for all.”

Shomof first rose to prominence in the 2000s as a downtown Los Angeles developer dubbed the “Spring King” for purchasing and repurposing old commercial buildings. But it’s also in the neighborhood that Shomof says his views on homelessness were sealed forever as a teenage immigrant in the 1970s.

“I was walking to work and saw someone pepper spray a homeless man,” Shomof recalled. “I yelled at the attacker, brought water to the victim and washed his face. And I wondered, how could people in this country do that to a human?

He got involved in philanthropy for the homeless over the years, but became frustrated as the population exploded downtown and beyond. Then in 2019, Shomof read an article in the Times-owned Daily Pilot about Taormina. Coming from a waste-disposal dynasty that regularly hired formerly homeless people, Taormina had earned the respect of Orange County politicians and homeless activists for backing solutions to the point of self-funding. the shelters, and then let others administer them.

Shomof visited a Taormina-supported shelter in Fullerton and was “amazed” at how multiple resources were brought together under one roof. Shortly after, the two men met at the Sears building, where Shomof asked Taormina to imagine what he could do with it to fight homelessness. A few weeks later, Taormina pitched her concept for a Life Reconstruction Center to Shomof and his family at their Beverly Hills mansion over Shabbat dinner.

“Everyone looked at each other,” he said, “and said it was a beautiful thing.”

“I did,” Shomof added, when I asked why he would give up such valuable real estate instead of following his previous Mail Order District plans. “My life is beautiful. It’s time to give back. It’s not about getting rich.”

Good kind of.

Under the proposal he and Taormina worked out, the joint authority that would oversee the Life Rebuilding Center would have to enter into a lease with Shomof for at least 20 years at an estimated annual cost of $23.3 million. At this rate, Shomof would easily recover his investment before the end of the lease.

Shomof justified the rent as a windfall for taxpayers in a city where a 2020 city comptroller audit said the price of a single homeless housing unit was $531,000. A city where last fall, construction began on a 19-storey aisle tower that will eventually accommodate 382 housing units. The cost of the first phase, according to my colleague Doug Smith? $160 million.

“Izek could have built anything here,” Taormina said, “but this project is the mark he wants to put in place as his legacy.”

We finally made it to the top of the Sears building and looked west. The downtown LA skyline sparkled on this clear, windy day. I then walked to the south side of the building. Below, a homeless encampment took up most of an industrial street.

A view from the 10th floor of the Sears building in Boyle Heights.

A view of downtown LA from the 10th floor of businessman Izek Shomof’s Sears building in Boyle Heights.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

“Do you see all the people there?” Shoof said. “They need to be here, to rebuild their lives.”

He and Taormina are confident the city and county will approve their plans this year, and the residents of Boyle Heights will adopt them once they are notified. The Life Rebuilding Center will also include a convenience store open to the public and outposts for the Los Angeles Fire and Police Department. “It’s not a shelter,” Shomof said, as we ascended the freight elevator to the first floor. “We are going to create jobs. We will be an asset and a good neighbor.

“I believe in Izek’s destiny, and I thank God for putting me in the place of being his colleague,” Taormina added. “If it doesn’t work to solve homelessness, nothing can.”

Los Angeles Times

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