Twenty-two years after first being sold and more than one redevelopment project being abandoned, the new owners of the Sears Tower in Boyle Heights say they have big plans for the historic landmark.
Owners Izek Shomof and Leo Pustilnikov last Saturday told a gathering of local residents and stakeholders that planning is still in the early stages, but they envision a development that includes retail and office space, restaurants and housing at the 23-acre property purchased in November of last year.
Large renderings of the possible end product were on display at the meeting at the Boyle Heights Technology Youth Center hosted by the Boyle Heights Beat, a bilingual community newspaper produced by local youth.
A Sears retail store, said to be one of the busiest in the country, is still open at the site on Olympic Boulevard and Soto Street, but the bulk of the 1.8 million square foot property is in major disrepair, needing both cosmetic and structural renovation.
The owners said their goal is to make the Sears Tower the “hub of the community.”
Reaction has so far been mixed in the highly dense, low-income Latino community just east of downtown Los Angeles. On Saturday, some residents said they welcome the company’s plans to clean up the “eyesore” and bring more housing and retail options to their neighborhood, such as a grocery store or movie theater. Others said they are worried the development will speed up gentrification, making the area too expensive for many long time residents.
Read this article in Spanish: Comienzan Planes Para Remodelación del Histórico Edificio Sears en Boyle Heights 
“Will there be affordable housing?” residents repeatedly asked the owner.
No, not at this point, responded the owners, noting however that their plans are not set in stone. We are looking into the feasibility of adding low-income housing, Shomof said.
“We understand that everybody wants the building to work for the community, but if you look at the past 22 years, it has not been working,” said Pustilnikov, pointing out that for the last two decades “Boyle Heights has generally and traditionally had only low-income new development.”
He explained their idea is it to provide housing that will appeal to Boyle Heights’ young professionals and college graduates who can afford to pay more for the type of housing and amenities they want. Otherwise, he said, they will move downtown or to other higher-income neighborhoods. We hope to keep them in Boyle Heights, he said.
But Boyle Heights resident Fanny Ortiz told EGP there is a need for more affordable housing in her neighborhood. “…Many of us live below the poverty level” and it’s only because I have affordable housing that “I’m able to support five kids and go to school at the same time,” she said.
The building opened in 1926 and for years was one of Sear’s main mail order distribution centers, at one time employing as many as one thousand workers. In 1992, during the recession, the company closed all of its operations with the exception of the retail store, which will remain open under a long-term property lease agreement.
Previous owners and interested investors, including East Los Angeles native and former boxing champion Oscar de la Hoya, at different times expressed enthusiasm for developing the multi-story building and tower, only to walk away.
Shomof and Pustilnikov are the latest to express excitement for a development they say will benefit all of Boyle Heights. Residents will no longer have to go to Montebello, Pasadena or other areas to spend their money, because “we are going to have restaurants and shops” that will keep tax dollars in the community, Pustilnikov told the audience.
Ulisses Sanchez, with the social media and web communications firm Centro Strategies, moderated Saturday’s meeting. He told EGP that many people in Boyle Heights fear gentrification. “We have to explain a lot of the misconceptions” and address those fears, he said.
Resident Alejandrina Nunez thinks the developers are on the right track and urged her neighbors to “think about our children who will one day be professionals and want to live a better life,” but should not have to move far away to get it.
“Why do they leave? Because they don’t like where they live, because they don’t have a nicer place here,” she said.
As a privately held company, the developer in theory does not have to include affordable or low-income housing, but in reality, their plans will still require the approval of city planning officials and the city council, which will require that they address the development’s impact on the surrounding community, including traffic and parking, and to seek input from the community.
Councilmember Jose Huizar represents the area and told EGP by email that his office has had some “vey preliminary meetings with the developer” and they encouraged them to start reaching out to the public. He said once plans are submitted, they will ask them to go through the “formal channels — meeting with the Neighborhood Council for instance.” He also noted that as chair of the city’s Planning & Land Use Management Committee, he will “make sure the public has plenty of time to share their input on the record at meetings I will oversee.”
The nonprofit East L.A. Community Corporation has experience developing affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families in Boyle Heights. In a statement, they told EGP they see potential for the development to meet community needs.
“ELACC is looking forward to it’s Boyle Heights members meeting with the owners to hear the proposed project and ensure development is accountable to current residents,” said Isela Gracian, ELACC’s vice president of operations.
Pustilnikov told EGP they plan to “begin as soon as we get entitlements” and finish the project within “24 months.” The owners reaffirmed that the building will not be destroyed, but “is going to be restored.”
Sanchez said the restoration and development will bring to life “a complex that has been a dormant for many years.”