Column: Can a Huge, Empty Sears Building Help Solve Los Angeles’ Homelessness?

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Izek Shomof and Bill Taormina stood in the parking lot of the massive, historic, long-abandoned Sears distribution center on the outskirts of Boyle Heights. Together they came close to enlisting me in one of the boldest civic projects I’ve ever heard of.

Shomof, 62, bought the 1.6 million square foot property in 2013 and boasted to this newspaper at the time that he could “develop an entire neighborhood there”. For years, his company promised a mixed-use hipster hub branded the Mail Order District, complete with a food hall, living and working lofts, and office space.

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 – can still be found on the Shomof Group’s website. But when I met Shomof to hear about his new proposal, he had a radically different vision:

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

“I’ve been in LA for over 50 years and that’s how long I’ve seen homeless people here,” said the multimillionaire. “It’s time it was rectified once and for all. And after meeting Bill I think we found a solution. Here we can work miracles.”

Here’s what Shomof and Taormina, a 71-year-old Anaheim businessman who has long worked on homelessness issues throughout Orange County, want to do:

On 9 acres of vacant land surrounding the Sears building, the two say they can accommodate 2,000 people in makeshift shelters immediately. On the first floor, Shomof and Taormina would build a one-stop shop for the homeless — a pharmacy, training center, rooms for dentists and hairdressers, and even a kennel for pets — to get them off the streets and onto a better path.

The second floor would house a medical center and offices for groups throughout Southern California working with homelessness to foster a collaborative spirit. Floors 3 through 10 – each the size of 3½ football pitches – would each house more than 700 beds 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 in perspective, the 2021 Housing Inventory County, conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, found LA’s housing capacity to be 14,854 beds. One of the largest homeless organizations in Los Angeles, the Union Rescue Mission, can accommodate about 1,000 people.

Shomof would spend an estimated $200 million on the initial expansion, while Taormina would assemble a coalition of nonprofit homeless people to oversee day-to-day operations under the auspices of a joint LA-Los Angeles County agency. And once the Life Rebuilding Center is complete, the parking lot would become the site of more than 1,000 permanently affordable housing units for people completing the facility’s six-month rehabilitation program.

All this makes the California Aqueduct seem to be as big a feat as mowing a lawn.

And all of that sounds, frankly, delusional.

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

“It’s true.”

We entered the dusty, empty Sears building, stripped down to the cement pillars and roof. Construction workers in neon green vests and bright orange long-sleeved shirts buzzed around. In the middle of the floor lay the remains of an old boiler.

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

We took an old school freight elevator to the second floor. “I want you to feel the light,” the soft-spoken Taormina remarked as he gestured toward large windows with a great eastward view of Boyle Heights and beyond. “This will not be a warehouse and bunk beds and a bag of Cheetos. come broke go back again.”

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

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

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Shomof and Taormina shared their idea for the 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 that everyone who heard about it was impressed, if not amazed, by his ambition.

That’s the reaction I got when I contacted some of the connoisseurs.

“I welcome people who are working productively to resolve this humanitarian crisis and who want to house people as soon as possible,” Boyle Heights Councilman Kevin de León said in a statement. “This is a titanic problem that will require all hands on deck to solve, so I’m open to any solutions that can address the suffering we see from homelessness.”

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

“It’s a bit big,” said Paul Leon, CEO of the Illumination Foundation. The Orange County-based nonprofit operates Orange County homeless shelters, some of which are 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 that the Life Rebuilding Center “will be known across the country as the ultimate solution to addressing homelessness challenges in cities of all shapes and sizes.”

An impossible promise, I said to Taormina as we stared at the vast emptiness around us.

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

Shomof first rose to prominence in the 2000s as a downtown Los Angeles developer who earned the nickname “King of Spring” for buying and repurposing old commercial buildings. But the neighborhood is also where Shomof says his perspective on homelessness as a teenage immigrant in the 1970s was sealed forever.

“I was going to work and I saw someone pepper spraying 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 being?”

He became involved with helping the homeless over the years, but grew frustrated when the population exploded downtown and beyond. Then, in 2019, Shomof read an article in the Times-owned Daily Pilot about Taormina. The scion of a garbage disposal dynasty that routinely hired ex-homeless people, Taormina had earned the respect of Orange County politicians and homeless activists alike for supporting solutions ranging from self-financing to shelters and then letting others manage them.

Shomof toured a Taormina-supported animal shelter in Fullerton and was “amazed” at how many resources were gathered under one roof. The two met shortly after at the Sears building, where Shomof asked Taormina to imagine what he could do with it to help fight homelessness. A few weeks later, Taormina presented his Life Rebuilding Center concept to Shomof and his family during Shabbat dinner at their Beverly Hills mansion.

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

“I did it,” Shomof added when I asked him why he would give up such a valuable property instead of pursuing his earlier mail order plans. “My life is beautiful. It’s time to give something back. It’s not about getting rich.”

Roughly.

Under the proposal he and Taormina worked out, the agency with joint powers that would oversee the Life Rebuilding Center would need to lease Shomof for at least 20 years at an estimated annual cost of $23.3 million. At that rate, Shomof would easily recoup his investment before the lease expired.

Shomof justified the rent as a bargain for taxpayers in a city where a 2020 city inspection found the price of a single homeless unit was $531,000. A city that began construction last fall on a 19-story tower on Skid Row that will eventually house 382 units. The cost of the first phase according to my colleague Doug Smith? 160 million dollars.

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

Finally we reached the top of the Sears building and looked west. The downtown LA skyline shimmered on this clear, windy day. Then I went to the south side of the building. Below, a homeless camp 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)

“See all those people down there?” said Shomof. “They must be here to rebuild their lives.”

He and Taormina are confident that both the city and county will approve their plans this year and that Boyle Heights residents will embrace them as soon as they hear about them. The Life Rebuilding Center will also include a grocery store open to the public and outposts for the LA Fire Department and Police Department. “This isn’t a shelter,” Shomof said as we rode the freight elevator back to the second floor. “We will create jobs. We will be an asset and a good neighbor.”

“I believe in the fate of Izek and I thank God that he put me in his place to be his collaborator,” Taormina added. “If this doesn’t work to solve homelessness, nothing can.”

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