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Warrant issued for head of Chinatown business improvement district

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The courts have ordered him to turn over records sought by city watchdogs

Far East Plaza in Chinatown.
Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin

A bench warrant was issued this morning in Los Angeles County Superior Court for George Yu—a real estate manager credited with the “revitalization” of Chinatown—for failing to produce documents two city watchdogs claim could prove he and other business owners were trying to stop the formation of a neighborhood council in Skid Row.

In addition to managing leases at Chinatown’s Far East Plaza, home to wildly popular restaurants like Howlin’ Ray’s, Yu is the longtime executive director of the Greater Chinatown Business Improvement District. He was ordered to turn over BID email records related to Skid Row under California’s open records law, but has yet to produce them.

Today, Yu was found in contempt. If he’s arrested, he will be held on $5,000 bail.

Reached by phone, Yu declined to comment publicly.

In 2017, residents, property owners, “community interest stakeholders,” and people who worked in the area bounded by Main, Alameda, Third, and Seventh streets voted down a proposal to form an official neighborhood council that would have represented the interests of Skid Row residents.

In August, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff ordered the Chinatown BID to respond to a request by blogger and activist Adrian Riskin and Skid Row area resident Katherine McNenny, who are trying to shed light on how various downtown BIDs worked to oppose the formation of that neighborhood council.

Riskin and McNenney have argued in favor of the neighborhood council, saying it would have given low-income and homeless residents who are “otherwise alienated” from the city’s formal power structure more influence in city decisions about how their neighborhood develops.

Records that Riskin has obtained from other BIDs operating in the Downtown Los Angeles area suggest that the Chinatown BID “may have been among those BIDs participating in the effort” to block the formation of a Skid Row Neighborhood Council, at least in part because they feared it could “depress property values.”

In a response to a separate public records request, Riskin received copies of an April 3, 2017 email thread among Downtown business owners, developers, land-use consultants, and lobbyists—including Yu and Tom Gilmore and executives who work for Atlas Capital and Elizabeth Peterson Group, Inc.—in which a property management company employee said she would have security officers at a polling station on Third Street in Little Tokyo validate parking for people who voted “no” in the Skid Row election.

Business improvement districts are privately run but have large influence over public spaces. Funded by fees paid by property owners, they typically hire cleanup and security crews to monitor streets and sidewalks, in addition to promoting businesses.

In 2018, researchers from UC Berkeley Public Law published a report assailing BIDs as anti-homeless. The researchers say they “found evidence that BIDs develop security programs and promote practices that identify, target, and monitor specific homeless individuals” and “seek to enact, maintain, and strengthen laws that criminalize activity like sitting, resting, sleeping, panhandling, and food sharing in public spaces.”

Riskin and McNenny went to court after filing multiple records requests to the Chinatown BID in 2017 and 2018 under California’s Public Record Act that they say were ignored. They have argued in court that the state’s public records law “is one of the only tools the public possess for transparency and accountability over” business improvement districts.

“Public access to records... sheds light on the BID’s political activity and its operation outside the public eye,” Riskin and McNenny wrote in their petition.

The judge granted their request because the BID never submitted any opposition in court or “otherwise justified withholding” the records that Riskin and McNenny had requested, court records show.

“There were various hearings held at which Yu or another representative from the Chinatown BID could have appeared to contest or weigh in on the process, but they failed to ever appear in the court, not even one time,” says attorney Abenicio Cisneros, who represents Riskin and McNenny and specializes in public records law.