Bruce Russell, formerly a correspondent and Bureau Chief of Reuters from 1957 to 2000, has written a brief but incisive history of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors stewardship of Marina del Rey.
Chinatown County:The Sell-out of Marina del Rey.
The author will be present at a book signing in Fisherman’s Village (see poster below).
The title of Bruce Russell’s book, taken from Roman Polanski’s award-winning 1974 film Chinatown, announces the theme of the book, an account of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ alleged corruption and mismanagement of Marina del Rey, which Russell likens to the the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s notorious takeover and diversion of the Owens River to allow for the expanded development of water-hungry Los Angeles in 1913.
Unincorporated Marina del Rey consists entirely of publicly owned land. In 1954, it was officially designated by the U.S. Congress as a center for boating and recreation. Its construction was paid for by the Federal Government and the Los Angeles County taxpayers. Russell describes how the County Board of Supervisors, sometimes aided and abetted by the California Coastal Commission (whose duty is to provide a check and balance system in terms of local development along the coast) chipped away at the original mandate for Marina del Rey by amending its governing documents and granting a series of concessions to lessees. Over the decades, what was intended to be a paradise for boating and recreation has become a haven for Los Angeles developers and an income bonanza for the County. The latter has reduced parking spaces, decreased the number of boat slips, and eliminated a proposed park in order to make room for hotels, apartment complexes, restaurants and shopping centers. He talks about how Los Angeles County effectively neutered the Marina del Rey Design Control Board, intended as another check and balance, by transferring its key powers to the Department of Regional Planning. Russell discusses what he regards as the duplicitous means by which the Board of Supervisors has, over the last decades, achieved its primary goal of creating a cash cow in terms of income for the County at the expense of recreational use of MDR.
He also describes the rise of public dissent in the face of the County’s aggressive development plans including the formation of the non-profit groups – the Coalition to Save the Marina (no longer active), founded in 2001, followed by We Are Marina del Rey, both pioneers in raising public awareness about the County’s plans and their impact not only on Marina del Rey, but adjacent communities. The controversy also managed to reach the attention of former Los Angeles Councilman, Bill Rosendahl, former State Assembly person Betsy Butler, the Venice Neighborhood Council, the Sierra Club and the Ballona Wetlands Trust, who have spoken out against various County MDR projects. In what amounts to a David vs Goliath War, Russell describes how some battles have been won. Two hotels scheduled sited at either end of the Mother’s Beach Recreation Center were shot down by criticism from the public. A proposal to move this much loved recreation center to an area with no beach was defeated after a public outcry. The 19-story, 225 foot high Woodfin hotel and time-share on Via Marina was also defeated by public criticism, although Sam Hardage, the former lessee of the Woodfin, has put forth a new proposal to BOS to place a 5-story, 288 room Marriott Residence Inn on the same spot. Other battles have been lost including the completion of the garish and overbearing 544-unit Shores apartment complex on Via Marina, the virtually certain approval of the 526 unit AMLI apartments across the street from the Shores and the luxury Oceana Senior Residence Facility on Admiralty Way.
Russell urges the public to get involved in speaking out on controversial projects which have yet to receive final approval from BOS and/or the Department of Regional Planning and the Coastal Commission. These include the removal of the Public Boat launch from H Basin from the top of Fiji Way at Admiralty Way down to the bottom of the Basin near Fisherman’s Village (see post below on this subject) and its replacement by a “Visitor-serving” shopping and entertainment center. In addition, there is the proposed renovation of Mariner’s Village on Via Marina which would permit the lessee to remove all of the 40-year old existing landscaping including heron nesting sites. Other County projects in various states of approval are the Legacy Partners’ 526-unit apartment complex and the Hardage 288-room Marriott Residence Inn, both on Via Marina and both tied up by litigation over a small Wetland Park. There is also the Holiday Harbor “renovation” on Via Marina. In addition, there is the proposed renovation of Fisherman’s Village (including yet another hotel) on Fiji Way. Also in the works is a proposal to redevelop Pier 44 on Admiralty Way, just north of Rick Caruso’s Waterside Shopping Center into a Visitor-serving Civic Center. Pier 44 now consists of low-lying boat storage and yacht brokerages with an open view of the harbor.
In conclusion Russell excoriates the County’s “Visioning” project, echoing the sentiments of much of the public, saying that it was a meaningless process designed to fulfill the County’s obligation to do public outreach, but which deliberately managed to avoid listening to the public’s main concerns about the over-development of Marina del Rey and traffic congestion. He argues effectively that the City of Los Angeles and the County need to realize that they do not live in a bubble. Marina del Rey is surrounded on all sides by other communities including Venice and Culver City. What the Culver City planning board approves affects Venice and Marina del Rey, as in the case of their allowing a Costco to be put up on Washington Boulevard half a block east of Lincoln. When the County permits massive residential development on their parcels on Via Marina, it impacts residents on the City side of the boulevard in terms of ingress and egress from their homes. None of these governing bodies is blameless, particularly in the matter of traffic congestion on Washington and Lincoln Boulevards which people now use Admiralty to avoid. Russell, quite rightly advocates non-partisan cooperation between government departments in order to improve rather than worsen the current situation.
A couple of quibbles. I would like to have seen foot-notes documenting the facts he presents. But he is a journalist, not a historian. He does give proper credit to Helga Gendell’s outstanding series of articles on the early history of MDR, “Looking Back on how Marina del Rey Was Created,” which appeared in the Argonaut newspaper in 2010.
There are a couple of errors of fact in his last chapter. The extension of the Grand Canal from Venice Boulevard to the Ballona Lagoon was not created by Abbott Kinney, although he likely played a role, along with several others, when the project was first conceived in 1904. The extension of the canal was built by a consortium of entrepreneurs who built the Shortline Beach Canals (the only canals now extant) below Venice Boulevard. This extension, completed in 1906, created what was in those days an uninterrupted watercourse between Venice of America and Playa del Rey and enabled the Shortline developers to fill their canals.
Russell also gives undue credit to the City of Los Angeles for development of the beautifully landscaped Malls and Lagoon path on the single-home development on the Silver Strand between Via Dolce and the adjoining path along the Ballona Lagoon. In the 1970s, the original developers of this neighborhood made a deal with the City and the California Coastal Commission: in return for receiving a building permit, they agreed to pay for the necessary infrastructure to support the residential development and to create and maintain the landscaping of the Malls and sidewalks. The Malls and the path were designated as a common area open to the public. To this day, the Silver Strand Marina Homeowners Association pays all costs associated with these common areas, including the Ballona Lagoon path and the eastern side of the fence along it, stretching from the entrance to Roma Court down to Via Donte.
That said, Russell’s book is a pioneering effort, the first to appear on the subject of the County’s botched stewardship of Marina del Rey. It is a must read for those who are concerned not only about the fate of Marina del Rey but the efficacy and transparency of Los Angeles County government. If you are unable to attend the signing (see poster above), the book can be purchased at Amazon.com.