by Kelley Kim, Mark McDermott, and Alyssa Morin
Mayor Steve Aspel, like much of his city, has spent the better part of this century arguing about the Redondo Beach waterfront.
As a planning commissioner 13 years ago, Aspel approved the billion-dollar Heart of the City project, a vast reimagining of the Redondo waterfront that was intended to create a residential neighborhood and a seaside commercial village. The plan passed both the commission and the City Council unanimously and was then left in tatters as a spontaneous grassroots revolt gathered 10,000 residents’ signatures opposing it in a matter of weeks.
Since then, much has happened in the city’s political sphere revolving around efforts to revitalize Redondo’s waterfront, including more plans, initiatives, ballot measures, and lawsuits.But on the ground, little has changed.
On a recent Monday, Aspel and the city’s waterfront and economic development director, Pete Carmichael, gave a tour of the Redondo Beach harbor to a group of reporters. Near the end of a two-hour walk, Aspel stopped in his tracks.
“We are spending our time congregating in parking lots,” he said, sweeping a hand towards the parking lots that stretch from Ruby’s Diner to the Hermosa border, a quarter mile away. “This could be the world’s most expensive parking lot, right here. Think about it: it’s on the water. Why would you want to keep this a parking lot?”
“It isn’t the best views, or the best coastline,” Carmichael said. “It’s parking lots.”
Change is coming.
In the marina area, construction is already underway for a $21 million Shade Hotel [SEE STORY], a counterpart to the boutique hotel that was a lynchpin of downtown Manhattan Beach’s revitalization a decade ago. Last week, the city initiated an environmental review of the Waterfront Project, a proposal by the El Segundo-based development firm CenterCal that would raze 221,347 square feet of existing commercial buildings as well as the pier parking structure and build 523,732 square feet of new development. The Waterfront Project includes a 100 room boutique hotel where the Pier Plaza office development now exists, an indoor/outdoor “market hall,” new retail shops and restaurants, a park and amphitheater, a fountain, a “specialty” cinema, a reconfiguring of the city’s artificial Seaside Lagoon so it actually opens up to the ocean, a public boat launch, a three-story parking garage, a pedestrian waterfront promenade, an adjacent bikeway, and a 250-foot long pedestrian bridge connecting the pier and marina areas.
“The whole idea is reconnecting the waterfront,” Carmichael said.
Opponents, most prominently Councilman Bill Brand, have dubbed the development “King Harbor Mall” and describe Aspel and other supporters of the project as “pro-overdevelopment.” Brand has attacked the project on every front. He says it will cause traffic congestion, put the city financially at risk, and change the local way of life.
“This project more than doubles the development on the pier and the area between Torrance Boulevard and the Ruby’s parking lot,” Brand said. “ The plan is so big it requires a new road in front of the Village condominiums, and another three-story parking structure in the Ruby’s parking lot. This abomination of revitalization will create 30,000 additional car trips daily from the influx of people to the pier.”
Aspel disputes the term “mall” and says the Waterfront will simply be the gathering place the city has lacked since its historical waterfront was destroyed, first by ill-planned development and then by fires and storms.
“People will come down here,” the mayor said. “Malls don’t have lagoons. Malls don’t have piers. Malls don’t have bike paths going right through them. And nobody is bringing in chain stores.”
As for concerns that the new plan will oust locally treasured spots like Naja’s, Old Tony’s and Polly’s on the Pier, Aspel says these businesses will be welcome on the new waterfront. He says that these properties are in desperate need of rebuilding and have limited lifespans.
“People who want to keep a quaint seaside village, they are out of touch with reality,” Aspel said. “It’s not sustainable….The city can’t even maintain it, and it doesn’t draw enough rent to warrant spending a lot of money raising it for [the rising] sea level. So they are invited to stay, but they all have to negotiate with CenterCal.”
The Redondo Beach waterfront has long been marked by its transience — a place where buildings came and went, colored by a whimsicality that pervaded a century of almost tragically failed architecture. Things were somehow never built to last.
In 1890, the resplendent Hotel Redondo was built, the sister hotel of the famed Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, which still stands. A narrow-gauge steam train called the Redondo Railway was also up and running by the end of that year. By 1892, the city became incorporated, and a bathhouse and other amusements were built along the waterfront. By 1904, more than 100,000 tourists were visiting Redondo Beach annually. In 1905, Henry Huntington built a 34,000-sq.ft. Pavilion; in 1909, he built a 43,000 sq. ft. indoor saltwater swimming pool heated by warm salt water from the tycoon’s nearby power plant.
The little town, which had been bitterly disappointed at not being selected to become the Port of Los Angeles two decades earlier, was booming. The city faced boom and bust times as the century progressed, but in the post-WWII years, things changed in a more drastic fashion. As the babies boomed, there were consequences for city centers around the country; the suburbanization of America began, with disastrous results for Redondo’s seaside downtown. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the federal government’s ambitious “urban renewal” programs focused on creating more dense, affordable housing and rebuilt the communities almost entirely around automobile use.
“The condo boom started, two, three, or four on a lot,” said Councilman Pat Aust, the city’s unofficial historian. “Everyone could have their little piece of heaven here at the beach. Back in the early 80s they called it Recondo Beach.”
Old Redondo was swept away, almost entirely. Swaths of beach cottages were claimed by eminent domain as bulldozers razed entire neighborhoods. A wall of condominiums was built between the city and its pier. In the 1960s, King Harbor was built, also with federal assistance, and businesses were planned with spacious parking lots. Many of those businesses thrived in the 1970s, but as times changed, Redondo did not. The fires and storms of the 80s only added to the stagnation.
At the heart of the differing visions of the Waterfront Project is whether or not the project coheres to Redondo Beach’s unique sense of place. At one end of the spectrum is a vision in which beloved local businesses, such as Quality Seafoods and Captain Kidds, become part of a more bustling, vibrant waterfront built more for people and less for cars; at the other is a characterless mall that drives such locally cherished places out of business.
“We want to make people like me to walk more,” Aspel said. “This will be more bicycle-friendly and more pedestrian-friendly. We are trying to make amends for the mistakes they made during urban renewal way back when.”
Councilman Bill Brand says if the project hearkens back to any history, it’s of the city’s waterfront failures. Mall or not, he argues, The Waterfront Project represents overdevelopment.
“Regardless of its ‘identifier,’ it doubles the area’s development, has huge traffic impacts, blocks ocean views with multi-story structures, and guarantees CenterCal a 10 percent return before Redondo gets a dime,” he said. “Our past mistakes are being repeated.”
The Waterfront Project intends to revive Redondo’s unique seaside sense of place.
Fred Bruning, 64, is the CEO of CenterCal and has roots in the South Bay. From the age of 9, Bruning fished with his father from the Redondo Beach pier. An owner of an antique Stearman biplane, Bruning knows the pier area from an angle few do. “I’ve flown over the waterfront at the pier a thousand times.” said Bruning. “What a magical place and what potential it has. It can become a world class waterfront destination.”
He has also watched its decay, and as a local resident says he sees this project as a turning point for the entire city of Redondo Beach.
“The waterfront is really falling apart before our eyes,” Bruning said, adding that revitalization has the potential to “create a situation where Redondo will be a leading city in the South Bay, not a lagging city in the South Bay.”
CenterCal plans to create a “five generation destination” at the Waterfront, a place that is “attractive to children, teenagers, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents” alike. The word he uses most frequently to describe the project’s goal is simple — he sees this as a place that will create happiness.
“My happiest moments are when I see [families] expressing happiness, and they’re all doing that together,” Bruning said.
In Bruning’s vision for the $300 million dollar project, the Waterfront would be like a “second home” to its patrons. Plans include a reconfiguration of Seaside Lagoon as a contiguous body of water sourced directly from the ocean and with a larger beachfront where, as Bruning describes, “children can see sea anemone and starfish, and stand up paddleboarders and surfers can launch directly from the sand.” There will be concerts, movies, and yoga on the beach, a public park with play areas for children, and a fountain on the esplanade that will simulate the motion of waves in the ocean, in what Bruning calls, “a water show by the giant water show which is the ocean.” All of these elements are connected with up to 40 foot wide bikeways and walkways, where “families, strollers, dogs, and bikes [can] celebrate the waterfront almost as an extension of The Strand.”
Plans for the retail and commercial sections of the Waterfront make room for existing pier tenants and businesses in the new 66,000 sq. ft. market hall, which Bruning says will be similar to the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco. Bruning says it will be an “authentic” market hall with a local candy maker, green grocer, gastro beer hall, and butcher, among other specialty shops.
“Quality Seafood and others will have to relocate anyway because of rising oceans,” Bruning said. “It’s a good opportunity to move those tenants to new and better environments.”
According to Bruning, at least 90 percent of local people surveyed said they don’t go to the waterfront anymore. “They think it’s too scary or one dimensional,” he said. One of CenterCal’s solutions to shift current perceptions of the Redondo waterfront is a high-end boutique movie theater with “nice food and drinks and limited seating where the largest theater would have 120 seats.” Bruning claims the intimate size of the theater will encourage people to attend matinee screenings and help to “activate the project for extended hours”, making the Waterfront a safe and active place for families at all times of the day.
More than a dozen restaurants are also slated as part of the new Waterfront.
“These will be very unique family-oriented restaurants, not bar restaurants,” said Bruning.
He could not disclose the names of the establishments for reasons of confidentiality but claims they are some of the most successful in California and the US. Retail, Bruning claims, is one of the smaller elements of the project, and the retailers, he says, are “ones that would not want to be in a mall.”
CenterCal’s master plan shows retail makes up 22 percent of the project’s overall square footage, restaurants 20 percent, the boutique hotel 24 percent, the market hall 14 percent, and “creative” offices and the movie theater both about 10 percent. The Waterfront would stretch north from Torrance Boulevard at the pier to Portofino Way in the middle of the harbor, west of Harbor Drive and Catalina Avenue.
Opponents who see the Waterfront as a mall point to the 990-stall, three story parking structure slated for the northeastern corner of the project, along Harbor Drive and Portofino Way, which even Aspel acknowledges is “a little big right now.” They also point to the developer’s prior work. CenterCal has a track record of building malls. On its website, the firm describes itself as “a retail development company” and its four completed projects detailed on the site are all malls.
Aspel says that this project is different, both because it’s in Bruning’s backyard as a local resident, and because it’s a chance to create a showcase development unlike anything he has done before.
Brand says he’d prefer Redondo not to be any developer’s first attempt at waterfront development.
“CenterCal Properties builds inland malls and has zero coastal experience,” he said. “I’m not interested in being their first foray into building a mall on the coast in Redondo Beach.”
Bruning is determined to shed this description as regards the Waterfront.
“With respect to people calling our project a ‘mall’, I can’t really think they are being serious.” he said. “I believe a few people are really just looking for a way to stop any project, and are willing to bend the facts to suit their goals — a very ‘lightheaded’ approach to the truth.”
“We want to build with a level of timelessness and quality,” said Bruning. “It’s much more than just building a project — it’s about creating a place where people can find a certain level of happiness.”
The opposition to The Waterfront Project has been largely led by Brand and “Building a Better Redondo,” a community activist group led by Jim Light that agrees for the need for waterfront changes but favors a slower and significantly smaller development initiative. Light says that the CenterCal project “will isolate residents and harbor users from our harbor with a wall of retail, restaurant, parking, and movie theater structures.”
“Our revitalization should embrace the uniqueness of our harbor and its recreational potential, not hide it behind yet another cookie-cutter mall,” he said.
Critics of the proposed development plan also argue the deal with CenterCal is financially unsound, in that the city has agreed that no ground lease rent will be collected during the first 30 years unless CenterCal earns back 10 percent of its investment.
“That area is prime real estate and we are giving it away without getting any rent until the developer makes ten percent back on its investment,” said Todd Loewenstein, a former Redondo Beach school board member who has called for a balance between development and open space in revitalization plans. “I am a business person and I would never do a deal like this. We should not be giving away prime real estate on the water in Southern California. And people go to the beach to swim and enjoy the beach. They don’t go to the beach to go to the Gap.”
Brand compares the proposed development to Plaza El Segundo, a project which built 425,000 sq. ft. of retail development on 38 acres.
“This plan is more than 25 percent larger than Plaza El Segundo in less than half the space,” Brand said. “Only large, chain restaurants and shops will be able to afford the new lease rates.”
Aspel points to the initial Environmental Impact Review documents released last week, which describe the project area as 35 acres of “land and water” rather than the 15 acres opponents say encompass The Waterfront project. He also emphasizes that the Waterfront includes only about 290,000 sq. ft. of new development — the rest of the 520,000 sq. ft. would rebuild existing development.
“They try to make it sound like it’s all new development, but they are not taking into account that a lot of these buildings got to come down,” Aspel said. “Everybody is going to be reinvented.”
Perhaps nobody wants the reinvention of the Redondo waterfront quite as vehemently as Pat Aust does. He has spent 46 years working for the city, first as an electrician, then as a fireman, then as fire chief, and now as a two-term councilman. He has lived within a six block radius in Redondo and Hermosa his whole life and remembers the last days of Old Redondo. He still mourns its loss.
“We don’t have a downtown,” Aust said. “We lost it. I got to go to the wake. I got to see that old identity there — and I got to see it disappear and go away.”
As a city employee and then elected official, Aust says he’s witnessed 35 years of dashed revitalization hopes. He’s in favor of the Waterfront Project because he believes it will give the city its missing downtown and long lost economic engine.
“My counterpart Bill Brand calls it the ‘mall at the sea,’” Aust said. “It’s not the mall at the sea, it’s not Del Amo Mall, or the Galleria. It’s commerce, and it’s what we need as a city…There is no magic bullet that pays for everything. So we have to have all these creative sources to pay, just to be in existence. The revitalization of the harbor – it’s what we have to have. We have to have it in order to exist.”
Redondo, he notes, is a city of 67,000 people with a budget of $100 million and little major industry. But there’s something beyond the economics of harbor revitalization that makes Aust hope. Like Bruning, he thinks the city desperately needs a place where people congregate — where they go, simply, to be happy.
“The experience that I want to give them is when they came, and for whatever period of time they were there, they felt good about themselves and being there,” Aust said. “They take pictures and look at them 20 years later and say, ‘This was a good time at Redondo Beach.’ That’s what you want to leave them with, and if it paid our taxes, great.”