Detente on the waterfront
After decades of efforts by Redondo Beach activists to get rid of the AES Redondo Beach power plant, AES stuns its opponents and supporters with a proposal to do just that
The power plant that has dominated the Redondo Beach waterfront for more than a century may be replaced by a mixed-use commercial, retail, and residential development as soon as 2020.
The “Harbor Village” development plan was disclosed last week by AES Southland, which owns and operates the power plant.
Redondo Beach mayor Steve Aspel said the plant could stop producing power as soon as 2018.
“This is a once in a lifetime chance to get rid of [the power plant],” Aspel said. “I think realistic, responsible people will be happy with it.”
AES has filed a notice of intent to put an initiative on the March 2015 ballot, asking voters to approve an “alternative land use plan”, which includes new mixed use residential, hotel, and commercial zoning for the power plant site, according to a 55-page initiative measure filed with the city clerk last Wednesday.
The proposed project was designed by the Los Angeles architectural firm of Rios, Clementi, and Hale, of downtown Los Angeles Grand Park renown. It is divided into two distinct parts. The mixed-use “Harbor Village” along Harbor Drive will have 85,000 square feet of commercial space with restaurants not exceeding 25,000 square feet, and 250 hotel rooms with a height limit of four stories or 45 feet. The “low-density” east side of the property, along N. Francisca and N. Gertruda, will have 600 residential units with a combination of two story, 30-foot, and three story, 35-foot residences. The plan also includes a potential 10 acres of public open space; a 1.75-acre public plaza, a 25-foot-wide tree-lined promenade for pedestrians and cyclists, and an 80-foot-wide extension of the Hermosa Beach greenbelt all the way to the coast. Another four acres may be used for a neighborhood park or other recreational uses. 20 percent of the frontage along Harbor Drive will have view corridors to maintain sight lines.
“I fully support it as long as the initiative doesn’t go above these numbers,” Aspel said. “Right now, it seems like the initiative is the only surefire way to get rid of the power plant.”
HISTORY OF THE SITE
The 50-acre trapezoidal piece of land on Harbor Drive between Herondo Street and Beryl Street has historically been a field in flux. Different interest groups assigned different values to the site’s natural resources and unique location. Some of the South Bay’s first inhabitants were the Chowigna Native Americans, who prized the lush wetlands and mineral-rich salt deposits that naturally occurred in the area of the current power plant. A mid-19th century salt production plant preceded Henry Huntington’s 1907 Pacific Light and Power steam plant, which was bulldozed in 1947 to make way for Edison’s steam station. AES bought the plant from Edison in 1998, and operates its four units.
In recent years, the power plant’s spacious industrial interior has served as a temporary home for an array of peculiar patrons. Lead-based paint is shedding from the pipe network, and a faded half basketball court painted on the floor of the plant is leftover from a commercial starring Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant. The plant interior was also staged as a nightclub for pop star Britney Spears’ 1999 “Crazy” video. During early morning hours, plant workers often see a family of raccoons traverse the plant’s “highway”-like pipe system.
In the wake of new state regulations that ban the use of ocean water to cool power plants, AES had proposed a smaller, 12-acre power plant design in 2013, leaving 38 acres on its property for other uses. But community groups such as No Power Plant Building a Better Redondo wanted the power plant gone entirely. The Redondo Beach City Council has been grappling with the future of the power plant for over a decade. In December 2013, the council issued a 45-day moratorium on the development of a new plant.
Now, for the first time in 107 years, it looks like the power plant may finally be leaving. “Harbor Village” is the first plan AES has backed for the redevelopment of the site since the controversial and ultimately failed Heart of the City in 2001. Aspel, who was on the planning commission that approved the Heart of the City project, said this is a significantly different proposal.
“It’s a far, far cry from the old Heart of the City,” he said. “That was up to 3,000 [residential] units. This is 600 units.”
AES Southland vice president of business development Eric Pendergraft said he is confident voters will support the proposal.
“The development envelope that we’re seeking approval for is a fraction of what was pursued under the Heart of the City, and that was intentional,” he said. “We’ve designed this in such a way that we’re confident it will get the support of the voters, yet still have enough economic opportunity for it to be fair and reasonable. You never know how somebody’s going to vote, but we find it hard to imagine why people would not approve of this plan. It’s got support of the property owner, which is different than Measure A, and it’s a pretty neat plan.”
Measure A was an initiative promoted by local activists in 2013 to rezone the power plant site to disallow future power generation. AES argued the measure infringed on its property rights. Voters narrowly rejected the measure.
The AES proposal started like many grand plans do — over a cup of coffee.
“After I got elected as mayor, I said ‘let’s have coffee’,” Aspel recalled saying Pendergraft. “So I started a dialogue with Eric. ‘What do you really want to do here?” That was my question. ‘Do you want to generate power in the next 100 years? I don’t think so. You want to get market value for your property.’”
Aspel said the initiative offers residents a clear choice.
“What’ll happen is it will go before the voters and they’ll have a choice of voting to approve the AES proposal or they’ll have a choice of voting to keep the power plant,” Aspel said. “A hundred percent up to the voters.”
But Councilmember Bill Brand, whose District 2 includes the harbor and power plant, takes issue with this black-and-white framing of the March 2015 initiative.
“I’ve been calling for a proper collaboration for a long time,” he said. “It’s a false ultimatum that if you don’t vote for the development plan then you’ll get a power plant.”
Pendergraft emphasized that if the initiative is voted down by residents, AES will pursue plans to rebuild a new power plant on the site.
“The initiative process is not a negotiation,” he said. “The plan that we’ve put forth now is essentially developed by us, but takes into account over a decade’s worth of efforts and proposals, which have ranged from 2,000 condos to a large regional park. We’ve studied those past efforts and really tried to come up with a compromise that incorporates the best aspects of the previous efforts. But in the event that the community does not like it and votes it down, we’re going to restart the permitting effort and our actions for building a power plant.”
“Finally, AES has admitted that we don’t need their power plant or the power lines for our future energy needs,” Brand said. “This was all done behind closed doors. The council didn’t know about it. The only person who had input from the city was Mayor Aspel, and that’s wrong
“There was nothing sinister about anything,” Aspel said. “My job as mayor is to talk to people. You don’t run everything by the council. You don’t run everything by staff. I get to go out and meet with people and not negotiate, but just tell them what my thoughts are. So my only goal was to get rid of this power plant. And the proper way, rather than running them out of town. So after about a year of prodding they finally came up with a plan that might be acceptable to the people.”
“There was nothing to really report to the council until [AES] came up with a plan. And when they met with us and showed us their ideas, it was just an idea. After they told us they had plans, we told them they had to go public, so we wouldn’t be criticized with having backroom deals with [King Harbor developer] CenterCal.”
Pendergraft said it’s yet to be determined whether AES will retain title to the property or sell it to a developer. But he confirmed that AES has been working with the City of Redondo Beach and CenterCal, who is currently undergoing an environmental impact review for their proposed development of the King Harbor waterfront.
“In preparing the initiative and the proposed zoning we’ve gotten input from the city as well as CenterCal so that we could design our project in such a way that they all complement and support each other,” he said. “And that certainly is our goal.”
Pendergraft said the proposed initiative “complements what the city is trying to do with the gateway project and the cycle track” and will enhance the Herondo Street/Harbor Drive Gateway Improvement project by providing additional walkways and bicycle paths.
Brand urged AES to work with CenterCal to produce a cohesive vision for the waterfront.
“I’m ecstatic at the prospect of the power plant going away,” Brand said. “But I don’t want to replace the power plant at our waterfront with a huge development plan. The real opportunity here is to do a cohesive redevelopment of the entire waterfront, which includes the 15 acres of the CenterCal project and 50 acres that AES has made available, spread out the impacts, and put the recreation and open space land down by the waterfront, where it belongs.”
District 3 Councilmember Pat Aust offered a financially grounded interpretation of the AES Harbor Village development.
“AES wasn’t going to sell the property to put parking structures on it,” he said. “What a lot of people forget is that AES has a lot of money invested in that site….They need probably $800 million a year to return on their investment.”
“it’s not a big deal for them to say ‘We’re banking on 2020,’ because that’s about what it’s going to take to see a shovel in the ground,” Aust said. “They’re not going to take down the power plant until they get a return on what their investment is.”
Pendergraft said the initiative offers a “win-win” solution. The development provides the financial incentive for AES to cease producing power on the site and contributes to the revitalization of the Redondo waterfront. He said he’s been encouraged by its public reception thus far.
“Even though it’s not our core business, it’s satisfying to be able to bring a solution to the community that is exciting and new and people embrace,” Pendergraft said. “It’s a lot more fun than trying to get a new power plant built that nobody wants.”
“We’ve essentially been battling either opponents who are trying to shut down the power plant, or in some cases the city, for over a decade. And that gets tiresome. It consumes a lot of time and resources, financial and other. Now we were focused on trying to be proactive and develop a solution that is broadly supported, and stop fighting and start collaborating.
“It was inspired by our desire to find a win-win solution, where everybody feels and is victorious,” Pendergraft said. “The city gets what they want: additional revenue and a brand new, revitalized waterfront without a power plant. The community gets a great place to visit, enhanced views and higher property values. We get a fair value in return, and those folks who have concerns about a new power plant, those concerns are alleviated because there won’t be one.”
“The most important thing to me is getting rid of the power plant,” Aspel said. “This is something we’ve been working on forever and it’s a real chance to get rid of it.”