Annenberg Foundation suspends plan for Ballona Wetlands visitors center

Annenberg Foundation backs off its plan to build a visitors center in the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve

In a surprise move, the Annenberg Foundation has suspended its controversial plan to build a $50-million visitors center in the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve.

Some wetlands proponents had criticized the proposal, first revealed by The Times in January 2013, because of Annenberg's intention to include rescue and care facilities for domestic animals.

At the time, critics called the plan a theft of public land slated for wildlife habitat.

Despite Annenberg's decision, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission and the state Coastal Conservancy plan to proceed with an environmental review of options for the nearly 600-acre wetlands, the partners said in a brief joint statement Tuesday.

"We are confident the end result of our efforts will be the delivery of a compelling restoration project for public input," the statement said.

The Annenberg Foundation did not immediately respond to requests for comment about its decision not to build the facility, which was to include exhibits, classrooms, parking and office space. The building was originally expected to be as large as 46,000 square feet.

"This was never going to fly," said Walter Lamb, president of the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust. "Any financial benefit from the foundation's involvement ... would have been more than offset by the continued loss of habitat in an ecosystem that has already suffered from encroachment and fragmentation."

The state paid $139 million in voter-approved bond money in 2003 to buy what was left of the Ballona Wetlands from Playa Capital, the developer of Playa Vista. The deal made the area, the last sizable coastal marsh in Los Angeles County, off-limits to development.

Activists, developers and government agencies had wrangled for decades over the fate of the land, which lies between Marina del Rey and Westchester.

Once owned by industrialist Howard Hughes, the property is home to great blue herons, burrowing owls and the El Segundo blue butterfly, although the ecosystem has been degraded by landfill, exotic plants and dumping.

Some wetlands proponents have pledged to fight any plans to bulldoze the site. The agencies working together on the restoration said Annenberg informed them of the decision after evaluating its various community-development projects and revising priorities.

At best, restoration of the wetlands would be years away, given the likelihood of lawsuits and the need for public review of alternatives.

"The state's planning process has already taken far too long," the nonprofit Friends of Ballona Wetlands said in a statement. "The reserve needs a robust restoration plan, and the process of approving one must proceed and conclude."

martha.groves@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarthaGroves

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