Time was when Playa del Rey lived up to its name: King's Beach. The hamlet's Toes Beach had a majestic break that lured the likes of singing surfer Dennis Wilson of Beach Boys fame.
Wave riders could grab a burger at one of many hangouts, while more sophisticated diners -- airline pilots, aerospace engineers, professors -- had their pick of white-tablecloth restaurants.
It was a destination surfing town with a casual vibe but plenty of bustle.
The casual vibe remains, but Playa del Rey is no longer much of a destination.
An off-shore breakwater, installed in 1965 in part to calm the wave action afflicting the nascent Marina del Rey development, wiped out the enclave's big surf -- and with it, much of its coastal cachet.
Over the years, many fine dining establishments have disappeared, and now the tired commercial strip features bars but no bank, hardware store, pharmacy or major grocery store.
Meanwhile, South Bay commuters have turned Culver Boulevard, which curves through town, into what locals semi-jokingly call the Manhattan Beach Freeway.
"It's an area that people pass through," said David J. Dukesherer, a local historian and longtime resident of the area. "They don't stop. They don't trade."
But developers see opportunity in the quirky hamlet, and lately, townspeople have engaged in an often testy debate over whether to embrace or resist efforts to enliven the scene with new housing and shops. The conversation has pitted residents who like everything the way it is, faded storefronts and all, against those who believe that the town could benefit from some spiffing up and new amenities.
"I'm fond of the pig, obviously, but I think it needs a little lipstick," Dukesherer said.
The problem is that developers have suggested more than a little lipstick for this relatively prosperous community of about 11,000.
To resounding shouts of disapproval, developer David Schwartzman of DS Ventures has proposed building 13 rental units on a privately held parcel sandwiched between Ballona Creek and the beloved Del Rey Lagoon.
The lagoon is a vastly reduced remnant of the shallow lake that once stretched all the way to Venice, but was filled in with dredged materials in the 1930s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened out the creek.
Over the years, residents have urged the city of Los Angeles to buy the 2.4-acre parcel or swap it for another property. The land, nicknamed Egret Park, provides what some wetlands advocates contend is a crucial ecological link with the creek and nearby wetlands.
A citizens group, the Committee to Complete the Park, has been working with the developer to reach a compromise.
Schwartzman recently proposed a swap package worth $7.3 million in cash and land to the Neighborhood Council of Westchester/Playa del Rey.
The council supported a resolution to have park supporters try to secure funds for the deal.
Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Playa del Rey, said he opposes any development at the site. "I think it should be part of a national conservancy," he said.
Meanwhile, developer Edward M. Czuker, who has proposed a large, mixed-use project in Marina del Rey called the Waterfront, has plans for a trio of properties in Playa del Rey, although he has yet to submit formal applications.
The sites include the Toes Beach sand dunes. An affiliate of Czuker's EMC Development LLC bought the dunes area in 2007 from investors whose proposed town-home development met with stiff resistance years ago from residents fearing a loss of their ocean views.
Czuker is considering building 28 single-family, multistory dwellings, to be constructed in pairs with 10-foot "viewing corridors" in between and a main view line that would align with Convoy Street.
The company also plans to develop the property where the Outlaws Bar & Grill restaurant and a parking lot now stand, next to the Tanner's Coffee building at 200 Culver Blvd.
On Thursday, the city's Cultural Heritage Commission voted to designate the Tanner's building, erected in the 1920s, as a historic-cultural monument. If the Los Angeles City Council agrees to the designation, the developer would be able to apply for tax benefits under the state Mills Act.
The stucco building served initially as the headquarters for Dickinson & Gillespie, the real estate company that developed Playa del Rey.
The most noteworthy owner was the late Robert Miles Runyan, a graphic designer known for creating the "Stars in Motion" logo for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Runyan created the design in the building, according to the monument application.
Derek Jones, an attorney and vice president of EMC, said Outlaws would move into the Tanner's building, with frontage on Vista del Mar, and maintain an outdoor patio at the back. EMC is looking to build as many as 60 residential units atop about 6,000 square feet of retail space.
The company also plans as many as 60 units, along with about 10,000 square feet of retail, for an area known as the Triangle, bordered by Vista del Mar, Culver and Trolley Way. The site is known locally as Jake's, after a defunct restaurant.
Jones said many residents have voiced a desire for an "improved array of services" within walking distance -- a bike shop, say, or a pharmacy or grocery store. These days, parents in need of cold medicine for a feverish child at midnight must drive to Westchester or elsewhere. "You may go in your pajamas, but you have to get in a car and drive," the attorney said.
Susan Shehab, a longtime resident and apartment building owner, said she thinks the town, now served by the small Gordon's Market, is ready for something high-end, maybe "a mini-Bristol Farms." But she fears that a trickle of development could become a flood -- or that a little bit of lipstick could lead to full-blown plastic surgery.
The beach community is already feeling hemmed in -- by the huge Playa Vista development to the east, high-rise-dotted Marina del Rey to the north and the commercial zone around Los Angeles International Airport to the south.
Jones, in many community meetings, has sought to put minds at ease. "Our goal, honest to goodness, is to improve the quality of life in Playa del Rey without changing the character," he said.
The prospect of as many as 120 new housing units in the community's tiny core alarms Bob Hughes, president of the West Beach Property Owners Homeowners Assn. His densely packed beach-side neighborhood is affectionately known as the Jungle.
"The storefronts on Culver are past their life, and we need to gussy them up," said Hughes, a builder. "But we don't want high density, that's for sure. We have enough traffic and pollution."