Officials Say They'd Give Up Ocean View : Harbor Dept. May Get More Time to Develop Lot Near Headquarters

Times Staff Writer

Waterfront views don't come cheap. Just ask Los Angeles Harbor Commissioners, who plunked down a cool $4.3 million to preserve their vista.

That's the amount commissioners authorized the port to pay nearly three years ago for 2.6 acres across from the port's Palos Verdes Street headquarters in the Beacon Street Redevelopment area--a purchase prompted by the unwelcome prospect of watching a high-rise building go up on the land blocking their view of the harbor.

Having a harbor view "is important from a marketing point of view," Harbor Commission President Joseph Zaninovich said. "The view is something we can't buy, and if we can preserve it, we should. If you remove the view, we might as well be on Wilshire Boulevard."

Now, however, commissioners, who are treated to a panoramic picture of the port's main channel from their fifth-floor office, have been handed a notice of default from the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. The notice was sent to the port after it failed to meet a series of deadlines to develop an office building on 1 3/4 acres of the land.

But commissioners have apparently bought themselves more time to develop the land. Last week, they voted to request development proposals for the 1 3/4-acre parcel after agreeing to include a clause in the proposal form saying they would consider favorably proposals that would not block the view between their headquarters and the main channel.

Although a timetable has not yet been developed, the CRA, which is eager to have the land developed, is expected to give the port more time to submit preliminary design plans for the office building, CRA Commission Chairman Jim Wood said.

"We are not after conflict or controversy," Wood said in an interview. " . . . We believe the Harbor Department is serious about developing the land."

The property lies directly across from the port's offices in the Beacon Street project area, a 60-acre urban renewal effort launched by the CRA 18 years ago and now nearing completion. In 1983, the Harbor Department paid $4.3 million for the vacant 1 3/4 acres and a smaller adjoining parcel where a one-story commercial building stands. Under an agreemnt with the CRA, the port was to develop an office building of at least 100,000 square feet on the larger plot.

Although port officials have had unsuccessful negotiations with at least two developers, they have not formally sought development proposals or submitted design plans to the CRA. After the port missed its original deadline and two extensions, the CRA issued a default notice giving it until last Dec. 31 to submit plans to the agency.

The port missed that deadline, too.

Port officials maintain that they have tried to develop the land but have been stymied by weak demand for office space and by a desire to get a good return on the port's investment.

"I think everybody understands there hasn't been deliberate foot-dragging on this thing," said Ezunial Burts, the port's executive director.

Jack Wells, the port's deputy executive director, said the port purchased the land after a deal the CRA had signed with a developer to construct a high rise on the site fell through. He said the port wanted to preserve the unobstructed views from the department's headquarters to the harbor's main channel, and vice versa.

Wells said that port officials thought the purchase was appropriate because the Harbor Department had originally planned to build its headquarters on a waterfront site. However, the port was persuaded by the CRA to build on Palos Verdes Street to help spur construction in the redevelopment area, and to ensure that waterfront views for other prospective developers were not blocked by the Harbor Department's building. The headquarters was completed in 1981.

Port officials, who had complained loudly about the high-rise proposal, were eager to buy the land to control its development, Wells said.

"We didn't think it was right for the CRA to be concerned about protecting visual access from the (project area) to the waterfront, and not be concerned about development between our building and the water," Wells said.

Developers Put Off

As recently as three weeks ago, a decision to allow developers to submit proposals for the property was postponed after Zaninovich and Commissioner Fred Heim expressed concern that the proposal did not include a provision guaranteeing that the port's views would be protected. At the commissioners' request, port staff members included a paragraph in the proposal requiring that the view between the port's headquarters and the main channel not be blocked.

However, Commissioner Jun Mori last week objected to the paragraph, saying he did not believe it was the port's intention to mandate that such a view be protected. Commissioners then voted to alter the paragraph to read that the port would "consider favorably" proposals that would protect the view.

David Lewis, a CRA deputy administrator, said after the vote that he found it hard to believe that the port would relinquish any control over its views. "It blew my mind," Lewis said. "That's been the point of controversy from Day 1 (with) the Harbor Department."

Despite the concerns he recently voiced about preserving the port's views, Heim, who was a commissioner when the decision to purchase the land was made, said he is more concerned that an architecturally attractive building be constructed on the site. "I couldn't care less about the view," he said.

No Concern for View

And Commissioner Mori, also a commissioner when the land was purchased, said he is not concerned about the views, either. "That kind of emotional talk has been going on for some time, but I am not one of those" who feel the views must be maintained, Mori said. "I think we should develop the land when it is prudent."

But Zaninovich said he is not ashamed to admit that he wants the views to remain intact. "It's hard to describe, but it is more or less a tradition at ports throughout the world," Zaninovich said. "Every port (headquarters) I have been to is right on the water's edge."

Nevertheless, Zaninovich said he feels bad that the land across the street from the Harbor Department has not been developed. If necessary, he said, he would support the construction of a building on the site that could block the views.

"I would be lying to you if I said I didn't want to preserve the view, but if it has to come to that, so be it," Zaninovich said.

Added Burts: "I assure you running this department doesn't require a view. . . . That won't drive the decision on this."

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