‘This Could Become the Gem of California Coast’ : Road to Civic Center Pitted With Disputes
There is no such thing as downtown Malibu.
Main Street is Pacific Coast Highway, 27 miles and four lanes of beach and commuter traffic. The million-dollar bungalows on the south side of the highway turn their faces to the ocean and their garages to the street. Souvenir stores, fast-food outlets and real estate offices, pressed against steep hillsides, line the road’s north flank.
For first-time visitors, the sight is typically a letdown. “When I first came out here, I said, ‘This is it? This is Malibu?,’ ” recalled 10-year resident Susan Gowing. “I said, ‘Where is it?’ ”
A response is included in the Malibu land-use plan adopted seven months ago by Los Angeles County and the California Coastal Commission. The plan calls for transforming a few small businesses, a county office complex and some brush-covered fields into a focal point for tourists and locals alike--a true downtown.
About 58% of the designated area, 172 of 295 acres, is vacant. County and state planners, landowners, residents and environmentalists agree that this clean slate provides an opportunity to build a special place reflecting the glamour and natural beauty associated with Malibu.
At the chosen spot, known as the Malibu Civic Center area, county consultants project 2.2 million square feet of commercial space, including as many as four hotels. Along the fringes, they expect about 1,000 apartments, condominiums and houses.
The consultants are laboring now on the next step required by the land-use plan for translating those figures into stucco and glass: a specific plan for downtown, which also must be approved by the Board of Supervisors and the Coastal Commission.
Without that design, the land-use plan would allow only smaller projects, with less bulk and with a maximum height of two stories rather than three.
Civic activists are happy that the design process, which is well under way, is using a comprehensive approach but they have concerns as well as hopes. They wonder why no regional traffic or marketing studies were included in the basic research. In addition, questions have been raised about sewage disposal, earthquake faults and flood hazards.
Some also complain that property owners are playing too big a role in determining the nature of downtown. County consultants have met nine times with owners to draft a preliminary plan. Initially, the county limited its invitation for those meetings to landholders in the civic center area. Others were invited after activists found out about the sessions. Widely advertised public meetings are to be scheduled for late summer or early fall.
“This could become one of the absolute gems of the California coast,” said Madelyn Glickfeld, a Coastal Commission alternate who lives in Malibu and is a frequent critic of the county. “It could be beautiful. But it’s not gonna be.”
On the surface, there is little room for controversy. Glickfeld’s vision of downtown Malibu is essentially the same as the description offered by Elwood C. Tescher, who is managing the project for Envicom Corp., the county’s consultant.
Both talk of a seaside village that is closer in atmosphere to Santa Barbara than to Century City. They speak of encouraging people to get out of their cars and stroll past storefronts, gaze at the ocean, pause in landscaped plazas and meet friends.
And the site seems to be an obvious choice. It is one of the few wide, flat spaces in the region and it is surrounded by all the elements of the Malibu image: to the south, the movie stars of the Malibu Colony and the world-famous waves of Surfrider Beach; to the west, Pepperdine University; to the north, the Santa Monica Mountains.
The draft of the specific plan, issued last month, requires all developers in downtown Malibu to design their buildings in Mediterranean-style architecture, with stucco and tile in earth tones and pastels.
Throughout the area, distinctive lamp posts and street benches would link the separate projects. Most buildings would be set close to the sidewalk rather than in isolated splendor amid parking lots and landscaping.
But Glickfeld said she is disappointed by what the draft omits. She said she wishes public meeting space had been provided. She said she had hoped some sort of shuttle bus system would be included to reduce the impact of Malibu’s downtown on the already-clogged coast highway.
Faye Hove, another local activist, said she wonders why there is no bicycle or jogging track and why there is no mention of public restrooms.
Lack of Public Benefits
In return for the extra development permitted with a specific plan, “I don’t see any public benefit,” Glickfeld said. “I’m a little discouraged, and that’s a very mild way of putting it.”
Tescher disagrees. Without the specific plan, “you could end up with the same kind of commercial development that is up and down the highway,” he said. “I contend that the impact of that could be worse, even with less square footage.”
The landowners say Glickfeld and other critics might change their minds once the plan is finished.
“The public-serving features of the plan, I think, will now evolve out of public testimony,” said Charles Greenberg, an attorney representing the owner of 19 downtown Malibu acres.
“Just as the landowner fleshes out what is necessary for him, the public’s going to have to flesh out what it really wants there,” Greenberg said. “Those things aren’t there (in the design) now, but they’ll be in there.”
What will be downtown Malibu is now dotted with about 50 buildings of all shapes, sizes and styles, most of them erected in the past 20 years.
They include the rustic wood-sided boxes, grouped around a courtyard and playground, that make up the Malibu Country Mart and the Spanish-style shopping center next door.
To the north, glass-sheathed greenhouses shelter flower nurseries. At the heart of the area is the Malibu Civic Center, a monumental colonnaded structure that houses county courts, offices, a sheriff’s station and a library--a complex described by one property owner as “just the opposite of what we’re trying to do here.”
In that library’s meeting room, the specific design as it stands so far was forged. One afternoon a month, from last October until June, the cinder-block walls were festooned with blueprints and maps coded with patches of burgundy, light green and pink.
At each gathering, Tescher stood in front to conduct the discussion. A pair of county planners sat at the back. In the middle, on plastic chairs, were property owners and their representatives.
These people--referred to in the draft report as “a community-based advisory committee"--endorsed the consultant’s suggestion to adopt a Mediterranean-style architectural theme for all new buildings. The decision was based on Malibu’s history as a Spanish land grant and its oceanside location.
“Mediterranean does give some flexibility. It doesn’t have to just be Spanish,” said Roy Crummer, whose 80 acres in the area make him its largest landholder. “If you encourage too much cookie-cutter development, it looks pretty, but it looks nice the way vanilla is nice.”
The scion of a family that has owned extensive stretches of Malibu property for more than 30 years, Crummer has big plans. He talks about building at least two shopping areas, office buildings, movie theaters and a luxury ocean-view hotel, all within the boundaries of downtown.
He will set the tone with his Malibu Colony Plaza, a 90,000-square-foot shopping center on the site of the closed Colony Market at the southwest corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Webb Way.
Crummer received final Coastal Commission approval for the project earlier this month. He plans to finish the center by next spring and estimates construction will cost between $9 million and $10 million.
Drawings of the center on the wall of Crummer’s Brentwood office show a stucco and tile building with arches, a bell tower, two fountains and a whale-shaped weather vane. He expects the tenants to include a grocery store, cafes and upscale stores.
Across Pacific Coast Highway, on 17 acres now occupied only by some recycling bins, Crummer pictures an Italianate structure, perhaps with rounded parapets, where boutiques, galleries and restaurants are grouped around a large courtyard.
“In the evenings, after the shops have closed, we could have live theater, maybe Shakespeare,” he said. “People could just bring a pillow and watch the show.”
He has clearly spent many hours dreaming about the possibilities.
“I like the idea of being able to influence the way people live through the relationships between buildings and space,” he said. “We want to create an Athenian community here, not just a suburb of Los Angeles. I want neighbors to come together here and start talking together.”
He wants to move from his home in Hollywood to a beachfront house in Malibu. He enthusiastically talks about watching the waves break from the deck and glimpsing porpoises at play.
“But I like city life, too. I like Sunset Plaza and I like Melrose,” Crummer said. “I’ve got to build things up so I can enjoy living here.”
Others who attended the library sessions also know what they want to build. Bob Mahoney has commissioned an architect to design a hotel, with about 300 bungalow suites, along a slope behind the Civic Center. Grant Adamson’s company already has permits for a 300-room hotel near Pepperdine. Tom Hodges has a coastal permit for a medical office building on his property.
When civic activists accidentally found out about the meetings, they were furious about being excluded. They wondered out loud whether political contributions to county Supervisor Deane Dana, who represents Malibu, had anything to do with the invitation list.
From 1981 to 1986, Dana received more than $34,000 from landowners in the downtown area. Another $20,000 came from the building industry, apartment- and hotel-management industries, Malibu real estate brokers, developers’ consultants and downtown-area businesses--all expected beneficiaries of a build-up.
“That’s a cheap shot,” said Crummer, whose companies donated about $4,000 to Dana in the five-year period.
Landowners “have got rights, if nothing more than as a courtesy,” he said. “I haven’t talked to Deane Dana in two years.” The critics “make it sound as if they should have the first word and the last word, too.”
County planners, who were responsible for mailing notices, said they merely wanted to limit attendance to keep the discussion manageable.
“We will have public meetings,” said planner Jack Edwards. “But we can’t do this kind of work with a crowd of 300.”
After hearing complaints from several residents who came uninvited to the April session, Edwards agreed to notify anyone who expressed an interest about any further gatherings to work on the draft downtown plan.
But bitterness still lingers.
County planners “seem to have an alchemy for taking a potential golden situation and turning it into lead,” said Glickfeld. “They’re laying a plan on the community and there will be an adverse reaction simply because no one’s been exposed to it.”
Many Malibu residents view all this activity with mixed emotions.
A downtown “would be nice, just so you could have a place to shop,” Susan Gowing said one sunny day from a park bench in the Country Mart courtyard. “I go to Santa Monica or the Valley for almost everything.”
Her friend, Patty Adams, who has lived west of Pepperdine for 11 years, chimed in: “For an area with an international reputation, Malibu does look a lot like Van Nuys Boulevard.”
But Susan Mills, who has lived in Malibu all of her 36 years, is unhappy with the prospect of change.
“Being here is not like going up to Carmel and all those cute little streets,” she said. “But a lot of people like it this way. Just kind of dull.”
Concerned With Traffic
All three women share one concern: traffic. Pacific Coast Highway is already clogged at rush hours and on weekends. With the beach on one side and unstable cliffs on the other, there is little room to expand.
However, the county has not studied the impact of intensive development in the Civic Center area on Pacific Coast Highway congestion. The reason is money.
Under state law, local governments are not supposed to be burdened with the cost of complying with Coastal Commission requirements. But the Coastal Commission, with a budget slashed by the Deukmejian Administration, could grant only $65,000 for work on the downtown plan.
“It’s unfortunate that (a regional traffic study) wasn’t included in the dollar amount,” Tescher said. To examine the effect of a downtown on the coast highway and canyon roads would cost about $300,000, he said.
Landowners donated $12,000 to pay an Orange County traffic engineering firm, Greer and Co., to create a road system within the downtown. Mohammed Wadi, an assistant engineer with Greer, said the right setup actually could ease congestion on the highway.
‘Going to Be Great’
Locals would no longer have to travel long distances for shopping and once they reach downtown Malibu, they would leave the highway, Wadi said. “I think it’s going to be great.”
Halting development would not necessarily help the traffic situation because so many PCH drivers come over the hills from the San Fernando Valley to avoid the Ventura Freeway, he said.
Wadi also thinks further study is needed, however. “We’d like to do it,” he said. “But we get paid and we finish whatever we get paid for.”
The Coastal Commission grant also was not enough to cover a marketing analysis.
“There simply isn’t the demand for leasing of office space and commercial space in Malibu as there is for building it,” Glickfeld said. “The result could be an economic disaster for (landowners) and a disaster also to the community.”
A study of market demand “might have helped us focus a little more clearly on the mix of uses for the land” in downtown, Tescher said. “But you can do a plan without a market analysis. We do them all the time.”
Though Tescher acknowledged that “everybody with property here seems to be magically attuned to the development of hotels” and that “the four sites for hotels are probably excessive,” he said banks are not likely to finance any projects that cannot prove a demand exists.
Another concern is geology. An earthquake fault slices across the proposed downtown and whether it is active is a matter of debate.
The Adamson Cos. had to re-site its proposed hotel when it was discovered that the building straddled a fault. Early this year, General Motors Corp. abandoned plans for a research center because of faults, though the firm already had county and state permits.
James E. Slosson, a Van Nuys geologist who formerly served as head of the California Division of Mines and Geology, has applied for a federal grant to investigate the faults in this section of Malibu. He suspects a series of faults branch off throughout the downtown site.
‘Hell of a Situation’
“It doesn’t mean you can’t build there,” Slosson said. “But if you don’t consider and determine what the problems are and design for them, you can be in one hell of a situation.”
Tescher agreed. “There are a lot of unknowns and that’s the problem,” he said.
He said he has recommended against allowing a hospital in downtown Malibu because “in an earthquake, you don’t want to damage the kinds of facilities that would have to respond to the situation.”
The landowners have a major concern, too, and that is sewage disposal. A high water table in the downtown area means there is little space for liquid that seeps from septic tanks.
The county has proposed a regional sewer system for Malibu, but residents are battling the project, claiming it is more expensive and larger in scale than necessary. Would-be developers of downtown worry that the sewers will be defeated or delayed, either politically or in court.
“We ought to have some kind of insurance, a backup,” said Crummer. “Here we are going through months of land-use planning that may be a total waste of time if the sewers are 10 years or 15 years away.”
Brian Scanlon, the county’s sewer maintenance superintendent, said there could be alternatives to a regional system, such as a smaller treatment plant that serves only downtown.
“But we’re against anything that doesn’t solve the problems throughout Malibu,” he said. “The Board of Supervisors would have to reject or abandon the regional system before we looked at anything else.”