In Redondo Beach, a debate has raged for almost three years between those who see change as inevitable and positive and those who see it as a threat to their relatively peaceful lifestyle.
At issue is a massive redevelopment plan for an underutilized beachfront and an aging power plant.
The plan is called the Heart of the City because, proponents say, it would once again create a town center in the community, revitalizing the harbor area with new housing and commercial development.
But some residents say that by fighting the plan, they are defending the very soul of their city.
“If we don’t do anything, this is going to turn us into just another one of those cities where you don’t know your next-door neighbor from anyone else,” said Redondo Beach resident Erika Robinson. “This is our last stand, our last opportunity to say enough is enough.”
But city officials say that once the area is redeveloped, Redondo Beach will still be Redondo Beach, albeit a bit more polished.
“There’s this feeling of wanting to keep this place for ourselves because here, in a way, we have a little enclave away from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives,” said Mayor Greg Hill. “None of that will change with Heart of the City.”
Stretching from Herondo Street on the north to Torrance Boulevard on the south, the plan would turn most of Catalina Avenue into a residential neighborhood and transform the harbor into a seaside village.
Acres of parking lots would become a pedestrian-friendly shopping district, and a large portion of the power plant would be gutted and replaced with new offices and homes.
The plan would cost an estimated $1 billion in private sector investments and $49 million for infrastructure repairs and improvements. Virginia-based AES Corp., which owns the power plant, would pay about $90 million for cleanup, demolition and electrical costs. After the work was done, the plant would be about a third of its current 52-acre size.
The plan allows for 2,998 new housing units and 657,000 square feet of commercial space, though AES envisions only 1,100 residential units, said General Manager C.J. Thompson. Commercial space would occupy 100,000 square feet.
Staunch supporters applaud efforts to rebuild the downtown area that an earlier city administration tore down in the 1960s. But Robinson is not alone in her dismay.
School board members say the extra housing would bring more children into already crowded schools. Bicyclists and boaters complain that the plan ignores their needs.
And some very vocal residents of Redondo Beach and neighboring Hermosa Beach worry about traffic. If built to its maximum capacity, the project would produce an estimated 3,500 extra vehicle trips during the evening rush hour--too many for the area to handle, they say.
But after years of revisions, public hearings, workshops and a lengthy two-night meeting that ended after midnight last month, the City Council unanimously passed the Heart of the City specific plan and certified the environmental impact report.
The plan will go to the California Coastal Commission for final approval unless Robinson and other volunteers belonging to a newly formed group, Citizens for a Vote on Heart of the City, can get the 4,000 signatures needed to force the issue onto the ballot.
The group circulated two petitions against the project--one challenging the zoning, the other the specific plan--and on April 18 submitted more than 6,000 signatures for each initiative. City Hall has 30 days to count and certify the signatures.
Mayor Hill and his City Council colleagues insist that the plan is merely a broad guide for development, not a definitive blueprint.
“It’s not what we’re bound to do,” he said.
Hill said that neither he nor other city officials have any intention of building to capacity, but that in order to attract more developers and be eligible for federal funds, the plan has to be flexible and allow for some areas of higher density and affordable housing.
Hill said he hopes residents can trust that their elected officials are doing what’s right for the city. But in Redondo Beach--a community still haunted by past development mistakes--that might be easier said than done.
Beginning in the 1960s, the city’s historic but dilapidated downtown was torn down in favor of condos, offices and off-street parking. So many condominiums were built south of the pier in the 1970s that some locals dubbed the city Recondo Beach.
But despite millions spent in redevelopment dollars, Redondo Beach has never achieved the success of similar beachfront commercial districts in nearby Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach.
“In a way, we’re almost paying for the sins of the father--they tore it out,” Hill said of the old downtown. “We’re trying in any way we can to recapture that.” Even so, critics have “aligned us with the same process we’re trying to fix,” he said.
Heart of the City proponents want to make the area more inviting, but not as a tourist destination like the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. They hope to create an area where locals will want to dine, shop or simply enjoy the water.
The opportunity for change came in 1998, when AES announced that it would downsize the plant and use the remaining land to build townhomes and offices.
City leaders would have preferred to see the facility shut down, but state officials decided that the plant could not be closed because it was needed during emergencies or when other electrical sources failed, a point driven home last year during the state’s power crisis.
Nevertheless, AES’ plans to redevelop provided the city an opportunity to design a master plan that would revitalize North Catalina Avenue and the harbor area. What followed was years of debate on exactly what the new vision should entail.
Russ Lesser, 61, president of Body Glove in Redondo Beach, said he is all for Heart of the City, even though his business might have to relocate under the new zoning for the area.
But some people will take some convincing.
Neighboring Hermosa Beach filed a lawsuit April 19 against Redondo Beach, saying that mitigation measures in the plan’s environmental impact report don’t do enough to alleviate potential increases in traffic and congestion along Hermosa’s southern border.
Hill has said he will support anything his constituents decide to do, but warns that zoning and planning are not issues that should be decided through referendums.
If residents vote against the Heart of the City plan, he said, they might end up reverting to the current zoning, which allows for even more development and so-called big-box retailers.
“I urge people to take the time to educate themselves about this before they sign anything,” Hill said. “You can’t just vote yes or no on something this complex.”