Line Drawn in Sand Over Dunes Project

Times Staff Writer

Nestled between the trendy Silver Strand of Venice and the thunderous runways of Los Angeles International Airport sits Playa del Rey, a small beach town that has managed in the face of an onslaught of Westside development to retain much of its laid-back 1970s flavor.

“Playa is just kind of Playa,” said Janice Burrill, a resident for more than two decades. “It’s not on a lot of people’s radar screens, and I like that.”

It is, however, on the radar screen of Sea Glass Development, which has proposed to build 35 townhouses on a beloved stretch of shoreline long known as “Toes Over” Beach, or Toes Beach for short. Think “hanging 10,” with toes curled over the nose of a surfboard.


The tract, which abuts Dockweiler State Beach at Pacific Avenue and Culver Boulevard, features three acres of gently rolling dunes that would be flattened for 87,000 square feet of residential units and 4,000 square feet of commercial space.

Seeking to stifle the proposal, residents in the community of 8,600 have teamed with environmental groups such as Heal the Bay, Surfrider Foundation and Wetlands Action Network to form Save Our Dunes Alliance.

Its members -- including beachgoers, in-line skaters, birders and a local sports bar owner who would arguably stand to gain customers if the townhomes were built -- are pushing the Los Angeles Planning Department to require that the developers conduct a full environmental study before they proceed with construction.

The addition of 35 high-end homes in a neighborhood of about 4,800 residences might not sound like much. But several other developments are also in the works, including 46 luxury beachfront condos called Breakers at Westport.

Enough already, opponents say -- a stance that prompted one Sea Glass proponent at a public meeting to dub them “NIMBY Nazis.”

The battle is already heating up, with the developer even questioning residents’ description of the property. “Those aren’t dunes,” said Ben Reznik, an attorney for Sea Glass. “They’re drifts.”

Playa del Rey residents pride themselves on an almost reverse snobbery, appreciating that their community, part of the city of Los Angeles, is not the marina or Santa Monica or Manhattan Beach, places that many believe have been rendered too frantic or chichi by their success.

“We like the fact that it was a little community that had been held over,” said Janice Whiffen, who moved to Playa del Rey two years ago from Marina del Rey and was the chief organizer of Save Our Dunes. “It wasn’t gentrified. It still had a post office with three windows and a barbershop with a pole outside. Those were things that just spoke to us.”

There are no chain stores. Cafes and bars are strictly local, with the exception of a Tanner’s coffee shop and the Shack, a cozy, down-home burger joint that spawned other locations in Southern California, Colorado and Hawaii.

It is the sort of town where people know one another -- and one another’s dogs -- at least by sight.

Savvy party hosts know to call the owners of La Marina restaurant or Caffe Pinguini if they need to borrow a few extra parking spaces in a town with too few.

In 2003, the low-key, nondescript “downtown” got a shot of upscale ambience with the opening of Chloe, a tiny dinner-only bistro that attracts discerning diners from outside the area.

But Playa del Rey is mostly a place where neighbors say they feel comfortable going out in sweats, unshaven or haphazardly coiffed. Little wonder that Phil Jackson, the former Laker coach, and his girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, Laker executive vice president of business operations, have lived there, out of the Westside limelight.

Much of this communal personality results from Playa del Rey’s isolation. The once wide-open beach community is feeling increasingly hemmed in -- by the huge Playa Vista development to the east, high-rise-dotted Marina del Rey to the north and the booming LAX commercial zone to the south.

The community is sensitive about development for another important reason. In the 1960s and early ‘70s, as the roar of jetliners from fast-growing LAX rattled windows below, 800 homes on 470 acres of hillsides -- prime ocean-view land above Dockweiler State Beach -- were condemned and cleared. The remnants of the subdivision’s streets remain today as a ghostly reminder of the once-thriving neighborhood.

Historically, the shore at Playa del Rey was an active component in what was once a vast wetlands system, with tidal action that fed the Del Rey Lagoon and the Ballona Wetlands farther inland.

What some residents recall as a decent surfing beach lost much of its allure with the building of Marina del Rey in the 1960s, when engineers filled part of a lagoon to create the resort community. Four dikes that were added to keep sand from shifting into the marina curbed the wave action, putting an end to what was once called the Culver Curl.

An expansion of the Hyperion sewage treatment plant in the late 1980s produced acres of sand that was used to broaden Dockweiler beach. Playa del Rey’s wide beach features outdoor volleyball nets, a bike path and other amenities.

The dunes site has been variously used in recent decades for a beach residence, a fraternity house and a skateboard park, said Pam Emerson, an area supervisor with the California Coastal Commission. But the land has been vacant for decades, allowing the natural restoration of the dunes.

Efforts over the years to develop the site as a hotel failed, and residents said they had lulled themselves into thinking that the site would remain empty and open to the sea.

Many residents, in fact, have assumed that the tract was public. It was long a Fourth of July tradition to lie on blankets and towels against the mounds and gaze up at the fireworks -- until last year, that is.

Beachgoers were stunned to see a fence go up around the site. Then last spring the townhome plan was unveiled.

The proposal doesn’t sit well with many longtime residents who prize the tiny enclave for its open spaces, including Del Rey Lagoon, with its large population of bufflehead ducks, great blue herons and coots; and the hummocky dunes, topped by beach burr-bush and salt grass.

“There are very few natural dunes left in the L.A. area,” said Antony Orme, a UCLA geography professor who has brought students to the site for 20 years. “That small stretch there in Playa del Rey is a rather nice habitat where we can examine how dunes form and grow by anchoring of vegetation.”

Project opponents have won support for a full environmental review of the development from Mayor James K. Hahn, Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, the local neighborhood council and the California Coastal Commission, which would weigh in on the project if the developers won city approval.

The developers counter that such a time-consuming and costly step is unnecessary.

“The project they want to develop is ... quite less intense than the zoning would permit,” Reznik said, noting that 98 units are allowed on the site. Moreover, he said, “half the property -- literally 1.5 acres -- would be dedicated as permanent open space, on the ocean side, where the public walks.”

Sea Glass bought the property in August for $11.25 million, according to city records. Reznik said opponents’ biggest fear was that the 36-foot-high buildings would block their beach views. “You do not have a legal right to a view,” he said.

But project opponents also fear more traffic.

They recently toured the beach property with representatives from the mayor’s office, the Trust for Public Land, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others. Aware of the developers’ steep investment and profit potential, several of the activists said they hoped to work out a land swap so that the dunes site could be preserved.

Whiffen, who from her Convoy Street condo can see the lagoon and the dunes, acknowledged that their plan was complex and would require cooperation from local, state and federal agencies. But she remained undaunted.

“Everybody here in Playa del Rey feels personal ownership of the neighborhood,” she said. “Once that quality of life was threatened, I had to step in.”