Betty and Arthur Klapper left New York for Marina del Rey 12 years ago and never looked back. The Marina, with its boats, restaurants and international visitors, had the urbanity they craved.
Most Southern Californians "like the suburban life," said Betty, 84. "That's not our style. We want to be with people."
Los Angeles County officials hope the Klappers will get a lot more company in the years ahead.
Long-simmering plans to pump glamour back into the often-dowdy Marina and reestablish it as a major attraction for local residents and tourists are finally gaining momentum as major real estate projects there start to hit the market.
The county, which owns Marina del Rey, wants the area to become a magnet for locals and tourists the way that Venice and Santa Monica are. The county is urging Marina leaseholders to upgrade their restaurants, shopping centers, hotels and apartments -- creating a sense of style and excitement that is now lacking.
The problem: Some would-be attractions haven't been upgraded for decades. Many observers say 40-year-old Marina del Rey -- one of the county's most prime pieces of real estate -- has been stuck in the 1960s.
Its older apartment buildings are blocky, bland and lack defining architectural features. The hip stores and trendy restaurants that propel spending on the Westside are mostly absent. It's usually impractical to walk from one establishment to the next because Marina del Rey is laid out for the convenience of motorists, not pedestrians.
As a result, Marina del Rey gets only about 2 million to 5 million visitors a year, compared with an estimated 15 million at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and 16 million at the Grove shopping center in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles.
"The Marina has been sitting in a time warp," said developer Rick Caruso, who built the Grove and just completed a radical upgrade of a Marina del Rey shopping center.
"Now the whole thing is going to explode," he said.
Tom Harrison, a principal at Colony Capital, said, "People skipped around the Marina for years because there was no new product." Colony is one of several well-heeled developers that are injecting funds into upgrading the area.
Still, there is no guarantee Marina del Rey will regain its lost cachet. Local competitors for leisure spending are organized and well funded, said economist Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Long Beach, Pasadena and Santa Catalina Island all have convention bureaus marketing their attractions, he noted.
"You get lost in the barrage of messages," Kyser said.
But finally, after years of prodding, some changes are beginning to take shape at Marina del Rey.
Developers have completed the first of about $1.5 billion of property upgrades, including two shopping center makeovers and two apartment house redevelopments. More than 2,000 apartments are in the process of being replaced with new and additional units.
Fisherman's Village, Marina del Rey's signature seaside collection of shops and restaurants, will get a complete makeover with a hotel. Marina Beach, also known as Mother's Beach, will get a major expansion and revamping. Burton W. Chase Park, a popular site for public concerts, will also be expanded and the existing bike trail will be extended all the way around the marina.
A lot is at stake for the county and its taxpayers. Marina del Rey is the county's largest single source of revenue, bringing in about $33 million a year. That number should be closer to $50 million, said Roger Moliere, the county's point man for renegotiating Marina leases.
So if lessees want to renew their titles, they must make such dramatic improvements that their properties will produce substantially more income, Moliere said. He takes a hard line in negotiations, he said, telling lessees: "We would like you to scrape your site and build a new project."
The county's 400 acres in Marina del Rey belong to about 50 leaseholders on long-term contracts, most of which are starting to wind down. The county also takes a cut of apartment and boat slip rents, hotel room rentals and restaurant sales.
Marina del Rey has generally provided steady profits for leaseholders, although its apartment and boat slip occupancy declined during the economic slowdown of the early 1990s, and hoteliers are only now stabilizing from the plunge in travel that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Although their properties are practically full again, leaseholders have been reluctant to invest in upgrades without knowing whether they could keep title long enough to earn back their construction costs.
That stall in making improvements irked county officials and real estate industry observers because most of the 5,000 apartments, 5,000 boat slips and five hotels date from the 1960s -- and look like it.
"All the areas around it were continuously reinventing themselves, but in the Marina, time stood still," economist Kyser said. "You can't do that, especially in retail. Every few years you have to freshen the property."
But many leaseholders haven't had the incentive, or perhaps the finances, to make the investments in their properties that transformed other Southern California leisure hot spots, said Rick Velasquez, a deputy for county Supervisor Don Knabe, whose district includes Marina del Rey.
Other leaseholders simply may not have recognized the potential of their holdings, Moliere said.
"By and large they were smaller developers who were not wildly sophisticated and did not smell the coffee," he said.
About 75% of Marina del Rey's land leases will expire in the 2020s, said Moliere, but the county didn't want to let another decade pass before negotiating.
"It would be a disaster from a planning standpoint to wait," he said. "If you're going to redevelop, do it now."
The county's urge to get improvements underway "creates a certain tension" with its tenants, said longtime Marina del Rey leaseholder Douglas R. Ring. The best way to resolve this tension, he decided, was to plunge ahead with the process.
Ring tore down two 1960s vintage apartment complexes and began construction on 1,022 new units. The first phase will be complete in about a year. He's also a co-owner of Mariner's Village, an apartment complex that is not scheduled for changes.
Property in Marina del Rey has been a good investment, Ring said. "It's gone through its ups and downs. During the early '90s we couldn't give boat slips away and apartment rents did not keep pace with inflation. Now the market is very strong."
Ring's developments and other projects will add about 1,600 apartments to Marina del Rey, Moliere said, while the number of boat slips will be reduced. Regional officials also are working on a plan to extend the Marina Freeway to Admiralty Way, Marina del Rey's main street, but construction is unlikely to start for at least five years.
Some large national developers and real estate investment trusts have taken over Marina del Rey properties and are starting to put their money to work.
Just outside the Marina del Rey boundary, Colony Capital, a Los Angeles investment firm, is spending $15 million on improvements to turn a 19-story apartment tower into the Azzura luxury condominiums. About half the units have been reserved for as much as $4.4 million each.
And a short distance to the southeast of the Marina is Playa Vista, a $4-billion residential development with more than 3,200 units completed, under construction or about to be started.
Golden West Development, owner of Fisherman's Village, received approval from county supervisors Dec. 20 to level the bland imitation of a New England fishing village that Velasquez called "a dying shopping center." In its place will be a new $40-million version with a hotel. Only the iconic lighthouse from Marina del Rey's earliest days will remain after a complete remodeling.
In November, developer Caruso completed an $11-million makeover and expansion of the former Marina Waterside mall. He updated the asphalt-intensive 1960s throwback at Lincoln Boulevard and Fiji Way with sidewalks, plazas and landscaped open space.
"The county really wants to bear down in terms of quality," said Caruso, who also upgraded his roster of stores and restaurants.
The county also wants to increase open space in Marina del Rey to improve views and public access. The pedestrian promenade at water's edge will be expanded as developers respond to county demands to make more room for people to walk by their buildings.
That would be a welcome change for the Klappers, who enjoy early-morning strolls around the water and making friends with international visitors staying at their apartment complex.
"It's like going to a foreign country and spending time with people who have something to share," Betty Klapper said.
People like the Klappers, with grown children and comfortable finances, may become the bulwark of Marina del Rey in years ahead, said Joel Kotkin of New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank.
Marina del Rey is "an infinitely nicer choice" than trendy downtown Los Angeles for empty nesters who are downshifting from the responsibilities of homeownership and who like to travel out of nearby Los Angeles International Airport, Kotkin said.
The addition of empty nesters and others could shift the character of Marina del Rey, which retains a reputation as a haven for "swinging singles" -- largely because many of its apartments there were restricted to unmarried renters when it first opened in the mid-1960s.
"I'm not sure the hip young dynamic is what you want there," he said. "Swinging neighborhoods don't stay swinging forever."