Development threatens the funky life of Marina del Rey

A flotilla of small sailboats float past Mother's Beach and the construction of an apartment complex in Marina del Rey July 14, 2008.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

All along, Carla Andrus’ life seemed landlocked, literally and figuratively: She was born in Utah, raised in Watts and was scraping by in a tiny apartment near downtown L.A. when, one night, her husband came across a magazine ad for classic wooden boats being built in Marina del Rey. That, he told her -- teak decks, billowed sails -- looked more like the life he’d once fancied for himself.

“Well,” she said, “load up the truck,” and the words would amount to her salvation.

They moved onto a boat in Marina del Rey, the largest man-made pleasure boat harbor in the world and one of the great assets, and enigmas, of L.A. County’s 75-mile coastline. After her divorce, she bought the 22-foot sailboat Seguin for $1,400 -- still the most cash she has ever held in her hands at any one time. As of today, Andrus has lived on a boat for half of her 55 years.

The life is not for everyone, Andrus acknowledges. When she stands up, her head brushes the weathered tarp that is her roof. Her bedroll consumes the entirety of the floor space, and when she lies down, her belongings are all within arm’s reach: a tiny alarm clock, a tiny bottle of olive oil, three tiny houseplants. “I know the boat could use a couple things, maybe a little varnish,” she said. “But to me, it’s heaven.”

It is a way of life that is under duress in Marina del Rey, where a building boom has added a layer of turmoil to a timeworn throwback.

More than a dozen development projects worth several billion dollars have been built or proposed -- projects that could add 3,000 apartments, as well as hundreds of hotel rooms and tens of thousands of square feet of restaurant and retail space, to an 800-acre area that has only 8,500 residents to begin with.

The tub-thumpers among them are lined up at the docks and pledging to do battle: “live-aboards” like Andrus, boaters, old-timers alarmed to see their local diner closed to make room for “mixed-use” construction. Most, however, say it would be an oversimplification, even a falsehood, to give them the usual no-growth labels.

Instead, they contend, the trouble is that government regulators have forgotten that the marina was built on public land for public recreation. The county earns rent from the businesses that lease the waterfront -- and, cash-strapped, has become intent on maximizing profit.

The activists say the marina’s economy is ballooning, with skyrocketing rents and new rules -- against boats that are small, old and decrepit -- that seemed designed to push out the working class. The funky character of the marina, where salty live-aboards have long rubbed shoulders with yacht owners, is being lost.

They point, for instance, to the area known as Mother’s Beach, a popular horseshoe-shaped beach at Admiralty Way and Via Marina.

The beach is popular with locals and visitors, from young mothers who gather regularly and gave the beach its name to families who hold extravagant weekend barbecues replete with exotic ethnic dishes and vases of flowers atop picnic tables.

Developers would like to surround it with hotels, new apartments, restaurants and retail, which would probably push aside picnic tables and parking spaces and effectively turn it, critics argue, into a private beach on public land.

“So you can see that we’re not anti-development activists. We’re humanists,” said Bruce Russell, 79, a retiree who has lived here since 2000. “They could do marvelous things here. But if you just ask the developers what they want -- and you don’t ask the people who live here -- what do you think you’re going to get?”

Marina del Rey is a cash cow. Everyone agrees on that, if nothing else.

The leases will generate more than $35 million this year, much of which goes into the county’s main bank accounts and is used to pay for law enforcement, healthcare programs and the like. That figure could double once the development is complete, and that doesn’t even include other revenue, such as hotel bed taxes.

“We’ve got a 45-year-old asset that should be the crown jewel of the county,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe. “We need to pick up the pace.”

The county has competing agendas: public recreation and raising as much money as it can from the leases. David O. Levine, president of the Marina del Rey Lessees Assn. and chief of staff to Jerry B. Epstein, a prominent lessee, said both agendas can be pursued at once, “but it requires some common sense.”

Levine’s company has proposed tearing down the dated 202-unit Del Rey Shores apartments and replacing it with a 544-unit apartment complex, a project that would cost more than $130 million.

In 2001, the company submitted its proposal to extend its lease. After a series of public hearings, the county’s Small Craft Harbor Commission and county supervisors voted to negotiate a new lease. Then a design committee had to weigh in. Regional planners held five hearings; their approval was appealed to supervisors, who turned down the appeal after two more hearings.

Then, a nearby condo association sued to block the project.

Last month, a judge threw out most of the lawsuit, Levine said, but sent a technical question involving displaced soil back to the county.

Earlier this month, supervisors approved an exhaustive process for resolving that issue, including more public hearings and a 45-day public comment period before actual soil analysis could even begin. The condo association could still appeal the dismissal of the rest of the suit.

“We started this,” Levine said, “before George Bush was inaugurated.”

Don’t feel too sorry for them, says Nancy Vernon Marino. She’s lived here for 20 years and, like many locals, says it’s hard to overstate how much even the already completed development has disrupted lives -- and even the wind.

Marino belongs to a small sailing cooperative and recently tried to pass a test that would enable her to check out a class of sailboat. The test required her to show that she could make delicate enough maneuvers to rescue a passenger who fell overboard.

It required deft maneuvering, but she said she would have been fine if she hadn’t taken the test next to the Esprit, a new luxury apartment complex. The complex features Berber carpets and sells itself as “urban, urbane and utterly Westside,” but it is so big, Marino said, that it has disrupted the area wind patterns.

“I flunked,” Marino said.

Tonight, Andrus will lie down on the floor of the Seguin, wrapped in her sleeping bag under the stars, her head pointed toward the stern.

“From the first day I was here, it was like I was free,” Andrus said the other day as she got ready to go to work at an after-school program, where she is an instructor.

She pays $375 a month for the slip. That’s about what she can afford on her $12,000 salary. The alternative is scary, she said -- “maybe a cardboard box downtown.” But the marina has lost hundreds of slips in recent years, and one development is expected to cut in half the number of slips in her little marina.

“If people only knew what was being taken away from them, there would be a riot,” she said. “I feel so lucky. And when you have real gratitude, it becomes your responsibility to make sure this opportunity isn’t lost forever.”