Jerry Epstein, last of the Marina del Rey developers, dies at 96

Developer Jerry Epstein, in 2011, at Via Marina and Marquesas Way in Marina del Rey.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Jerry Epstein, the last of the Marina del Rey developers who reshaped the Los Angeles coastline and ushered in an era of harbor-front living for a vast and growing city, has died at 96.

Epstein died Sept. 2 at his home in Los Angeles.

A New York City kid who found opportunity and plenty of open space in L.A. after the end of World War II, Epstein was also a critical force in the conception and creation of both the Ronald Reagan and Junipero Serra state buildings in downtown Los Angeles and then an aggressive opponent years later when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to sell them off in a fit of financial desperation.

“Short-term solutions and accounting gimmicks like the proposed sale of state buildings have long-term consequences,” Epstein warned the governor in an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times in 2010.


Unmoved, Schwarzenegger instead fired Epstein from the Los Angeles State Building Authority and sold off the buildings.

“At 86 years old,” Epstein responded, ""I am not personally concerned about being fired.”

When Epstein arrived in L.A., he became a quick student of the city and its possibilities.

For decades, the wind-swept salt marshes just up the coast from what’s now LAX had transfixed developers and dreamers. In 1887, a builder named M.C. Wicks tried to create a harbor in the marshlands, only to watch winter storms wash away his progress. In 1918, the idea of scooping out the muck and creating an anchorage was floated again, but this time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped in, saying such an undertaking was simply impractical.

As each effort failed, the land was returned to the hunting clubs that tracked the ducks and migratory birds that nested in the estuary,

But in the early 1960s, Epstein was among those who helped launch the push for the creation of a small-craft harbor lined with homes and apartments, helping draft the first master plan for the marina, lobbying politicians for funds and hustling Congress to kick in millions to build a breakwater to protect the waterfront community he envisioned.

On April 10, 1965, Marina del Rey was officially dedicated, the largest small-craft harbor community in the nation. It was billed by realtors as a lifestyle as much as a neighborhood — cocktails on the harbor after a long day at work, long watery avenues for a late-afternoon sail, a perfect sunset.

“A visit to the Marina del Rey is a real eye-opener,” a 1965 Times article raved. “What was once 780 swampy acres in the Santa Monica Bay has now been fashioned into a jewel.”

County officials hurriedly planned out a 10-day celebration with boat races, art exhibits and a contest for Miss Marina del Rey, who would reign over the Christmas and Easter boat parades they were certain would become annual fixtures in the community. A Charley Brown’s restaurant opened on the waterfront. A 34-year-old woman pushed off from Marina del Rey on a solo voyage to Hawaii. The Times hired a boating writer.

Epstein went all in on the new harbor, building the Del Rey Shores apartment that lined the shore. Along with actor Kirk Douglas, he later rebuilt it as the Shores Apartments, a resort-style community that towered above the water.

But his efforts and his money were nearly washed away in a savage 1963 storm surge while he was building his first apartments as the marina was taking shape.

“Slips were going up and down on their pilings nine feet every minute, until it tore the lines,” he told the Argonaut. “That hit the front page of the L.A. Times and my investors left me.”

While the marina was seen as an enormous success in civic circles, environmentalists saw it as the ruination of a prized estuary and the loss of vital wetlands that served as a filter for the runoff from the sprawling metropolis.

Epstein said he was sensitive to the environmental consequences of the marina and worked to help keep developers out of the nearby marshlands. Over the years, the environmental group Friends of Ballona Wetlands has overseen the restoration of nearly 600 acreas of wetlands.

Epstein was born Aug. 29, 1923, and raised in the Bronx. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces after Pearl Harbor and was quickly sent overseas, where he flew on B-17 and B-29 bombing runs in the Pacific theater. After the war, he attended Emory University in Atlanta before heading west with his wife.

Over the years, he became a fixture in L.A. civic life, serving on the Los Angeles State Building Authority, the California Energy Commission, the California Transportation Commission and the Board of Airport Commissioners. He served as a trustee of the St. John’s Health Center Foundation in Santa Monica for more than 40 years.

Pat, Epstein’s wife of 66 years, died in 2015.