Community leaders in Playa del Rey say they may have found a way to save a neighborhood park that is popular with both visitors and wildlife by making use of a former fire station in Westchester.

The northern end of the Del Rey Lagoon in Playa del Rey, an area known to locals as “Egret Park,” is the site of a proposed development of 13 residential units. Neighbors and local environmentalists have objected to the project, arguing that it would impact birds and other wildlife that use the park and block views of the ocean.

Community members opposed to the housing proposal have argued that the property should not be developed and said they would like to see the land purchased to be preserved as part of the overall Ballona Wetlands park.

“A plan that finally preserves Egret Park in perpetuity is the ultimate goal,” said resident Cheryl Burnett, a member of the Committee to Complete the Park.

In recent months, no substantial proposals were presented as a means for the City of Los Angeles to acquire the property from the owner until the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa del Rey chose to consider a potential opportunity involving a city building.

The former Los Angeles Fire Station No. 5 on Manchester Avenue has been on the list of surplus properties in the city to be recommended for sale. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl has previously asked for the station to be taken off the auction block, but with the city’s budget shortfall, the property may again be under consideration for sale by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Rosendahl has said Westchester and Playa del Rey residents “must decide if the building is worth fighting for,” and he encouraged community leaders to propose compelling reasons for which the former fire station should not be sold off. As the mayor is expected to release the budget plan later this month, Neighborhood Council member David Voss said the fire station could be “imminently threatened” for sale due to the budget crisis and the council wanted to give a concrete reason for why the property should not be considered.

Having seen an “enormous groundswell of support” from community members to save Egret Park from development, Voss said the Neighborhood Council has suggested incorporating former Fire Station 5 as part of a land swap with the Egret Park parcel developer, D.S. Ventures.

“The objective was to have a concrete deal that would save the park and the centerpiece of the deal would be the fire station,” Voss said.

Neighborhood Council members and representatives of D.S. Ventures said they have discussed the proposed payments in exchange for the lagoon property at 63rd Avenue and Esplanade Street and have agreed on a price of more than $7 million pending appraisals. According to the proposed deal, by acquiring the Egret Park parcel, the city would pay $1.5 million from wetlands mitigation credit funds, give title to the fire station at a value of about $2.8 million and pay an additional $2.8 million through option payments over the next five to ten years.

The council supported the proposed land swap at its meeting March 3rd and asked members of the Committee to Complete the Park to continue discussions with the developer’s attorneys. Voss said he was pleased that the council was able to work with the developer to consider an agreement for the properties.

“It’s a significant step for the Neighborhood Council,” Voss said of the plan. “There can be nothing but positive out of what the Neighborhood Council has done.”

Phillip Tate, an attorney representing D.S. Ventures, said property owner David Schwartzman wants to come to an amicable resolution on the project but also wants to ensure that he receives a fair return on his investment.

“This provides an opportunity to hopefully allow everyone to walk away relatively happy and is hopefully something that works financially for the developer,” Tate said. “To the extent possible, (Schwartzman) wants to make everyone happy, but at the same time he needs to make sure he achieves a fair return for his investment.”

Community members who have called for Egret Park’s preservation said they are encouraged by the land swap plan as a means to save the community resource.

“Our primary goal is to save Egret Park and this negotiation is a good first step,” said Burnett of the Committee to Complete the Park.

Local environmentalist and Ballona Institute co-founder Marcia Hanscom added, “For more than 30 years the city has said that it wants to acquire this land. It would be an incredible victory if we finally preserved some more of the Ballona Wetlands that should have been preserved a long time ago.”

Hanscom said the lagoon area is a “crucial migration pathway” for numerous wildlife species. Voss also spoke of the significance for preserving the community park.

“Egret Park is critical to maintaining the habitat and open space that has been here for generations in the past and we need to save it for generations in the future,” he said.

Burnett added that having an agreement in place that preserves the park in perpetuity would “put a lot of people at ease and feel like a victory for the community.”

Rosendahl also believes Egret Park is a “vital part” of the community’s ecological system and says he applauds the Neighborhood Council for devising a possible way to save the site from development.

“I want to fight to keep the land in my district and the plan for swapping Egret Park for Station 5 is their creative idea,” the councilman said. “I’ll evaluate it and take it under consideration.”

Rosendahl said he hopes that the developer will understand the current economic situation and sell the land for public trust, but he added that the park’s preservation does not have to be tied to use of the former fire station.

“Fire Station 5 is public land and I would like to see it used for public/social issue needs,” he said.

The councilman said he wants to come up with a strategy that saves the park from development while applying the fire station building for community uses such as affordable housing for seniors, a plan the Neighborhood Council has also considered.

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