Jerry B. Epstein, the only still-living major developer of Marina del Rey, on the past and future of the world’s largest man-made small-craft harbor
Jerry B. Epstein, 91, was helping to shape Marina del Rey before it was even on the map.
In the mid-1950s, Los Angeles County Supervisor Burton W. Chace had a plan to dredge the world’s largest manmade small-craft harbor out of a far-flung patch of marshland frequented by duck hunters.
Chace tapped Epstein, then a young real estate broker who had left New York for the Southern California sunshine after returning home from World War II, to assist with Marina del Rey’s original feasibility study and master plan.
In January 1963, after the not-quite-finished harbor was nearly wiped out by a storm surge, Epstein was one of two people the county sent to lobby Congress for the funds to build the harbor’s protective breakwater.
By then his personal fortunes were riding on the outcome. When construction of Marina del Rey began, Epstein successfully bid for the right to lease from the county and
build housing on a parcel of land near what’s now Via Marina and Panay Way. In 1964 he opened Del Rey Shores, which grew over time from 76 units to a 202-unit garden-style apartment complex. In 2011, he tore down that legacy to make way for the Shores — a $165-million, 544-unit complex of 12 five-story buildings that encircle a resort-style courtyard roughly the size of two football fields.
Married to wife Pat for 66 years, Epstein was also a general partner in the 2000s renovation and expansion of the Marina Harbor Apartments and Anchorage at Via Marina and Bora Bora Way.
As he frequently says, Epstein is now the only major original developer of Marina del Rey still living.
“God’s been good to me. I’m very lucky,” he said.
On Friday, the Marina del Rey Historical Society is holding a special tribute dinner at the Shores to honor Epstein as a founding father of the harbor.
— Joe Piasecki
What was Marina del Rey like before there was a marina here?
It was marshland. They had a little lake in here called Lake Los Angeles. It was landlocked. They used to have motorboat races going around it. The wonderful thing is that we’ve been able to keep as marshland a lot of that land on the other side of the channel, which is now the Ballona Wetlands. A lot of developers wanted to go in there. I always felt we had to create an area to keep the marshland.
The [Marina del Rey] Historical Society is so vital because it is important to know what the supervisors did. Supervisor Burton Chace was very adamant about the fact he wanted the county to own the fee but he did not want the county to build and to manage. He was one of the few supervisors who had faced a payroll. Burton had owned a lumberyard in Long Beach. We now have another supervisor, Don Knabe, who also faced a payroll before he was supervisor, which is important because we have a lot of politicians out there telling us how to run a business and they’ve never run one.
I understand that investors showed some reluctance at the time about building housing in a marina, especially after the big storm of 1963 hit.
The only loan I got for my first 76 units was cancelled when the surge came in. There was a storm off of Hawaii that created this big wave that came into our harbor. They didn’t yet have a breakwater at the entrance, so when it enters there’s a 90-degree turn of the marina. You remember being in the bathtub as a little kid, and if you started to move the water, all of a sudden it would slosh over? That’s what happened here. Slips were going up and down on their pilings nine feet every minute, so it tore the lines. That hit the front page of the LA Times and my investors left me.
Is that when you partnered with actor Kirk Douglas?
The only one who would come in with me at the time was Kirk Douglas. I met him through his money manager. He believed in me and in the future of the marina. I was young and had such faith in the marina that I put whatever I had in it. When I look back and think about it, it wasn’t a very bright thing to do. If they hadn’t built the breakwater I would have gone broke.
Hollywood used to be very interested in the marina, but then that tapered off.
People got older. Our [original] demographics at Del Rey Shores were between maybe 30 and 60 years of age. We had some people with us more than 30 years, so there got to be a lot of older people [in the marina]. The Oakwood [corporate apartments], that used to be a South Bay Club [unmarried rental housing]. “The swinging singles” — that was the ad.
How did it feel to demolish Del Rey Shores in order to build the Shores — essentially destroy one legacy to make room for another?
It was very difficult, especially for the people who lived here so long. We had 10% affordable units [at Shores], and the people we had [at Del Rey Shores] qualified for them first. Some have come back to us, even in the less affordable units.
How do you feel about the county visioning process to plan for redevelopment in the marina?
I think the county has to look at it as a business person would look at it. I think Don Knabe is doing an excellent job because he wants to bring construction from the 1960s into the 21st century. That means people are going to have to reinvest their money here, people like myself. But this is the largest entity that L.A. County owns that gives a [financial] return on investment. I think Don is doing the right thing and has the good sense to know what we can put in here and what we cannot put in here — that we not overbuild. At Shores, we could have built more than 544 units but we didn’t want to lose our open courtyard, which has proven to be quite an asset. The lessees and the county, it’s not an adversarial relationship. We’re both in the same business, and that’s how it should be.
The Marina del Rey Historical Society hosts its tribute dinner for Jerry B. Epstein from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Friday in the courtyard of the Shores apartments, 4201 Via Marina, Marina del Rey. Tickets are $150. Call (310) 822-9344 or visit marinadelreyhistoricalsociety.org.
PHOTO: Jerry B. Epstein stands with state Sen. Ted Lieu, left, and L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe during the 2011 ground breaking for the Shores