By Helga Gendell

THE FIRST MARINAS and the administration building for the Department of Small Craft Harbors 1963. (Photo courtesy of the Marina del Rey Historical Society)

THE FIRST MARINAS and the administration building for the Department
of Small Craft Harbors 1963. (Photo courtesy of the Marina del Rey Historical Society)

Part IV of the Marina del Rey history covers actions taken after several uninhabited parcels owned by Los Angeles County but located in the City of Los Angeles were disincorporated from the city in December 1960.

Marina del Rey had become an authorized federal project under the Omnibus Bill, Public Law 780 (signed by President Eisenhower in 1954) — that stated, “Playa del Rey Inlet and Harbor, Venice, California: House document 389, 83rd Congress: Provided, that federal participation in the provision of entrance jetties, entrance channel, interior channel and central basin recommended in the project report and presently estimated to cost $7,738,000 shall not exceed 50 per centum of the cost thereof.”

In a preliminary examination and survey of the area years earlier, Lt. Gen. Lewis Pick, chief of engineers for the Department of the Army, said, “The proportion of federal and non-federal participation recommended by the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors is considered appropriate if it is the intent of Congress to provide federal assistance in the development of recreational boating facilities of the type proposed in the report.”

The report also stated, “The proposed improvements are designed to meet recreational boating needs and are not significant from the standpoint of commercial navigation.”

According to Pick, local interests consider that the proposed harbor would be an integral unit of an adopted general plan for development of the Santa Monica shoreline.

“The plan includes widening and improving beaches, providing adequate bath houses, parking areas, picnic facilities, special recreation centers, bathing and wading beaches, fishing piers, youth organization camps, tourist parks with cabin and trailer accommodations, and a bird refuge; and

“Provide without cost to the U.S. all necessary slips and slip facilities and facilities for the repair, service, and supply of small craft on terms reasonable and equal to all; and secure and hold for public interest lands bordering on the proposed improvement to a depth sufficient for the proper functioning of the harbor.”

In subsequent discussions between Pick and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it was stated that local interests had requested provision by the U.S. of a harbor for small craft as part of a comprehensive plan for park and beach development including recreational boating facilities, emphasizing the need for adequate facilities for small craft in the Santa Monica Bay area and nearby districts.

In these communications, it was stated that the district engineer found a need for additional harbor facilities for small craft in Southern California, particularly in the Santa Monica Bay area.

Pick estimated that, on the basis of the California average of 2.79 boats per 1,000 population, the immediate tributary area would sustain about 6,500 small craft, and on the basis of the Los Angeles average of 1.6 boats per 1,000 population, the remaining tributary area would sustain an additional 960 craft.

“The Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors concurs in the views of the reporting officers that a need exists for a harbor with an ultimate capacity of 8,000 small craft in the vicinity of Playa del Rey.”

“The plan recommended by the district engineer together with work to be performed by local interests will provide a suitable improvement. Total benefits are sufficient to justify the expenditure required,” said the Board of Engineers.

“The board believes that in addition to the evaluated benefits resulting directly from construction of the small boat harbor, benefits would accrue to local interests from the use of the area as a park facility.

“It can be expected that the area will be visited and enjoyed by many persons in no way connected with small boat commerce.”

The construction of Marina del Rey for the purpose of recreational small craft boating later ran headlong into financial expectations and difficulties when the Marina’s inability to attract investors created considerable fear about not meeting a $13 million revenue bond obligation.

According to “The Urban Marina: Managing and Developing Marina del Rey,” the county proposed to meet its obligations by a resolution submitted to the electorate on November 6th, 1956, calling for the issuance of the revenue bond obligation to finance small boat harbor improvements and facilities for the public’s convenience.

The voters approved the measure by a two-to-one margin. In addition to the bonds, the Board of Supervisors allocated $15 million from the county general fund for land purchases and borrowed $2 million from the State of California to provide its share of Marina funding.

The county lobbied the California Legislature’s 1958 session to change a law that placed a ten-year limit on granting concessions in projects financed in whole or in part by revenue bonds.

The county expected that the ability to enter into longer-term lease agreements would increase the marketability of the bonds as well as allow their sale at a lower rate of interest. The legislature was responsive and amended the law to permit leases of up to 60 years, after which leasehold facilities reverted to the county.

Since the bond obligations were to be met by rents from concessions in the Marina, the profitability and stability of potential uses became of major concern in the economic feasibility study conducted by county consultant Coverdale and Colpitts.

In the consultant’s study, the firm inspected 60 marinas and yacht clubs along the Pacific coast, the Great Lakes and the Florida coast. The most successful marinas were developed in proximity to heavily populated urban areas.

This finding was used as a basic factor in justifying the suitability of the Los Angeles area for supporting a marina.

The firm also gathered data on ship chandlers, ship brokers, small boat repair yards, clubs, marina fuel stations, launching areas for small boats, cabanas and trailer-cabanas.

Subsequently, Coverdale and Colpitts recommended that all these facilities be included in the Marina. The firm did not consider residential developments as a potential use in the project.

After the Corps of Engineers completed the engineering work on the Marina channel and the procedures for issuing revenue bonds were established, the main focus of county activities became site leasing.

Once underway, the pattern of events produced several changes in the formal organization for managing the Marina.

In December 1959, the Board of Supervisors appointed Victor Gruen Associates to develop a land use plan for the Marina that could be used as a guide for soliciting and evaluating lease bids.

Gruen submitted a “Development Plan for Marina del Rey Small Craft Harbor” the following May and revised it in September 1960 to respond to the reactions of the investment community.

Gruen developed the plan to allocate revenue-producing uses recommended by Coverdale and Colpitts. One major addition was the option of building apartments on some parcels.

The document detailed the parceling of the land and related the uses to one another with respect to circulation and density.

Gruen’s work was conducted independently of the Department of Small Craft Harbors although the department did provide support and assistance (in May 1959, the department name was changed from Department of Harbors and Marinas to Department of Small Craft Harbors).

As in the case of Coverdale and Colpitts, a primary goal in the Gruen design was to enhance and protect the revenue-producing capability of the Marina, and thus the county’s ability to meet its debt obligation.

The appointment of a Marina harbor controller and a property manager was the next step in the process. They assumed the responsibility for writing leases based on the Gruen land use plan and issuing lease bids in response to current market demand.

All three consultants for the Marina — George Nicholson, Coverdale and Colpitts and Gruen Associates — had recommended that aesthetic standards and landscape quality be maintained by a review and approval process for any structures to be built.

On February 23rd, 1960, the Board of Supervisors adopted an order appointing a Design Control Board (DCB) “to assure conformity on the part of successful bidders who may construct improvements within the Small Craft Harbor.”

The Design Control Board was formed as an autonomous body whose decisions could only be reviewed by the Board of Supervisors and whose membership consisted of two architects and one businessman.

To establish basic design and construction criteria for the lessees, the supervisors approved and adopted the Marina del Rey “Specifications and Minimum Standards of Architectural Treatment and Construction” on January 3rd, 1961.

The Marina del Rey lease form binds lessees to accept these architectural standards (and amendments) and to acknowledge the authority of the Design Control Board over their project designs.

This basic organizational structure might have continued (supervisors, DCB and Department of Small Craft Harbors) had problems not arisen over the leasing procedures.

The department put 13 parcels up for bid in January 1961, but there was much less competition than predicted by the consultants, and only three of 13 parcels finally leased had more than one bid.

Rex Thompson, director of the department, blamed the slow start on the current economic recession and the fact that potential lessees were unable to obtain Federal Housing Administration (FHA) guaranteed loans.

This poor showing in lease bidding created concern among bondholders, and in July 1961, bondholder representatives met with individual county supervisors several times.

Ernest Debs, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, expressed doubts that the board was adequately informed by the department and suggested that to remedy the problem, supervisors would be better informed if each member of the board were to name a leading businessman to a special advisory commission. But Supervisor Burton Chace, whose Fourth District contained the Marina and who was chairman of the Department of Small Craft Harbors, was strongly opposed to the idea.

The question of leasing policy became a matter of wide public debate during the summer of 1961. In a series of articles, Los Angeles Herald-Express reporter Jack Keating charged that the county was engaged in “give-away deals.”

He criticized the methods that the supervisors used in Marina del Rey and elsewhere for awarding private concessions and renegotiating recreational facility contracts.

In one article, Keating specifically questioned whether favored parties were receiving special treatment in the allocation of Marina del Rey concessions. He noted that only three of the 13 parcels leased at the Marina received more than one bid, while Long Beach and Redondo Beach yacht harbors had obtained multiple bids in virtually every concession category.

Keating charged that “Marina officials admitted they were able to make only a limited effort to publicize bidding, blaming it on legal rulings that neither county general funds nor harbor bond revenues could be spent for such purposes;

“That ground rules set up gave the Board of Supervisors great leeway in rearranging lease parcels and defining their usage, the reporter wrote;

“The Board of Supervisors and Marina officials had wide discretion in evaluating bidders’ qualifications;

“Important changes had been made in the original Marina master plan as well as the first bidders’ manual, containing bidding details, which some would-be bidders had not learned of. These changes made bidding more favorable and might have encouraged wider bidding if generally known; and

“Descriptions of permitted uses of certain Marina parcels advertised have been so broad and vague that prospective bidders could hardly proceed without inside information on what type of facility would finally be accepted.”

Finally, Keating asserted that the claim of favoritism was supported by Chace’s strong opposition to Debs’ proposal to place the leasing activities and management of the Marina under the “watchful eye” of a citizen’s commission.

According to “The Urban Marina: Managing and Developing the Marina,” a series of actions, often determined after consultation with financial advisors and bondholders, gave greater protection to creditors and created more attractive conditions for lessees.

These steps included amending the Marina del Rey Revenue Bond Resolution, narrowly defining the “Active Public Use” clause in the standard lease to facilitate construction of apartments and reorganizing the Design Control Board to more effectively expedite lessee development plans.

Two important effects grew out of the policies devised to meet the financial crisis. First, the priority upon high-revenue producing facilities led to a more intensive development of residential and commercial facilities than had been anticipated originally.

This policy, in turn, transformed the Marina from a small boat harbor into an intensely developed residential-commercial-recreational complex. It also created strong disincentives for low-cost or free public facilities.

A second effect grew out of the first. In the process of ensuring that debt requirements would be met, a tradition of consultation and day-to-day communications developed between Marina administrators and lessees.

This interaction of county officials, lessees and bondholders helped shape the initial policies, procedures, and communication channels for managing the Marina.

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