By Helga Gendell

Playa del Rey Lagoon (in the forefront) adjacent to the main channel in Marina del Rey during the early 1990s. (Photo by Greg Wenger)

Playa del Rey Lagoon (in the forefront) adjacent to the main
channel in Marina del Rey during the early 1990s. (Photo by Greg Wenger)

Part XXVIII is the conclusion of the Marina del Rey history series, with a follow-up of reported legal ramifications at the time for then state Sen. Alan Robbins and Mark Nathanson, a real estate developer and former member of a state and county commission.

An interview with James A. Fawcett, Ph.D., the former chief of planning for the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors (DBH) from April 1993 to July 2000, details the origin of the Marina del Rey Long Term Asset Management Strategy (LTAMS).

Part XXVII of the series covered the news reports of the legal ramifications at the time for then state Sens. Joseph B. Montoya and Robbins, and the investigation of Nathanson, a former member of the California Coastal Commission and the county Small Craft Harbor Commission, by the FBI for the alleged extortion of a San Diego businessman.

Robbins resigned his Senate seat in November 1991 and was sentenced to five years for political corruption, entering federal prison in June 1992.

Nathanson was sentenced in August 1993 to four years and nine months for using his office to extort payments, entering federal prison in December 1993.

Fawcett is the director of the Marine Science & Policy Outreach Sea Grant Program at the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, and adjunct professor of Public Policy at the School of Public Policy, Planning and Development, University of Southern California.

The Asset Management Strategy is online at the Beaches and Harbors Web site under Marina del Rey redevelopment and is described as a “proactive strategy” designed to accomplish three objectives:

Provide a framework within which to make short-term Marina del Rey leasing and development decisions so that they remain consistent with redevelopment goals when Marina leases expire, largely between 2020 and 2030;

Provide programs to encourage redevelopment and refurbishment while ensuring quality maintenance of leasehold facilities during remaining lease terms; and

Effect a strategy for the Marina’s second generation development that better integrates recreational and commercial/residential areas, recognizing the need to establish Marina del Rey as an exciting and user-friendly attraction to both Southern California residents and tourists alike.

Fawcett told The Argonaut, “The bottom line is that after the 1995 LCP (Local Coastal Program) was amended, DBH missed a great opportunity by not going back to the drawing board to continue the planning process started in 1994.

“The mission should have been to involve the public as well as the lessees, crafting a future vision for the Marina that reflected the needs of the entire community. If Stan (Wisniewski, former director of DBH) had been sincere about that kind of effort, he and the county could have probably avoided much of the distrust and rancor that has characterized the relationship between DBH and the community over the past decade and a half. But, it would have taken a commitment to act like planning mattered to the Marina instead of treating the mission as one merely of property management. In the end, vision counts,” said Fawcett.

Fawcett recalled his tenure with the Department of Beaches and Harbors:

“When I arrived at the Department of Beaches and Harbors in April of 1993, one of the first things I noted was how difficult it was to read and interpret the Local Coastal Program for Marina del Rey,” he said.

“Moreover, it lacked any real sense of being a master plan. Oh, sure, it indicated the allowable uses on each parcel as well as the density allowed, but it didn’t really offer any vision of what the Marina could or wanted to be in the future.

“To an urbanist whose extensive graduate research had been focused on implementation of the Coastal Act of 1976, this was a golden opportunity to take the planning memorialized in the existing LCP and grow it into a vision for Marina del Rey,” he continued.

Over the months, Fawcett said he talked with the county’s planning consultants at Gruen Associates and the planner with primary responsibility for Marina del Rey, John Stutsman. After Fawcett had “really gotten my feet wet evaluating the existing LCP document and with the good counsel of Stutsman,” they approached Wisniewski, proposing that “we work together and develop an effective long-range plan for the Marina.”

“Stan, never one to hold much faith in planning to begin with, was reluctant to allow us to move on this path, and in fact, would not permit such an effort,” Fawcett claimed.

At the same time, as leases were expiring and coming up for renegotiation, and with the input of the department’s economic consultant, Fawcett said, “It became apparent to Stan that he really didn’t have good tools to decide where redevelopment would be most financially productive for the department and the county.

“In the end, economic considerations made it apparent to him that he needed a tool to evaluate how the Marina would evolve. While the objective of our proposed planning effort was more focused on design and land uses, (Wisniewski) was always more focused on real estate and revenue streams to the county,” said Fawcett.

Early in 1995, Wisniewski gave Gruen and the DBH planning staff the green light to move forward with what was originally called the “Long Term Management Study” for Marina del Rey, since even the planners’ and consultants’ approach would provide him with some of the tools that he found necessary, Fawcett explained.

Gruen and senior DBH planning officials conceived of the study as a series of “charrettes” that would bring together various parties with an interest in the future of Marina del Rey, providing information for Gruen to develop a kind of first-draft consensus plan that could then be used in public meetings to gather input and ideas from other stakeholders in the process, Fawcett continued.

“In the first instance — in the charrettes, however, the team would be limited to about 15 people consisting of Beaches and Harbors planning and asset management staff, Gruen design staff, ‘consultants with specific experience in Marina del Rey, and other real estate professionals with varied backgrounds to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the county with regard to the future of Marina del Rey up to the year 2025.’ The objective was to provide ‘concepts for consideration’ rather than a finished plan,” stated Fawcett.

[Two comments in the above paragraph by Fawcett refer to the Sedway, Kotin, Mouchley Group and Gruen Associates; 1995, Marina del Rey Long Term Asset Management Strategy,Workshop Briefing Book].

The original idea was for the LTMS to be vetted with the public and evolve into a full-fledged land use planning effort for the Marina, and the results of the charrettes would produce a “good starting point for that process,” he said.

“As Stutsman and I explained many times to director Wisniewski, the result of the charrettes would be a ‘plan for a plan, not a finished plan,’ meaning that there remained a great deal of work to be done both with residents of the Marina as well as with other stakeholders with an interest in what Marina del Rey might become because they were the real constituents of the plan.

“We wanted to ensure that Stan knew that this work would result in a draft, not a finished plan,” Fawcett explained.

Fawcett continued, “Unfortunately, all of this occurred as the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning worked with the Department of Beaches and Harbors to prepare a major amendment to the existing LCP. That effort had been underway for a couple of years and was in its final stages in 1995 before being reviewed and ratified by the Los Angeles Regional Planning Commission and the county Board of Supervisors before being submitted for approval by the California Coastal Commission.

“Fearing that the Coastal Commission would reject the amendment to the existing LCP if they discovered the county was operating on a parallel path to prepare a similar long-range plan — however different the two would be — Wisniewski ordered the name and direction of the planning effort to be redirected into what would become known as the ‘Long Term Asset Management Strategy,’” Fawcett said.

“Although the work had been conceived fundamentally as a planning project, it now would appear to the Coastal Commission and others that in fact the county was merely looking after its real estate assets in the Marina and that the work was truly independent of the LCP amendment.

“To the planners involved both from the DBH and Gruen, the approach was acceptable because we felt that once the LCP amendment was approved, we could return to looking at this as a long-term planning effort. We were either na‘ve or misguided in that belief by a director and perhaps others who did not want long-range planning to proceed outside the boundaries set by the state’s LCP process,” said Fawcett.

The need for planning was evident in the introduction to the LTAMS. Under the heading of “objectives,” he points out that the report states, “Without a pro-active (sic) asset management position, the current downward trend of the Marina in terms of the quality of improvements and its competitive position as a high-end residential and recreational area, will continue and result in a deteriorated revenue flow to the County.” (3) LTAMS, p.1-2.

Fawcett then said, “But the following paragraph revealed the more compelling objective-revenue generation for the county, rather than effective land use planning. It reads, ‘The objective of the LTAMS workshop is to produce one or more potential long-term development concepts for the Marina that will assist in maintaining and enhancing the quality of the Marina into the future.

“‘This process assumes that by developing a vision that pursues quality investment and repositioning of the Marina in the marketplace, greater future revenues for the county will be generated. It is hoped that the results of this workshop and the accompanying revenue projections will be compelling enough at a financial level to persuade the county Board of Supervisors to allow county asset management staff to pursue the preparation of an implementable LTAMS, and/or interim development guidelines.’

“Thus, the original objective of long-term planning to help the Marina meet the needs of the public was turned on its head into a real estate-based effort to derive more revenue from the existing leases,” said Fawcett.

The Regional Planning Commission and later the Board of Supervisors approved the amendment in 1995, and the Coastal Commission approved the major amendment to the LCP in early 1996, he said.

“For those of us who believed that the long-term planning effort should resume, focused on a long-term plan for the Marina rather than a short-term asset management strategy, the train had left the station. The LTAMS no more resembled the original objective of the planning team and instead was larded primarily with financial data, giving the department’s asset managers better information with which to renegotiate leases with the existing lessees,” Fawcett noted.

“Ironically, in a 1994 conversation, one of the county’s consultants proposed to the director and the planning staff a future option of collapsing all property ownership on each mole road into a single leasehold permitting creative land use strategies, and even perhaps moving the roadway location on the mole conducive to development of unified design and perhaps creating unique environments on each mole,” he continued.

“Notions such as that inspired the planners both at Beaches and Harbors and its consultants to propose the original LTMS. The irony is that the same economics consultant was equally active in supporting its conversion into the strictly real estate document that ultimately emerged,” said Fawcett.

Fawcett continues, “In the end, the public never really had the chance to help the county rethink what Marina del Rey might be since the LTAMS ultimately was an internal asset management document, a tool for the county’s asset managers to use in negotiating with lessees.

“As the 1995 LCP major amendment went to its final hearing before the Coastal Commission, one of the commissioners, a supervisor in San Diego County, resignedly noted when considering the amendment, ‘Well, this isn’t the way we would do things in San Diego, but I guess if you folks in L.A. County are happy with this plan, I won’t stand in your way.’ Of course, he was referring to the vast public spaces provided in Mission Bay and comparing it to the real estate-driven approach to development in Marina del Rey,” Fawcett said.

Fawcett said that as far as he is aware, the LTAMS continues to be used by Department of Beaches and Harbors asset managers and no real long-range planning has been either proposed or attempted since the mid-1990s.

“Around the middle of the 21st century, all of the Marina’s leases will expire and the citizens of the county will once again have the opportunity to reconsider whether Marina del Rey is fundamentally a recreational resource for the citizens of the county or a cash cow for the Board of Supervisors. Rethinking land use in Marina del Rey will be an interesting exercise; it’s just too bad that the public had so little opportunity this time to be a part of that process,” Fawcett said.