Marina del Rey’s oldest and most egalitarian community faces the wrecking ball
By Jonathan Polakoff
As the sun hung high over Marina del Rey on a recent Saturday afternoon, a procession of swimsuit-clad mourners gathered poolside for a marathon party fueled by jubilee and sadness — a jazz funeral for the marina’s oldest community, soon to be demolished.
The three-piece band wailed on a cover of “Voodoo Child,” the electric guitar solo wafting out from the poolside courtyard, past the shuttered restaurant and bar that decades ago was a community watering hole, and onto Neptune Marina’s 136 townhome units. Many of them sat empty for the first time in more than 50 years.
One of the landlord’s employees sat within earshot in the nearby leasing office, but the band was never told to keep it down. Sheriff’s deputies didn’t bother stopping by. At the very least, the music was a reprieve from the jackhammering and other construction noise emanating from nearby projects along Admiralty Way on most days.
The scene could have been mistaken for an evening during Neptune’s heyday decades ago, except for the forebodingly empty poolside units that had been vacated ahead of the development’s Aug. 26 eviction date. Some past residents chatted about whether to break into their old places for a last look around before demolition. A few tagged their former front doors with magic marker.
Revelers relived the glory days of past parties and revisited the romances and mundanities of decades gone by. A few who’d spent their 20s and 30s here called it the “Melrose Place” of the marina. One said she’d moved in and out of Neptune six times. Another said his former roommate had met his wife at a party around the very same pool.
Some pondered why Neptune long stood out among the marina’s numerous apartment buildings — all of which were newer, taller and, one could easily argue, nicer. The general consensus was that Neptune still had a community feel at a time when neighborly communication had disappeared elsewhere or moved online.
‘A Loss of Community’
“It’s always had this neighborhood feel,” said Adam Acheson, Neptune Marina’s unofficial “mayor,” a 13-year resident whose duties consist largely of party planning and enforcing a no-glass-by-the-pool rule. “It’s sad in that way. It’s a loss of community.”
Neptune Marina’s culture can be traced back to the 1960s, when boaters and “swinging singles” were drawn to live along L.A.’s new manmade waterfront, a shining example of early Space Age ambition.
Open doors and barbeques on shared lawns fostered this environment over the decades. Residents would leave their front doors open and sometimes take turns watching neighbors’ kids or pets.
At times it could feel like a jarring social experiment amid L.A.’s notoriously isolating urban sprawl.
“This is a living museum of culture, a living museum of a way of interacting among human beings that is actually in certain areas becoming extinct,” Jesse Gros, a Neptune resident for seven years, said shortly before moving out.
Today, Neptune’s townhomes bear the weathered visage of a sailor with years of sun damage and laugh lines to show for the good times. There are thick-trunked palm trees and bougainvillea-covered balconies. Until their very last day, the townhomes still had popcorn ceilings and ovens that looked like movie props from a late-century period piece.
But residents had a particular fondness for Neptune’s townhome layout of connected two-story buildings huddled around a shared lawn or pool. It’s a footprint that contradicts some basic assumptions in the design of contemporary, higher-density apartment buildings offering much in the way of amenities but little to inspire camaraderie.
As redevelopment and renovations consumed just about every other residential parcel of the marina, Neptune residents became foxhole buddies who somehow survived a developer-led siege. The tight-knit atmosphere was reinforced by the close quarters.
“Everything new is designed around privacy and luxury. These [units] were designed for a lack of privacy, and didn’t give a shit about luxury,” Gros said.
Neptune wasn’t for everyone. Gros said he had tried “love-bombing” former neighbors who were forlorn or down on their luck, but they ended up moving out.
Coming Soon: 526 Units
Neptune’s vibe could feel more like an extension of Venice hippiedom than part of the marina, an experiment in private-public partnership that aimed to provide water access for L.A. County residents while making money for L.A. County.
To this day, the county owns all of the marina’s 400 acres and derives revenue from long-term ground leases to developers that include a percentage of apartment rent proceeds.
Even still, Neptune offered a water view that was cheaper than many landlocked parts of Los Angeles.
The most expensive of Neptune’s barracks-like two-bedroom units rented for about $2,600 per month, with longtime tenants paying even less.
In June, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the marina was $4,150 a month, according to research by ApartmentList.com.
This relative affordability attracted a broad swath of residents that included students, waitresses, below-the-line film workers, fitness trainers, retirees and others who may or may not otherwise be able to afford the marina. Neptune’s 182 boat slips were the cheapest in the marina, too — less than $400 a month for a 30-foot slip.
“You had all walks of life,” said former unofficial mayor Brian Munzlinger, who lived in Neptune for all but two years from 1992 to 2009.
The coming redevelopment of Neptune Marina has been in the works for the better part of two decades, with Neptune remaining in its original form this long only by sheer luck. Residents had been anticipating the teardown for many
years when eviction notices arrived.
The timing could hardly be worse, though, as these new apartment seekers are released into a frenzied Westside real estate market fed by venture capital-funded tech firm workers. Some former Neptune residents have chosen to set off for other parts of the country or world.
It’s certain that Neptune as it has existed since 1965 will vanish. The new development — also to be called Neptune Marina — will quadruple occupancy, with 526 units planned across four buildings that will stretch as high as 60 feet into the air. These buildings will be outfitted to meet the demands, real or perceived, of upwardly mobile tech workers and other denizens of Silicon Beach.
The renderings have already won at least one architectural award, which is of course no great consolation to this writer, who — like all of Neptune’s former residents — will be moved out by the end of the week.
“This is the end of a beautiful culture of interesting, iconoclastic L.A. refugees who figured out how to find their way to the water, got really lucky, dropped into a community of friendly people who had the same idea, fell in love with each other and said, ‘Yeah, we can do this. This works,’” said Steven Starr, a Neptune resident for about five years. “What we have doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the marina. I’ve been all over L.A., and I haven’t seen it anywhere else either.”
The Legendary Donkin’s Inn
In ancient Roman times, Neptune was god of the sea, today a somewhat less-famous counterpart to the ancient Greeks’ Poseidon.
Neptune Marina’s developers could be forgiven their hubris for invoking the Roman god as they first walked the basins of the brand new marina still under development in the early 1960s.
Financed with millions in county, state and federal funds, the project was in the midst of converting a marsh marred by oil derricks into the largest recreational boating harbor in the world. The success of the project was not a foregone conclusion, but the three businessmen who formed Neptune Development Co. — Stanton Jay Platt, Samuel Leeds and George R. Platt — saw enough potential in 1962 to sign one of the marina’s first long-term ground leases, agreeing to pay L.A. County about $40,000 a year and a percentage of revenues.
Neptune soon became home to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers workers creating the harbor, making it by most accounts the first residential community in Marina del Rey, Neptune dockmaster Mike Gordon said. The townhomes even preceded the marina’s breakwater, a pivotal achievement that cemented the marina’s success after a destructive 1963 storm surge called the project’s viability into question.
The community’s roots as workers’ barracks are reflected in Neptune’s substance-over-style design, which has in recent times been called both “rundown” and “nondescript.”
“I think they just stuck the housing where they stuck it,” said Gordon.
Whatever Neptune lacked in architectural panache, however, was made up for in good timing.
When the marina officially opened for business in 1965, a rising middle class — fueled in part by the burgeoning aerospace industry, the mid-20th century counterpart to Silicon Beach — brought discretionary income to the waterfront, and the advent of fiberglass boats made sailing available to the masses. It also didn’t hurt that the marina was close to the heart of the ‘60s zeitgeist in Venice.
But the marina was its own scene, and Neptune was often at the center. Donkin’s Inn, a waterfront bar and restaurant wedged between Neptune’s townhomes on Marquesas Way and Via Marina, was for years a favorite haunt for boaters and partiers. Bar-hoppers would tie up to the dock, have a round and listen to the live band before motoring on to the next spot.
“The Neptune Townhouses … were highly sought after in the early years,” reads the Marina del Rey Historical Society’s annotated pictorial history book, “Marina del Rey.” “The after-work ‘swinging singles’ crowd filled the waterfront restaurant, Donkin’s, later named Clems. The restaurant’s guest dock for boats was constantly filled.”
Not all of the boaters who frequented Neptune’s docks were yachties. The slips were also home to the Wind ‘N’ Sea Sailing Club, which allowed less-affluent members to offer a hand to boat owners in exchange for a cruise. Hitching a weekend ride to Catalina was no big deal. The club was proud of its outsider status among the Marina’s monied yacht clubs, entering (and sometimes winning top prizes in) the marina’s boat parades with themes such as “Ladies Erotica Society” and “Godzilla Eats the Marina.”
“Neptune was just kind of right for people like that coming together to pay the slip fees,” said Marina del Rey Historical Society President Willie Hjorth, who has lived in the area since 1964. “That whole little area fit that lifestyle.”
Sometime after live jazz at Donkin’s gave way to disco records, the restaurant changed hands. In 1987 it became a Tommy Lasorda’s Ribs and Pasta Restaurant, part of a small chain run by the then-Dodgers manager. In its final iteration, it was the Pier View Café & Cantina, before it was shuttered for good in the late ‘90s.
Pier View’s outdoor area was a favorite for weekend breakfasts with neighbors — “definitely a cool scene,” Munzlinger said.
Playground for the Rich
Rents for Neptune’s townhomes rose steadily throughout the decades, but never broached incredulity. A two-bedroom townhome without a water view cost $750 a month in the early ‘80s, which is about $1,800 a month in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars.
As recently as a decade ago, Neptune was still among a small number of older buildings in the marina offering affordable living. Now, it follows Del Rey Shores, a 202-unit community built in the ‘60s that was redeveloped into a 544-unit community called The Shores in 2011. Rent for a one-bedroom with a loft at Del Rey Shores had peaked at about $1,800 shortly before redevelopment. Rent for a one-bedroom at The Shores now starts at $3,000
“It was a very similar setup,” said Andrea Ackerson, who lived in Del Rey Shores until its redevelopment, when she moved to Neptune Marina. “It was an affordable community with lots of grassy spaces, old trees and ivy. It had a real community feel. Unfortunately, a lot of the new development has this hotel-esque setup with long hallways that don’t facilitate the same sense of community that the older ones did.”
Another older but affordable community, Bar Harbor, was torn down in 2014 to make way for a forthcoming six-building, 585-unit apartment complex.
The development firm Legacy Partners, who will build the new Neptune Marina, purchased the 379-unit Mariner’s Bay community near Mother’s Beach for a reported $83.5 million last year. Newly renovated units are just now hitting the market, with studios starting at $2,575 a month and two-bedroom units being advertised for as much as $4,840 a month.
Now, as what’s perhaps the last middle-class enclave in the marina is being torn down, some worry openly that the marina is also losing whatever was left of its unpretentiousness.
Such concerns are amplified by the ever greater displays of wealth visible all around them. The sequoian masts of software billionaire Larry Ellison’s megayacht Asahi were already a fixture in the harbor when billionaire developer Rick Caruso began mooring his 216-foot megayacht Invictus in the next slip over earlier this summer. And as many of the marina’s anchorages get renovated, less-expensive slips for smaller boats — those 30-feet and shorter — are being reduced in favor of more slips for boats 36-feet and longer.
Whether the marina was ever intended to be, by-and-large, “affordable” is a matter of interpretation.
Neptune’s original 1962 lease agreement told the developers to “provide needed facilities to the public at fair and reasonable cost … so that the public may enjoy maximum benefits and the county may obtain maximum revenues.” This was to be balanced with the developer’s “fair and reasonable return upon his investment.”
Whatever the wording, some residents believe the marina is departing from its roots and quickly joining the priciest parts of L.A.’s waterfront as an exclusive playground for the rich.
“Finding affordable living in the marina is now no longer an option,” said Ackerson, who after leaving Neptune will relocate with her family to the East Coast.
18 Years in the Making
When ground is broken on the new Neptune development in the coming months, it will cap what has been the longest run-up to any development in Legacy Partners’ 48-year history.
That’s no small feat — the Foster City company has developed more than 60,000 apartments across the country.
The long wait for Neptune owes to the complex web of government agencies and boards that oversee development in the marina, the collapse of the housing market in 2008, and what was at times stiff opposition from community groups.
“It’s a record for the company,” Legacy Partners Senior Managing Partner Tim O’Brien said. “You’re building on the water, on the coast, dealing with multiple agencies and going through series and series and series of public meetings.”
It all began in 1998, around the same time the Pier View Café & Cantina closed, when L.A. County put out a request for developers to submit bids to redevelop Neptune Marina. The winning bid came from a joint venture that included Neptune’s then-leaseholder (a company called Neptune Marina), a hotel developer by the name of Woodfin, and Legacy Partners, then a new-comer to the marina.
The initial proposal was to raze Neptune’s townhomes to make way for apartment buildings, replace Neptune’s docks, and build a 19-story, 225-foot high hotel on an adjacent piece of undeveloped land along Via Marina. Those plans would undergo a series of revisions over the years. There was an especially pointed public outcry to the 19-story hotel proposal, which has been scaled down to a pair of six-story hotels along Via Marina next to a 1.5-acre wetlands park. But the forthcoming redevelopment of Neptune Marina is still rooted in that original proposal.
Legacy took the reins on Neptune in 2004 when it bought out the former leaseholder.
The company has since committed to spending at least $164 million on the project, according to a November 2015 presentation to the county’s Small Craft Harbor Commission.
Legacy’s plan to develop 126 units on the site of a public parking lot galvanized some community activists, but the zoning change was approved in 2011. In exchange, Legacy agreed to finance half of the wetlands park next to the hotel, pay for new public boat slips, and pay
the county $3 million to replace the parking spots.
Initially, the plan was to redo Neptune as an Art Deco-styled development, but Legacy later scrapped that design. (“It kind of had a feeling like if you go to Disneyland and you walk through a section of California Adventure,” O’Brien said.)
Replacing it is the current Mid-Century Modern design, plans that last year won a Pacific Coast Builders Conference Gold Nugget Award for “Best on the Boards Multifamily Project.”
“The Mid-Century Modern is subtle. We didn’t want the feeling like you’re walking onto a ‘Mad Men’ set — this is very much a classic Mid-Century design,” O’Brien said. “It has a resort feeling, too. It’s packed with amenities.”
The new design will encourage residents to socialize in common areas such as breakoff decks, which O’Brien said will be available for residents to use casually or can be reserved for private events. There will also be a waterfront pedestrian promenade. A rendering of the pool suggests it will be lit from underwater and surrounded with sleek deck furniture.
A Net Loss of Affordability
There appears to be a clear effort to foster socialization among the residents of the future Neptune Marina, though it’s hard to imagine the drunken skinny dippers of Neptune’s past among the elegantly robed residents drawn into the renderings.
The project will, however, offer 81 affordable housing units in compliance with a 2008 L.A. County Board of Supervisors mandate that 15% of new development in the marina be set aside for a combination of very-low-income, low-income and moderate-income tenants.
The Board of Supervisors extended Legacy Partners a $26.97-million credit to compensate for the cost of providing the affordable housing, according to a board agenda report by the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors.
Even as those affordable units open the new Neptune Marina’s doors to a broader array of renters, critics of L.A. County’s redevelopment plans for the marina say the project will create a net decrease of housing affordability in the area.
Nancy Vernon Marino, director of the local advocacy group We Are Marina del Rey, compared it to The Shores, which offers 54 units of dedicated affordable housing on a parcel where there was previously 202 units that were affordable to middle-class families.
“Del Rey Shores, Bar Harbor, even Mariner’s Bay — all of these apartments provided affordable rentals. They were reasonably priced. Schoolteachers and middle-class working folks could afford it,” Marino said. “What is never said is, ‘Wait a minute. You are tearing down 202 ‘affordable’ units and you’re replacing it with 54 units for people who can jockey the system. Affordable housing is a good concept, but the way it’s administered is detrimental to everybody. It’s like a lottery.”
The result, she said, is a greater stratification of wealth and a squeeze of the middle class.
“We do need housing for low-income people,” Marino said, “but the ‘have-mores’ are taking more of the piece of the pie.”
Many local activists blame the seeming indifference to the concerns of priced-out residents on the marina’s unusual governance structure, in which decision-making comes not from a council of community members but the L.A. County Board of Supervisors — which is accountable to not only the marina’s fewer than 10,000 residents, but all 10 million residents of the county.
Supervisors have addressed their balancing act in the past.
“There is a fine line when it comes to maximizing county revenue from the marina,” Supervisor Don Knabe, whose district includes Marina del Rey, told the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2007. “Ten or 20 years ago, the criticism from outside was that we were doing too little to maximize our revenue. Now, [critics say] we’re doing too much.”
The marina’s long-term ground leases brought in $58.4 million in fiscal year 2013-14.
The new Neptune development promises to increase that number, although it may take a few years.
For fiscal year 2014-15, the county collected about $621,000 from Legacy for the Neptune parcel.
During construction of the new buildings, the county will collect a minimum of $500,000 from Legacy annually, and after three-and-a-half years the county is guaranteed at least $700,000 annually.
‘The Latest and Greatest Thing’
Improving the county’s finances can be an unconvincing argument for marina residents who are shoved out for new developments. What’s more, residents who must leave the marina due to redevelopment don’t get relocation assistance as they would in nearby cities. (Some former Neptune residents have hired a lawyer to explore getting relocation assistance, but none wanted to speak about it on the record).
“In Santa Monica you need to give them relocation allowance. None of that happens in the marina,” Marino said.
Another problem for marina residents, Marino said, is that the imperative for large-scale renovations and redevelopment can serve as a disincentive for landlords to perform routine maintenance, and a property’s dereliction can even be used to argue for expediting a redevelopment plan. Marino said she had met with some Neptune residents in the rainy winter of 2010, when those with leaking roofs said they were having trouble getting the issue resolved to their satisfaction.
The leaky roofs left a lasting impression on Neptune’s unofficial mayor, too.
“They didn’t want to spend money until they had to,” Acheson said. “That’s bad business.”
When a ruptured gas line left a laundry room unusable this summer, residents were told it would not be repaired. Likewise with a pool that had its heating cut off. In return, Legacy knocked $50 off a month’s rent.
In recent weeks, residents complained of other states of disrepair. As a former resident, I can’t claim to be impartial about any of it, but it’s fairly certain that Neptune didn’t go out on a high note.
Still, residents bonded over those shared indignities as they got together for their final barbecues and poolside get-togethers to talk about where they were off to next. Some were going just across the marina, to the next-most-affordable place they could find. Others were off to Austin, San Diego or sailing to Baja.
As they discussed the future of the marina and the hundreds of apartments and hotel rooms soon to come, many lamented the impending increase in traffic and tall buildings.
Acheson said he’s planning to stay in the marina for a little while longer, but he expects to move on by the time the coming wave of development
“My goal is to be out of here before that really happens,” he said. “We’re already having difficulty with the current roads and traffic. … It becomes just another part of L.A. County where it’s just constant gridlock.”
But for those committed to their vision of a redeveloped marina, the future holds much promise.
“You see a lot of people who have moved to the Westside as a result of Silicon Beach,” Legacy Partners’ O’Brien said. “They have a propensity to move to Santa Monica … [but] you’re going to see folks say, ‘You know what, the marina has as much to offer as Santa Monica … You always see a flight to the ‘new project,’ the latest and greatest thing.”
Even Hjorth, whose dedication to the history of Marina del Rey history is unparalleled, is embracing change.
“I want the new stuff,” she said. “I want to join the millennial crowd.”
Jonathan Polakoff has written for the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Easy Reader.