The Playa del Rey Guardians Society draws a line in the sand to hold back the tide of growth

By Gary Walker

The owner of a vacant lot at the corner of Esplanade and Argonaut streets wants to build an apartment complex as high as 56 feet — nearly 20 feet taller than any other building on Esplanade Photo by Ted Soqui

The owner of a vacant lot at the corner of Esplanade and Argonaut streets wants to build an apartment complex as high as 56 feet — nearly 20 feet taller than any other building on Esplanade
Photo by Ted Soqui

To members of the Playa del Rey Guardians Society, it’s what late New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra would have called déjà vu all over again.

Formed by residents last year to fight a mixed-use development proposal for the triangular lot where Culver Boulevard meets Vista Del Mar, the local advocacy group is going on the offensive again — this time over a much smaller project, but one they fear could also change the landscape of Playa del Rey.

The owner of a vacant lot across from Del Rey Lagoon Park at the corner of Esplanade and Argonaut streets hopes to build a five-story, 14-unit apartment complex there that would stand 56 feet tall.

By comparison, the Legado del Mar project some 500 feet away on what locals call Jake’s Lot is much larger. If approved, Legado would bring 72 new apartments and an additional 14,500 square feet of retail to the area.

But there’s one important difference — the Esplanade project would be some nine feet taller than Legado del Mar’s proposed 45 feet — and one common Playa del Rey Guardians Society concern: underground pollution.

Therein lies the déjà vu. Both projects call for underground parking structures that would require developers to pump out groundwater, which the Guardians say could draw a toxic chemicals pooled underneath the former Del Rey Cleaners at 310 Culver Blvd. toward homes
and businesses.

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board asked for “emergency assistance” from both the U.S. EPA’s Superfund Division and county health officials due to what the water agency called “potential substantial risks to human health.”

After the Los Angeles City Planning Department recommended in August that the Esplanade Street project move forward toward final approval, the Guardians filed an appeal calling for further environmental study and objecting to its planned height. The department has not yet set a date to hear the appeal.

“The proposed project will be tall enough to block the views of the Santa Monica Mountains from the public view spot at the corner of Vista Del Mar and Montreal Street, and tall enough to cast shade on the public [Del Rey] Lagoon Park, directly across the street, for much of the day,” the Guardians wrote in their appeal.

Azam Mirtorabi, who owns the land at Esplanade and Argonaut, said she wants to work with community members and does not want to be the kind of developer who cares only about the bottom line.

“We will look at everything objectively, and we’ll try to make things work out for everyone,” Mirtorabi said.

The Esplanade project would go up right next door to Howard Nellor’s condo at the northeast corner of Argonaut Street and Vista del Mar. Nellor has heard Mirtorabi say she wants to be as neighborly as possible, but he remains skeptical that minds will meet, given that she’s asking to build something taller than any other building on Esplanade.

“All of the houses on Esplanade are 37 feet tall. If they go to 56 feet, all new buildings in Playa del Rey will want to go 56 feet tall, and that will start a domino effect,” said Nellor, who has lived in Playa del Rey for 21 years.  “And soon we’ll become just like Manhattan Beach.”

The Guardians echo Nellor’s argument in their appeal: “If one building, like this building, is allowed to break the rules which have held our close community together, we can without a doubt anticipate the ‘domino effect.’ There will be an onslaught of developers riding on the back of the first project to be allowed to break the rules.”

Maria Reyes, vice president of the West Beach Playa del Rey Property Owners Association, cites additional worries.

“We are all concerned about the how parking and traffic will impact the community as the population grows. For me, health and safety is the main concern. Think of an emergency evacuation, and there is only one way out— Culver. They are going to have to build roads over the wetlands to support the population Esplanade and Legado expect to grow to,” Reyes said.

Starting with Legado and now the Esplanade project, plans to build bigger and taller structures in Playa del Rey have awoken a once-dormant group of determined residents who say they aren’t against all development but don’t want to see their quiet community turned into a developer’s paradise.

Homeowners living in The Jungle, just south of the Legado project, recently succeeded in lobbying the county and the California Coastal Commission for construction of a sand berm to protect against anticipated El Niño storms.

Some of those activists have now joined the Guardians in monitoring proposed developments that they believe could alter Playa del Rey, which unlike any other coastal neighborhood in L.A. has remained largely untouched by commercial development for decades.

“We’d like to keep it that way,” Nellor said.