By Gary Walker
Supporters and opponents of the most controversial development proposal for Playa del Rey in recent memory squared off last Thursday during a Los Angeles Planning Commission hearing in Van Nuys, with emotions running so high that at times it seemed some might come to blows.
Arguments broke out sporadically among the dozens in attendance as commissioners moved toward their 4-1 vote to deny an appeal against a coastal development permit and density bonus for the Legado project, an 80,000-square-foot residential and retail complex that would stand 48 feet tall in the vacant triangular lot at Culver Boulevard and Vista Del Mar.
Legado now moves to the Los Angeles City Council for final approvals, where at least in its current iteration the project is expected to face resistance from L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who has publicly opposed the project’s height and scale.
“Approval of this out-of-scale development will open the floodgates for similar projects to be developed in the area,” Bonin’s planning and land use director Krista Kline told commissioners, echoing comments by many of the appellants.
But Legado was not without its backers. Earlier this year, the developer opened an office next to Tanner’s Coffee Co. to disseminate information about the project and generate public support.
Susan Mallory, who’s lived in Playa del Rey for 42 years, told commissioners she thinks Legado’s 72 apartments and 7,500 feet of ground-floor retail would inject new life into the neighborhood.
“We have over 30 years with a vacant lot and hardly any new development. These developers are taking action,” Mallory said. “I believe this project will bring jobs and it will energize our community so it won’t look like a neglected, blighted community.”
Legado attorney Benjamin Reznik said developer Edward Czucker has fulfilled every planning requirement under more intense public scrutiny than he’s ever seen before.
“I’ve never had a project in my 40 years in practice that has gone through such a process,” Reznik told the commission.
Reznik emphasized that Legado would help Playa del Rey do its part to address the housing shortage, with eight of the project’s 72 apartments set aside for low-income affordable housing.
“You are being asked by opponents to draw a line along the coast for affordable housing,” he argued. “If the commission upholds the appeal, Playa del Rey will be known as an exclusionary zone.”
While housing in Playa del Rey is as expensive as any beachfront area of Los Angeles, the neighborhood has largely been passed over by developers since the 1970s. The commercial strip along Culver Boulevard is mostly single-story independent shops, local-serving restaurants and neighborhood bars where patrons can still enjoy $4 beers. Many worry that Legado would set off a chain reaction of new development that would bring the demise of Playa del Rey’s village-like atmosphere, ultimately displacing middle-class people and longtime local businesses.
“I can’t emphasize how much this project is out of character with Playa del Rey,” said Phillip Gearhart, owner of no frills restaurant and bar The Shack.
Other opponents told the commission they worry that excavation to construct Legado would disturb and spread a toxic chemical plume detected underneath the nearby former Del Rey Cleaners.
Since discovery of the plume in 2015, however, Legado’s underground parking component has been reduced from two levels to one, which according to the developer would keep construction above the water table.
Some Legado supporters accused opponents of being elitist and even racist, which just provoked more ire from that side of the room.
“Every single person who stood up against the project was white. There must be a reason why,” said a man who identified himself as a real estate agent. “Maybe affordable housing for them means minorities are going to move in.”
Members of the neighborhood group Save Playa del Rey accused speakers in support of Legado of being paid by the developer to attend the hearing, prompting backers to frequently punctuate their comments to the commission with “and I’m not being paid to speak.”
One project supporter did mention, however, that Legado had provided breakfast and lunch.
After the hearing, Reznik told project supporters that the commission’s decision is all but certain to face another appeal before the city council.
“The battle continues,” he said.
Local resident Mary Hartman, who opposes Legado and the changes it could bring, is among those who will continue to challenge the project.
“Playa del Rey is the quintessential beach town, and when it goes it’s gone forever,” she said.