A plan to use the parking lot behind Gordon’s Market in Playa del Rey as a gateway to the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve has continued to draw concerns from some local residents and business owners.
After hearing public concerns, state agency representatives said this is a community issue that goes beyond state ownership of the lot and “solutions need to happen.”
At a community meeting October 20th, local residents told representatives from state agencies that the effort to establish a gateway to the Ballona Wetlands from the parking lot behind Gordon’s Market has resulted in “planning in a vacuum” because the community was left out of the process.
Residents and business owners attended the event, where Mary Small of the California Coastal Conservancy, Karen Miner of the state Department of Fish and Game, and Leslie Chen from the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) discussed and clarified the immediate issue of maintenance to the lot and the long-range plan for the lot.
Designated as one of three Early Action Plans to establish such gateways — a joint project of the California Coastal Conservancy, the Department of Fish and Game, the California State Lands Commission and other interacting agencies — the parking lot behind Gordon’s Market and the Matilla Commercial Center were slated to be closed for work such as fencing, grading and graveling.
After receiving a letter from Fish and Game to remove any storage items by October 5th, business owners who said they are concerned about alternative parking during the maintenance period, asked Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the 11th District, to intercede. The deadline for the new maintenance project start date was then moved to October 19th.
Rosendahl’s office had also asked that after the construction maintenance is finished, the regulation of that new parking is delayed to allow for a public process to be held on the new restrictions.
Miner told the audience that many of the residents were involved in the reserve acquisition and that when the state bond money was used to buy the property, the land was transferred to state ownership where it is under the laws and regulations that govern state property. Because the property was designated as an ecological reserve, it has even more specific rules and regulations that pertain to it, said Miner.
She said that of all the properties she oversees, this is the only one that has this type of situation, where a parking lot has been historically used by the public and the issue has not been dealt with or brought into compliance in the five years since the state has been the owner.
Miner said it is very difficult, legally, to meet the state’s mandates and still be sensitive to the needs of the community and the historical site.
There is currently no overnight parking on the lot, and parking at reserves is from sunrise to sunset, just like parks. Miner said the state wants to begin enforcing the parking laws as soon as it has adequate personnel.
The next regulation would include how to provide an opportunity for the public to use the reserve, which is now used by school children, and for special tours, research and renovation, said Miner.
She said that it makes sense to use an existing parking lot that is already in a disturbed area, opposed to disturbing something in a sensitive wetland area that would create more of an impact.
Small said that the next steps are to open the site to the public, with trails for the wetlands and wildlife at the Gordon’s location, as well as the Fiji Way location in Marina del Rey. At the Fiji Way lot, a new public parking lot would be created, along with a trail that connects existing roads that the gas company has out there to bike path links. Interpretive signage and native plantings would be included, said Small.
At Gordon’s, the trail would be improved to the platform overlook, interpretive signage would be placed, and native plantings, parking lot improvements for more designated spaces and a storm water treatment are also planned.
MRCA has a grant to do planning work, review the feasibility and plan a budget. This winter MRCA has scheduled a public meeting, and in early 2010 the agency hopes to do a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) analysis and draft and apply for a coastal development permit. If MRCA gets the permit in late spring, they would implement it next summer and then open the site, said Small.
PUBLIC COMMENT —
David Voss, vice president of the Planning and Land Use Committee of the Westchester-Playa Neighborhood Council, said that there have been “enormous outcries, cutting across all lines” — the Chamber of Commerce, environmental groups and community members — with a lot of concern having to do with what they characterize as “planning without input and artificial constraints.”
“Yet we have a process apparent to all of us, it seems you’ve done your planning in a vacuum. It may not be true, but it is the perception,” said Voss.
“We feel that you need a lot more than just one public meeting in December before you come up with a final plan for what needs to be done. That final plan needs to address both all of our concerns and also the balance of the community, the balance of traffic you’re going to bring to the community, and depending on how you set things up, the uses of the property.
“Some of the things I’ve heard you say this evening have been what we legally need for our mandates and current rules and regulations. What’s unclear or not apparent is where are these being set and by whom?” asked Voss.
Miner said it is the Department of Fish and Game that sets those rules and it was a public forum, adding that it was a three-meeting process that would have been done in 2004.
Voss continued, “You talk about parking and say that this one is different than any other reserve. You can’t apply the same things as though it’s a cookie cutter, one size fits all.”
Voss pointed out that there is a difference between parking from sunset to sunrise versus overnight parking, and that the community likes to use that parking until a reasonable part of the evening but not overnight.
“Overall, you need a much greater planning process that allows for much more public input than what I’m seeing,” said Voss.
He added, “I encourage you to take all of those things into consideration because it’s a wonderful thing when our community can all be relatively on the same page. We have a very, very active community and it represents many disparate things, and when (environmentalist) Marcia Hanscom can say she came to the Chamber of Commerce and got support for the position of the environmental community, that’s something we think you should pay attention to.”
Small said she was happy to provide actual bond language and didn’t want to throw up any more artificial constraints. She said that the project is funded with state bonds, as was the property acquisition, which also leads to legal constraints as to what purposes the property can be used for because those bonds were sold to create parks and open space.
“When the project comes to the Coastal Conservancy it is for regional or statewide projects, so we can fund coastal visitors to visit, but not for local serving purposes,” she said.
The maintenance project had been planned for last year, but the state ran out of funds and stopped all expenditures. Over the course of the year, the state has again sold bonds and released funding to projects that had already been approved, such as the maintenance, and were in the pipeline, Small said.
Miner said that if there were no community involvement and a utilized parking lot, the state would look at the property and ask what is already disturbed and where it could put visitor-serving facilities. If there were areas that were disturbed and visitor-serving facilities weren’t put in, the state would restore the area, Miner said.
Hanscom, co-director of Ballona Institute, said the Fiji Way parking lots proposed for renovation were paved for the 1984 Olympics and the California Coastal Commission permit said they were supposed to be returned to wetlands immediately after the Olympics.
“They weren’t and currently, in spite of regulations, they are leased on a month-to-month basis to businesses at Fisherman’s Village and the county,” Hanscom said. “So the question is, why focus on this lot at Gordon’s Market? Why not focus on the Fiji Way lot fixing that situation first? Think about using a parking lot that isn’t part of the habitat area, working in collaboration with the county.”
Hanscom suggested a parking lot belonging to the gas company for its employees, saying it would be a “win-win” because on the weekends there are more visitors to the wetlands and parking on the lot at Cabora Road would provide a nice overlook of the wetlands.
“Secondly, in terms of how this happened with our little community of Playa del Rey, it’s really important to know the history,” she said. “There was a settlement agreement, of which I have a copy, where the Friends of Ballona Wetlands, the state of California, the city and the county all signed off on this settlement. There were eight acres of land right behind the Szechwan Palace restaurant all the way down to the Playa del Rey Florist, where four acres of that land was supposed to be parking for the community.
Hanscom continued, “The bottom line is that the community got dropped in the whole thing, the business community in particular, and more businesses were approved because the councilperson at the time thought we were going to have that parking lot.
“We think that diagonal parking on Culver and two lanes instead of this freeway going through our community could actually slow things down and make it so we could have another 100 parking spaces, maybe more.”
One woman at the meeting said the residents and business owners patronize the businesses, not the people that come to see the wetlands, and that the carbon footprint is so high because of the “freeway-like traffic” from the South Bay coming through the community.
Miner said they want to improve the parking lot for existing users whether the owner moves forward or not because it has been an eyesore and a public safety issue.
Dave Gordon, owner of Gordon’s Market, asked if the lot owner was open to allowing people in the community who have been involved over the years to provide some concepts for the area.
“I’m not hearing about any benefits for this property. If you want to bring people down to enjoy the property, you’re going to have to create a little bit more than a quarter-mile trail and public signs from the back parking lot,” Gordon said. “There’s plenty of acreage that we can save than to take another acre or two and create some ecologically friendly parking zone back there.
“We’re adjacent to the bike path used by thousands of people. We’re the only place in California with this much expensive real estate that’s never utilized. Nobody has reached out and tried to gather community support and when you say nothing can be done, we need regulations,” Gordon continued.
“Five years ago when the property was signed over to the state, did anyone call us up and ask us if we were interested in that? We worked to save this property, we want it for our grandchildren, but at the same time I just don’t believe that we can’t create a plan and go to the Coastal Commission and go to the state and go to the parks and say, ‘hey look, we need another 100 parking spots.’
“When we look at a project, we have to see what you are creating in the way of parking and access to the beach and coastal zones,” said Gordon.