The fight over the waterfront, like so many political fights, began with a lawsuit.
But it really started before that. The fight started because of Measure DD, which required that zoning and land use changes be approved by the voters, to help slow the growth of development in Redondo Beach.
But it really started even before that. The fight started with a development proposal called Heart of the City, and a group of people who thought that there was no way 3,000 condos should end up on the waterfront property where a power plant lies.
Now, a new ballot initiative is brewing that would go beyond the development limits imposed by Measure G, a blueprint for the future of King Harbor and the pier that passed in 2010. And it has prompted old tensions to flare about what kind of development would be acceptable along the Redondo Beach coast, specifically as it relates to the heights of the buildings, view protections and traffic.
How did we get to Measure G?
Like most political battles in Redondo Beach, it’s a little convoluted. But everyone agrees that Measure G was borne out of Heart of the City, a plan that would have allowed for 2,998 housing units and 657,000 square feet of commercial space along North Catalina Avenue and the harbor.
“When the community figured out what was going on, they were all outraged,” said Councilman Bill Brand, who helped craft Measure G’s predecessor, Measure DD.
Along with Jim Light, the head of Building a Better Redondo, the two qualified a referendum for the ballot and the council eventually rescinded the plan.
“We felt like councils were making decisions in the middle of the night, and overruling what citizens wanted,” he said. “If we could find a way where they always had to put it for a vote, then we would be good.”
So the group came up with Measure DD, which voters passed in 2008. Measure DD listed any major changes in zoning would have to be put to the voters. That means simply, if the owners of the AES power plant wanted to build thousands of condos on the site, voters would have to sign off on a change in zoning from industrial use to residential.
Brand anticipated the group would lose. There were signs everywhere urging residents to vote no. But in the end, it won by 58 percent of the vote.
In the meantime, the city began developing its own plan to establish some limits on development in the city. Measure G was planned by the council at the time, and was designed to allow caps on development in the harbor, said City Treasurer Steve Diels, who was sitting on the council at the time.
“Prior to Measure G, there were essentially no limits to development,” Diels said.
The limitations imposed by Measure G evolved, Diels said. The original size that was recommended was between 700,000 and 750,000 square feet of development in the harbor area. That was reduced to somewhere about 550,000 square feet by the Planning Commission according to Brand. Eventually the City Council reduced it to 400,000 square feet of additional development in the King Harbor and pier area.
“We had the stated goal of making the project as small as possible to be economically viable,” Diels said. “We got two independent analyses which said this is indeed economically viable and you can’t make it any smaller.”
The point of Measure G was to have consistency through the land use plan, and a certified local coastal program from the planning commission, said City Attorney Mike Webb. While Measure G would have been typically effective upon approval by the Coastal Commission, it was effective after 30 days like a typical ordinance. The land use plan still had to go to the Coastal Commission—so there was a question—did the zoning need to be approved, or was it already in effect?
“There’s no charter police going around telling people they’re violating their charter,” Brand said.
So Light and Brand sued. They asked friends to help raise $10,000 for a lawyer, and the money followed. A clause in Measure DD stated that within a certain area of rezoning, people have to vote on it. A judge agreed, and it was put on the ballot.
Measure G itself is 90 pages, but a 180-page supplemental ballot explaining the initiative in detail also went out to voters. The measure caps new commercial development in the harbor and pier to 400,000 square feet on top of the existing commercial space. There is also a plethora of building height limitations that change from area by area, and sub-area by sub-area, with the most common being around two to three stories. Along the west side of Catalina Avenue, amendments would allow a mix of commercial and industrial businesses, and some mixed-use residential projects. AES is zoned to allow parks and recreational uses.
New development also needs to preserve and enhance public views, provide continuous access to the seaward side of the piers, be consistent and harmonious with the scale of development, and provide amenities such as benches, walkways and rest and viewing areas, signs and places for bike paths.
Measure G passed with a 52-48 percent vote.
CenterCal moves in
Diels sees the kinds of bidders that the city attracted as a good measure of whether the development cap of 400,000 square feet was the right call. There were three bidders—a high density condo developer, the people behind the Palos Verdes resort Terranea and CenterCal. None of the really big players, such as Disney, went after it, Diels said.
“What the project does is, it’s an attraction to the waterfront,” Diels said. Critics are “finding spots where a building is and saying you can’t see through it. You can’t see through the Redondo Beach Hotel either.”
When CenterCal was granted the agreement, company executives started visioning sessions, which Light called unhelpful. Some people said they wanted a market hall, and others said a pedestrian bridge, or a hotel, or a boardwalk, said John Paul Wardy, president of CenterCal.
Because of all of the restrictions that came with Measure G, CenterCal built a digital 3-D model to make sure their proposed building heights worked within the requirements.
“One of the things we’ve heard from people was that Measure G was unclear, not specific. Measure G was so specific in terms of heights and setback and view corridors, I’m not sure which part of the code those people are reading,” Wardy said.
In many ways, CenterCal has been fighting an uphill battle for the trust of people like Light. In Heart of the City he participated in the public process, and found that the city wasn’t listening to many of the people. Light believes much of the same happened in the CenterCal visioning sessions.
The branding CenterCal’s proposal a “mall by the sea” goes back to at least 2009, before the developer was a gleam in the city’s eye. A Los Angeles Times article quotes Light calling for mostly boating and marine activities, saying that it would be a shame to have a mall by the sea. It has persisted over the years, with Rescue Our Waterfront emerging as the latest grassroots group that believes too much development is planned in the harbor.
Light sees the future of the waterfront as protecting the recreational uses, and expanding anything but retail. Neighboring cities such as Manhattan Beach are hoping for a Silicon Beach effect, adding tech companies and start ups into their area, which brings less tourist traffic.
There are also debates over what “400,000 square feet of new development” means. Rescue Our Waterfront argues that parking should be included, in which case the developer is over the limit. CenterCal doesn’t see it that way, because parking doesn’t generate activity. Cities count square feet that generates activity, Wardy said.
Light’s problems with Measure G are primarily because he knew a developer would take wide license with the terms.
“They didn’t put the teeth in,” he said.
Not including Seaside Lagoon as part of Measure G is an example, he cites. The city did include a public boat launch in the measure, which will currently be near Seaside Lagoon. Webb said zoning language is typically broad, and history is what helps define language further.
The bottom line about Measure G is that it was not done in a vacuum, said Mayor Steve Aspel. The project has been nearly 20 years coming, and it’s time to keep moving, he said.
The power of the people
Redondo Beach isn’t unique in terms of its measure. Nearly every community in California has ballot initiatives that help determine zoning, which can be extremely divisive.
“It’s more the latest cities (ballot box zoning) has spread to. It didn’t start here, but it’s just sort of spread,” Webb said.
Rescue Our Waterfront is already halfway to its $30,000 goal for its ballot initiative. Though a ballot initiative technically doesn’t cost money, the language should go through a lawyer before it’s submitted to the city. The city attorney’s office then reviews the ballot initiative and gives comments and a summary as part of the process.
And, after a signature drive, it goes to a vote. Light is confident there will be another initiative, and blamed the leaders at City Hall for not listening to residents.
Aspel said people are weary of voting.
“They’re getting weary of voting on the same thing over and over again. If they want to have an initiative, I have no doubt this initiative will lose,” Aspel said.
Webb sees it as part of the effect of ballot box zoning—meaning zoning that goes to the vote of the people.
“Those who oppose it say most residents are way too busy living their lives to make a fully formed decision,” Webb said. “People who support the process say it gets preempted by people with money, gets preempted by people with developers, and that’s what ends up happening without voter approval is that you get overbuilding.”