Linda Rhodes, Eric Metz and Bob Dahl stood atop a dirt mound that once served as the right of way for the old Pacific Electric interurban trolley line near Culver City, perusing via binoculars six great blue herons that had set down in a small coastal marsh nearby.
The herons moved about with seeming nonchalance, isolated from the humans by several hundred feet of muck and weeds. Slowly, they cavorted before a backdrop of the masts of passing sailboats, strangely disembodied from their invisible hulls by a wall separating the marsh from the yachting channel of nearby Marina del Rey.
The place itself is called the Ballona (pronounced in the Spanish way, " buy-owna ") Wetlands, an area of somewhere between 175 and 325 acres, depending on who is measuring, that has become one of the most hotly disputed pieces of real estate in L.A. County. It is sandwiched, sort of, between Playa del Rey, Marina del Rey, Westchester and Culver City. Culver and Jefferson boulevards run right through it and Lincoln Boulevard is its natural eastern boundary.
From the south, the ceaseless screech of jet engines from L.A. International Airport interfered with conversation and, surrounding the little marsh, automobile traffic and other signs of human habitation gave the area a decidedly abused, urban wasteland flavor.
The ground is littered with broken glass and Styrofoam, chunks of which intruded on a lively procession of tiny fiddler crabs scurrying about in such large numbers that the earth appeared to be moving. The species is distinctive both because of its size--fiddlers are often just a half inch across--and because of flashes of claw, which produce a white arm in a jerky movement that suggests the drawing of a bow across violin strings.
From the right-of-way vantage point, next to some pilings that remain from the old Red Car days, Rhodes, Metz and Dahl took all this in contemplatively, aware of the certain urban irony that had brought them together. They have been assembled by the National Audubon Society essentially to rebuild a swamp. According to the most preliminary of plans, the society hopes this regenerated swamp will attract as many as 994,000 visitors a year.
Sometime in the next three to five years, if things go right, the dried and/or shrunken remains of what was once one of the most important natural estuaries on the West Coast will be turned back into something approaching the kind of habitat it was 135 years ago. And as part of this slimy renaissance, an interpretive center will be constructed--designed by Rhodes, project architect for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which opened last year. What may eventually be called the Audubon Wetlands at Ballona Creek is intended to make as significant an impression on Southern California as the Monterey Bay Aquarium has made in the north.
The interpretive center would be the largest such facility for study of a marsh in the country and one of just a handful of examples in the United States of aquaria and museums that concentrate specifically on the environment of the immediate area in which they are located. In that sense, the center would be like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, all of whose exhibits depict species from the bay, whose waters lap up against pilings that support the building itself.
A large part of the financing for the Ballona Wetlands project--at least $10 million for restoration of the marsh and construction of the center--will come from the Summa Corp., the vestige of Howard Hughes that was forced to accept the reclamation project in exchange for Coastal Commission authorization to develop an enormous new condominium and marina project that will surround the wetlands. The development, Playa Vista, will graft a large yacht basin onto the existing Marina del Rey complex and fill the remaining acreage outside the marsh and a contiguous buffer zone with a $1 billion development housing 20,000 people--virtually all of them decidedly upscale. Hughes and/or Summa has owned all of the land in question, including the remains of the marsh, since the 1940s.
Development of Playa Vista will end several years of hard-fought warfare between developers, who have seen the area as one of the last undeveloped parcels of coastal real estate in the area, and conservationists, who have contended much of it is too fragile to be developed without severe environmental damage.
Rhodes, whose appointment was made public earlier this week, will fill a position at Ballona equivalent to the post she held at the aquarium, where officials called her crucial to construction and development of what has become a runaway success--drawing 1.5 million visitors in its first seven months of operation.