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A TALE OF TWO CITIES : Shape of Things to Come : Developers See a Coastal Village, but Others Fear a Civic Center Run Amok


MALIBU — Even if it didn't involve one of the most ambitious coastal development projects to come along in years, the struggle over Malibu's main commercial area would be an epic event.

It pits a local Establishment whose ardor for slow growth has not cooled in 2 1/2 years of self-rule against real estate developers eager to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build on a 125-acre swatch of mostly undeveloped land surrounded by hills and ocean.

Like a huge belt buckle, the area of Malibu's civic center is the only physical break in the community's narrow, 20-mile corridor of bluffs, beaches and canyons.

A group of developers that includes the powerful Konheim and Perenchio families and Pepperdine University see it as the perfect place for what some say could be the most significant new coastal settlement this side of Carmel Village.

Their vision calls for a mix of bungalows, estate homes, apartments and condominiums for up to 1,500 people interspersed with shops and offices built around a sprawling village green.

It would be a community drawn together by trails, promenades and a meandering mile-long creek linking several restored wetlands that would also double as an outlet for an innovative treated waste-water system.

"Malibu's always been the kind of place where if you don't know it, you could drive through and end up asking directions in Oxnard," developer John Perenchio said. "We want to give the community a core, a heart."

Sound nice?

Not to critics, who appear to include most of Malibu's elected officials.

Opponents reject the argument that creating the village would generate less traffic and air pollution than if the area were more fully developed as a commercial center, as current zoning permits.

But where Perenchio and partner Lyn Konheim see a neo-traditional village designed by San Francisco planner Peter Calthorpe, whom they commissioned for the project, others see noise, gridlock and a host of other ills, real or imagined.

"They want to put an awful lot of people in one place without regard for our (rural) character," said Richard Powell, who heads an opposition group that calls itself TRUTH. "We don't think it will work."

Another opponent, architect Richard Sole, describes the proposal as a city within a city and says that although it might make the developers lots of money, it isn't what most Malibu residents want.

"People who live here see the future development of that area as a civic and cultural center," he said. "Just what form that might take is open to interpretation, but it certainly isn't 800 homes in close proximity to a retail center."

Others who say they are at least willing to hear the developers' ideas attribute the zealous opposition to narrow-mindedness and old-fashioned NIMBY-ism (as in Not In My Back Yard).

"People who might at least consider it are afraid to speak up," community activist Sara Wan said. "They're afraid the minute they do they'll be branded pro-development, which in Malibu is akin to being labeled a Communist in the '50s."

In a community where astronomical land values have fueled bitter clashes over development, the conflict over the civic center has easily become the most rancorous land-use issue since Malibu gained independence from Los Angeles County in 1991.

It began last year and exploded in February after the City Council enacted a controversial interim zoning law that promoters of the village concept say is an anathema to their plans.

By state law, new cities normally have up to 2 1/2 years to adopt a General Plan to serve as a blueprint for development. Malibu's time limit expires this month. City officials have asked for a year's extension. They say they hope to finish work on the document during the first half of 1994.

The interim law, ostensibly designed as a stop-gap measure, outlawed residential development in the civic center, prohibited new multifamily housing throughout Malibu and placed strict limits on other kinds of development.

Fearful that such elements will be included in the General Plan, the Malibu Village Civic Assn., consisting of 16 civic center property owners, sued the city in April, asking that the ordinance be overturned.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has scheduled a trial to start Nov. 12.

The lawsuit alleges numerous violations of state environmental law in the way the ordinance was drafted and contends that the City Council should not have approved it without preparing an expensive and time-consuming environmental report.

Malibu officials insist that they acted properly and accuse the plaintiffs of making a mockery of environmental law.

"They're not suing us because we've committed a crime against the planet," Deputy City Atty. Christi Hogan said. "They're suing because they want to reap huge profits on land the city conscientiously is trying to protect."

Elected officials have been similarly plain-spoken.

"They're trying to bully us into meeting their demands," Councilman Walter Keller said. "They're trying to wear us down financially."

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