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Not So Fast on the Marina : New mega-development plan: Who's looking after the public interest?

June 11, 1995

Last month's vote by the state Coastal Commission, approving an outrageously dense redevelopment plan for Marina del Rey, may have ended honorable efforts by many to upgrade this waterfront community while providing for growing public recreational needs. Ignoring its own staff recommendations and the wishes of marina residents, the agency approved a new master plan that will vastly increase density and the height of buildings. Now the focus shifts to county officials who must, as a first step toward bringing this California-style Gold Coast into being, renegotiate and extend the long-term leases developers already hold on county-owned property. In so doing, county supervisors can still demonstrate that they are indeed guardians of the public interest, not just of the tight cadre of marina developers who have so long and so generously provided for them.

The new plan will allow buildings of 22 stories along the harbor's western edge where three-story structures now stand. It calls for 2,500 new residential units, 1,070 new hotel rooms, 383 boat slips and much more office, restaurant and retail space. To ease the pressure on crowded Burton Chace Park, commission staff and area residents asked the agency to preserve the last 3.7 acres of open land as a park, but the panel chose not to.

The ability of developers to obtain construction financing rests on extension of the leases first approved in the early 1960s. Most leases will expire in about 30 years--too soon to make major redevelopment projects profitable enterprises in the long run. So with approval of the master plan, the county will begin confidential negotiations with developers to extend these leases by as much as another 30 years--until at least the year 2062--and, we hope, raise land and slip rental rates.

The Board of Supervisors must approve these agreements once drafted. (The board must also accept the final plan passed by the commission but board approval of a similar version last year makes that all but certain.) The board can also clearly direct that process in the public interest from the outset. Taxpayer funds created the small craft harbor as a public recreational facility and stabilized the land on which buildings now sit. Yet the county, which holds land title, has maintained rents well below market value while private landlords have charged marina residents and proprietors top-dollar rates. Could the legendary generosity of developers to the supervisors' campaign war chests account for this disparity?

The supervisors should begin by ordering a new, overdue appraisal of the value of its marina land holdings. Next, the county must insist the developers pay market rents. Only then, out of this massive development cloud, can a silver lining perhaps emerge for the county's bare treasury.

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