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Marina del Rey Makeovers Put It on Course Out of 'Time Warp'

The county-owned entity is getting about $1.5 billion in residential and commercial upgrades.

January 23, 2006|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

Betty and Arthur Klapper left New York for Marina del Rey 12 years ago and never looked back. The Marina, with its boats, restaurants and international visitors, had the urbanity they craved.

Most Southern Californians "like the suburban life," said Betty, 84. "That's not our style. We want to be with people."

Los Angeles County officials hope the Klappers will get a lot more company in the years ahead.

Long-simmering plans to pump glamour back into the often-dowdy Marina and reestablish it as a major attraction for local residents and tourists are finally gaining momentum as major real estate projects there start to hit the market.

The county, which owns Marina del Rey, wants the area to become a magnet for locals and tourists the way that Venice and Santa Monica are. The county is urging Marina leaseholders to upgrade their restaurants, shopping centers, hotels and apartments -- creating a sense of style and excitement that is now lacking.

The problem: Some would-be attractions haven't been upgraded for decades. Many observers say 40-year-old Marina del Rey -- one of the county's most prime pieces of real estate -- has been stuck in the 1960s.

Its older apartment buildings are blocky, bland and lack defining architectural features. The hip stores and trendy restaurants that propel spending on the Westside are mostly absent. It's usually impractical to walk from one establishment to the next because Marina del Rey is laid out for the convenience of motorists, not pedestrians.

As a result, Marina del Rey gets only about 2 million to 5 million visitors a year, compared with an estimated 15 million at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and 16 million at the Grove shopping center in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles.

"The Marina has been sitting in a time warp," said developer Rick Caruso, who built the Grove and just completed a radical upgrade of a Marina del Rey shopping center.

"Now the whole thing is going to explode," he said.

Tom Harrison, a principal at Colony Capital, said, "People skipped around the Marina for years because there was no new product." Colony is one of several well-heeled developers that are injecting funds into upgrading the area.

Still, there is no guarantee Marina del Rey will regain its lost cachet. Local competitors for leisure spending are organized and well funded, said economist Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Long Beach, Pasadena and Santa Catalina Island all have convention bureaus marketing their attractions, he noted.

"You get lost in the barrage of messages," Kyser said.

But finally, after years of prodding, some changes are beginning to take shape at Marina del Rey.

Developers have completed the first of about $1.5 billion of property upgrades, including two shopping center makeovers and two apartment house redevelopments. More than 2,000 apartments are in the process of being replaced with new and additional units.

Fisherman's Village, Marina del Rey's signature seaside collection of shops and restaurants, will get a complete makeover with a hotel. Marina Beach, also known as Mother's Beach, will get a major expansion and revamping. Burton W. Chase Park, a popular site for public concerts, will also be expanded and the existing bike trail will be extended all the way around the marina.

A lot is at stake for the county and its taxpayers. Marina del Rey is the county's largest single source of revenue, bringing in about $33 million a year. That number should be closer to $50 million, said Roger Moliere, the county's point man for renegotiating Marina leases.

So if lessees want to renew their titles, they must make such dramatic improvements that their properties will produce substantially more income, Moliere said. He takes a hard line in negotiations, he said, telling lessees: "We would like you to scrape your site and build a new project."

The county's 400 acres in Marina del Rey belong to about 50 leaseholders on long-term contracts, most of which are starting to wind down. The county also takes a cut of apartment and boat slip rents, hotel room rentals and restaurant sales.

Marina del Rey has generally provided steady profits for leaseholders, although its apartment and boat slip occupancy declined during the economic slowdown of the early 1990s, and hoteliers are only now stabilizing from the plunge in travel that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Although their properties are practically full again, leaseholders have been reluctant to invest in upgrades without knowing whether they could keep title long enough to earn back their construction costs.

That stall in making improvements irked county officials and real estate industry observers because most of the 5,000 apartments, 5,000 boat slips and five hotels date from the 1960s -- and look like it.

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