When it opened in 1965, Marina del Rey was a jewel of Los Angeles County, home to the largest man-made pleasure boat harbor in the world and a recreational site for county residents.
Nearly half a century later, the feather-shaped harbor south of Santa Monica is facing its midlife crisis. Sidewalks are cracked, restaurants are less full. Parking spots? Too plentiful.
But the mission to renovate the harbor — one of the few in Southern California that serve pleasure boaters — has become a battle for the future of Marina del Rey.
The issue attracted more than two dozen speakers last week to a hearing of Los Angeles County's Regional Planning Commission. Under discussion was a key part of the plan not yet approved, a change in the zoning of some parking lots to allow construction of apartments and restaurant and retail space.
On one side is L.A. County, which owns all of Marina del Rey. For a decade, the county has been seeking to develop residential and retail properties on underused parking lots. County officials also say some of the existing boat spaces in the harbor, known as slips, are too small for today's larger vessels. To accommodate the construction of larger boat slips, plans call for reducing the overall number of available slips by 10%, from 4,731 to 4,255.
A coalition of residents and longtime harbor users opposes the plans, arguing that the county is more interested in turning the marina into a cash cow than in preserving the area for recreational boating, youth sports and young families.
The opposition, both vocal and organized, is challenging the vision of Santos Kreimann, director of the county Department of Beaches and Harbors.
In his mind, the Marina del Rey of 2020 would look something like Belmont Shore in Long Beach or the Redondo Beach Pier — attracting visitors with lively shops and restaurants, allowing them to stroll on the promenade, take a boat ride or kayak. New apartment buildings, restaurants and shops could replace under-utilized parking lots, and a senior housing complex would be built.
The plan for renovating the slips calls for moving some boats into dry-stack storage, in which a crane would lift motorized vessels out of the water and move them into a large warehouse.
Critics say that reducing the number of slips for small vessels would merely squeeze out boaters who are not wealthy.
Increasing lease revenue to the county is part of the factor in the development, long backed by county Supervisor Don Knabe, whose district includes the marina.
"Revenue generation is an important element, but so is the quality of life, look and feel of the marina. If you don't take care of it, it will be problematic," Kreimann said.
At the hearing in downtown Los Angeles last week, some companies that lease boat slips to owners expressed support for the county. Jennifer Carter, who represents some of those companies, said her fiance's 32-foot, half-century-old boat "barely fits the width of the slip."
"Even our little 1960s boat doesn't really fit the 1960s marina. Marina del Rey should be brought into the 21st century," Carter said.
Critics were particularly upset about the fate of the parking lot next to the north end of Mother's Beach, a quiet spot deep in the harbor that's a favorite launch location for kayakers, canoers and other rowers.
The county wants to turn the adjacent beach location — now occupied by a restaurant and a 191-space parking lot — into a three-building complex, home to restaurants, 292 apartment units and 32,400 square feet of retail space. Sixty-nine parking spaces would remain.
The United States Rowing Assn. has waded into the dispute. The location of Mother's Beach "promotes safe entry to the water and a quiet training venue," Glenn Merry, the association's chief executive officer, wrote in a letter to commissioners.
He criticized a proposed alternative spot closer to motorized boats. "Serious safety concerns loom for rowers, especially those with limited experience, when confronted with large vessels," Merry wrote.
Kreimann disagreed that kayakers would be at risk, saying that small boats generally launch early in the morning, while sailboats and power boats launch later, in warmer weather and when the wind is stronger.
Steven Cho, an outrigger paddler, said the plan, which would reduce parking spaces at the northern edge of Mother's Beach by 64%, could require boaters to transport their vessels greater distances.
"The other lots are a quarter mile away," Cho said.
"Are we doing the mandate for Marina del Rey, which was to bring … boating and recreation to all of L.A.?" Shelli Place asked the commissioners. "Or are we adding more residences and making it more exclusive?"