The Annenberg Foundation plans to build a $50-million interpretive center in the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve under an agreement to be signed Monday with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Officials aim to make the center a place for people to "come to learn how nature works and how each of them is a part of it," said Charlton H. "Chuck" Bonham, Fish and Wildlife director.
The announcement marked rare movement in the state's efforts to restore one of Southern California's few remaining wetlands and open it to the public. Activists, developers and government agencies have wrangled for decades over the fate of the 600 acres between Marina del Rey and Westchester.
One wetlands activist decried the Annenberg plan as a theft of public land slated for wildlife habitat.
"I'm shocked and disappointed that the Annenberg Foundation would even entertain the idea of destroying land acquired for wildlife habitat and using it for a building, a restaurant and a parking lot," said Marcia Hanscom, executive director of the Ballona Institute, a nonprofit corporation.
But Lisa Fimiani, executive director of Friends of Ballona Wetlands, said her group has embraced Annenberg's involvement and investment. She said that the acre proposed for the building site is in poor condition and that Annenberg plans to improve the adjoining ball fields as part of the project. "We welcome them," she said.
Officials said details of the Annenberg plan were still evolving but that key elements would include educational programs and exhibits about wetlands, human-wildlife interactions and the history of Native Americans in the area.
The 46,000-square-foot project would tentatively include an auditorium, classrooms, a public lobby, exhibits on wildlife and domestic animals, facilities for an animal adoption and care program, veterinary facilities for animals on site, retail space, parking and office space for staff. A snack bar is also a possibility.
The California State Coastal Conservancy and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission would be parties to the agreement.
This is not Annenberg's first effort to team with government on a habitat project.
In 2011, Annenberg withdrew plans to create a $50-million animal-focused educational complex on coastal city property in Rancho Palos Verdes. The proposal, submitted in 2008 after several years of preliminary discussions, was for a 51,000-square-foot facility that would have featured exhibit and classroom space and adoption suites for 10 dogs and eight cats. The idea met with opposition from Rancho Palos Verdes residents and concerns of state and federal officials.
A decade ago, the state paid $139 million in voter-approved bond money to buy what was left of the Ballona Wetlands, the last sizable coastal marsh in Los Angeles County, from Playa Capital, the developer of Playa Vista. The Ballona Wetlands deal, negotiated in part by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, saved the area from development.
The state is in the early stages of an environmental review of the wetlands area, which stretches south and west from the proposed interpretive center. The site, once owned by industrialist Howard Hughes, is home to great blue herons, burrowing owls, the El Segundo blue butterfly, voles and lizards, although its ecosystem has become degraded by exotic plants and dumping.
Talks continue on how best to restore and preserve the wetlands. Activists have made various proposals and vow to fight any plans to bulldoze invader weeds there.
Bonham and Leonard Aube, Annenberg Foundation executive director, said they hoped construction of the interpretive center could begin in 2014, depending on the timing and outcome of a required review under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Aube said the foundation would also consider providing funds for trails, lighting, parking, signage and a full- or part-time state worker at the reserve.