The Cult of Personality: Re-envisioning Southern California Waterfronts

Cities, counties and port districts are rushing to revitalize harbor areas, but will everyone benefit?

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA — One of California’s greatest assets is its waterfront, be it where land meets ocean or at one of the state’s many inland waterways. Public access to any stretch of coast within California is not only a birthright but also a way of life. The California coast is both admired and loved, as if it were a cult of personality.

Yet has our birthright and love of the coast become such an integral part of our lives and lifestyles as to make local waterfronts an attractive destination for new, large-scale development? Will such renewed efforts to redevelop destinations along our urban coast be devoid of local flavor and uniqueness?

Large stretches of California’s coast, to be fair, have already been saturated with development, be it large swaths of homes or a series of commercial destinations. Anyone navigating along the Southern California coast would be hard pressed to find a significant stretch of undeveloped coast between Ventura and Tijuana.

Of course much of Southern California’s coastal development occurred between the late 1950s and early 1970s. Many waterfront locales, accordingly, are becoming ripe for redevelopment. The combination of high property values in coastal communities, booming population centers within a few miles of any given beach and a sustainable waterfront economy certainly translates into big budget developers eyeing specific enclaves for redevelopment or revitalization.

The series of $64,000 questions in all of this: will these redevelopment projects significantly replace what some might consider as local charm with something bland or generic? Or will the updated urban design actually bring new character to a dated development? How will all the changes affect boaters?

We’re already seeing some of these questions play out at just about every harbor or marina between Ventura and Chula Vista.

A new hotel development is slated for Ventura Harbor, while Ventura County officials have been trying to revitalize Channel Islands Harbor for more than a decade.

Los Angeles County’s Department of Beaches and Harbors, meanwhile, has been redeveloping segments of Marina del Rey, with other revitalization projects still on tap.

Plans to redevelop Redondo Beach’s King Harbor hit a significant hitch when local voters essentially stopped a large-scale development known as The Waterfront.

The city of Los Angeles, conversely, shut down a marina in San Pedro as officials there are preparing to convert the harbor area into a San Francisco-like destination.

Another revitalization plan has been in the works for Orange County’s Dana Point in 1997, but substantive work on the waterfront has not yet started.

Multiple plans are in play down in San Diego County, where the local port district hopes to finalize redevelopment plans at Chula Vista Harbor, Harbor Island and the downtown waterfront within the next few years.

Each redevelopment has its share of skeptics and critics, with some claiming a given project is out of touch with community character or personality. Such voices were loud in Redondo Beach and Newport Beach, where proposals to renovate King Harbor and Mariners’ Mile, respectively, met significant resistance from local residents who disagreed with design plans.

Newport Beach planners, for example, have struggled to update the Mariners’ Mile waterfront as certain corners of the city do not want any redevelopment plans to erase the village’s maritime themes.

Antiquity is already at a premium in Southern California. The number of historic landmarks reminding us of Los Angeles’ or San Diego’s past are few and far between. Plans to execute full-scale updates of local waterfronts could be interpreted as the latest attempt to modernize Southern California’s urban footprint. It is fair to say change is good. It is also fair to question whether such changes come at the expense of personality and uniqueness.

Here’s an overview of what’s going on at some of these harbors and waterfronts, as well as a few perspectives of whether future development would chip away from local history.

Catalina Island

One of the most beloved destinations for Southern California boaters is across the channel at Catalina Island. The island’s two major anchors – Avalon and Two Harbors – are unique cultures onto themselves.

Two Harbors, for starters, is quite the remote village. The tiny enclave is home to one restaurant, one general store, one partially operating schoolhouse, one yacht club, one bed-and-breakfast and one beachfront resort.

Santa Catalina Island Co. opened Harbor Sands, the village’s beachfront resort, earlier this year. Opinions of the resort were all over the place. Some told The Log it was a pleasant change and opened the door for those who otherwise would not have known about Two Harbors to experience the tiny enclave. Others complained it ruined Two Harbors’ quaint and quite persona with the creation of a trendy tourist attraction.

On the other side of the island is Avalon, where only a handful of franchised or chained businesses (U.S. Bank, Holiday Inn, Bluewater Grill) exist. Part of Avalon’s charm is the positively disproportionate number of locally owned businesses.

Yet Avalon is not immune from the realities of Southern California’s recent surge of waterfront redevelopment. City leaders and staff discussed the future of Avalon earlier this year, broaching how to maintain the city’s personality and uniqueness while potentially allowing some big box entities to establish a presence on the island.

Avalon City Manager David Jinkens, at a City Council meeting in October 2016, urged municipalities to strike some sort of balance between pursuing big box corporate interests and maintaining local personality in redevelopment projects.

Jinkens, in an email to The Log, reiterated his position almost one year later.

“Not all change is bad. Not all change is good. The key to the long-term success of a community is how it changes,” Jinkens told The Log. “The key to success is maintaining what is good, creating opportunity for locals to prosper and live in the community, and sharing the benefit of the island economy.”

He added the city is currently considering several capital improvements, balancing several interests along the way.

“City government is examining ways to improve traffic circulation in town, improve recreation spaces and programs, better regulate the size and type of vehicle, create pedestrian and bicycle opportunities, examine solar energy and encouraging alternate fuel vehicles, improve pedestrian walkways, improve public transit accessibility and availability, and develop a long-term plan for the harbor,” Jinkens stated.

The one element of Avalon’s character Jinkens hopes remains the same amidst pending change is the boating community.

“The boating community has been a great friend of Avalon over many decades. Boaters and fishermen contribute a great deal to the community and have been loyal and generous supporters of Avalon,” Jinkens said. “They are an added value to the community by their visits, and they enhance our ability to gain the attention of our fine legislators and regulators.”

Redondo Beach & Long Beach

El Segundo-based developer CenterCal Properties was certainly no stranger to the challenges of redeveloping local waterfronts. CenterCal was the company behind a proposed $300 million revitalization of Redondo Beach’s King Harbor.

The project recently stalled after years of planning and community meetings. Redondo Beach voters approved a slow growth themed ballot measure during an election earlier this year, basically putting the brakes on CenterCal’s “The Waterfront” project.

Those who campaigned against The Waterfront claimed the redevelopment project was essentially an oversized mall on the waterfront. Naturally CenterCal held its ground, stating The Waterfront reflected the input it received from Redondo Beach as a whole.

What eventually happens at King Harbor remains to be seen – city officials are still debating where, if anywhere, a boat launch ramp should be placed. The city appears to be moving forward with a plan to upgrade and modernize a dilapidated sportfishing pier.

Yet CenterCal isn’t entirely out of the picture, so a lot could still happen in the coming months and/or years.

CenterCal’s other Southern California project – 2nd and PCH – proposes to bring a visitor serving retail center across the street from Alamitos Bay Marina in Long Beach. The 2nd and PCH project is still in the early stages of development – CenterCal hopes to be in front of the Long Beach City Council this month. However the developer believes, just as it did in Redondo Beach, the redevelopment project is an amalgamation of community and business interests.

Fred Bruning, CenterCal’s CEO, said the 2nd and PCH project aims to gauge the needs of the surrounding community and determine what would constitute a “successful” project.

“One of the worst things that can happen to a community is the project is unsuccessful,” Bruning told The Log.

The CenterCal CEO said his team does make an effort to find out what the local community seeks to include in a project. Bruning said his team generally creates a project combining the community’s desires with aesthetic design.

The 2nd and PCH project, for example, would be where locals can come together at a gathering place and take in views of the marina while eating a meal or drinking some wine.

CenterCal President Jean Paul Wardy said the 2nd and PCH project would include a number of local tenants who represent Long Beach’s character and personality.

“Long Beach has a very strong and unique identity and you want to bring that forward in the project,” Wardy told The Log, adding the project would certainly include a mix of local tenants and regional (or big box) businesses.

Whole Foods, for example, is expected to be the anchor tenant for 2nd and PCH.

“We really oriented the entire project to the water,” Wardy continued, adding the center’s pedestrian walkways and restaurants open up with views to the water.

Bruning added the needs of boaters would certainly factor into the final tenant mix, as Alamitos Bay Marina would literally be just beyond the shadows of 2nd and PCH.

Building a project so big as to bring more traffic and housing into an area already near its density limits is a problem most cities face when considering redevelopment projects like The Waterfront and 2nd and PCH, according to Redondo Beach City Council member Nils Nehrenheim.

How does a city, for example, bring in new commercial traffic without creating gridlock on local streets? Can a redevelopment project create self-sustaining open space and recreational areas?

End of the day it’s all about striking balance between big box brands and homegrown personalities, Nehrenheim said.


“One of the many things I have heard many times over is that we don’t want to become Santa Monica, or the Westside. We don’t have any major public transportation projects coming our way anytime soon. People come to Redondo Beach now for the charm, if we build what we have grown on we will be successful,” Nehrenheim told The Log.“Body Glove was founded here, many big time surfers, swimmers, athletes [are from here]. They don’t come here for the movie theaters (which we only have one of), much less for a mall by the sea.

“No one minds a few good restaurants that come from big names: Ruby’s, Chart house, El Torito. People don’t want more Best Buy’s, Abercrombie, etc.,” Nehrenheim continued.

San Diego

Waterfront redevelopment plans are aplenty in San Diego, where the local port district identified Chula Vista Harbor, a portion of Harbor Island and a stretch of downtown for modernization as ripe for updating.

The port district, in November 2016, selected 1HWY1 to create a “world-class destination” along 70 acres of Downtown San Diego’s waterfront. Preliminary plans include a 480-foot tall observation tower – as to redefine San Diego’s waterfront skyline – butterfly exhibition, three hotel properties, retail space, office spaces, charter school offering marine education, marina dockage for 24 mega-yachts and 51 commercial vessels, and 82 recreational boats at Tuna Harbor.

Also in motion are plans to develop a large hotel project adjacent to Chula Vista’s marinas, multiple transient properties at the east end of Harbor Island (one of San Diego’s largest boating areas) and conversions of two long-standing restaurants into modern eateries operated by The Brigantine.

Port district staff stated the Port Act and Public Trust Doctrine guides the pursuit of any sort of developments along San Diego’s waterfront.

“The Port Act and Public Trust Doctrine limit the type of uses/establishments that can be leased on tidelands around San Diego Bay,” Marguerite Elicone, a Port of San Diego spokesperson, said in an email to The Log. “With respect to retail, there is not a list of prohibited retail establishments or uses.”

Retail uses on tidelands, however, must benefit the public at large, Elicone added.

“Retail must be visitor-serving in that it accommodates or enhances the public’s ability to enjoy the tidelands, or it must be water-related (such as the yacht brokers, marine supplies),” the Port of San Diego spokesperson stated. “The Public Trust Doctrine has been interpreted as prohibiting non-water retail that is ‘neighborhood-serving’ (such as supermarkets, department stores) that serve general rather than specifically Public Trust-related functions. It is examined on a case-by-case basis.”

Elicone pointed out the public is “always invited to participate” during outreach meetings and provide comments on proposed waterfront projects.

The port district’s five-year planning process – which is about halfway complete – also aims to “ensure a holistic, thoughtful and balanced approach to future land and water uses” for nearly 6,000 acres of planned development within the agency’s jurisdiction and along the San Diego Bayfront, Elicone continued.

Marina del Rey

Plenty of change is in store for boaters in Marina del Rey, what with redevelopment plans in place or already in motion at Parcel 44, Fisherman’s Village and several local marinas. Opponents of Marina del Rey’s multi-phased development have long argued owners of smaller vessels are being phased out as new projects go online.

Los Angeles County, which governs Marina del Rey, conducted a visioning process for Marina del Rey in 2013 and 2014. Staff from the county’s Department of Regional Planning reportedly met with various Marina del Rey stakeholders to gather input, according to officials, “develop a vision for Marina del Rey for the next 20 years.”

Marina del Rey, similar to all other waterfront locales in Southern California, took substantive shape in the 1960s. County staff, in its visioning process, stated the Marina del Rey community was in need of redevelopment since the area today is dramatically different than it was in the 1960s.

“Since it was originally created, Marina del Rey has matured, consumer tastes and recreational interests have changed, and a revised vision to guide future redevelopment is needed,” Department of Regional Planning staff stated in a vision statement for Marina del Rey’s future.

The visioning process did note a few emerging concerns from public input, such as: inadequate noticing process; public comments won’t be heard or considered; county officials do not care about the needs of the Marina del Rey community; and, new developments would move forward without public input.

Locals also stated they wanted county officials to ensure upcoming redevelopment projects would enhance boating uses and activities, ensure recreational opportunities for youth and provide as many on-the-water activities as possible for all county residents.

L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors spokesperson Carol Baker said new waterfront projects must have certain intangibles – there’s more to an approval than the tenants who would potentially fill each storefront.

“Public access to the waterfront is high priority in the Marina del Rey Local Coastal Program, so there is a big emphasis in requiring new developments to provide view corridors, waterfront promenades, and vertical accessways,” Baker told The Log.“Planners do not have authority to review a project based on the businesses that will eventually occupy the finished project.”

Any project built in Marina del Rey, Baker added, won’t go forward without meeting certain aesthetic requirement imposed by the county’s Design Control Board, or DCB. Maintaining a set of aesthetic requirements for impending projects, according to Baker, is part of an effort to maintain some level of uniqueness in Marina del Rey.

“The DCB reviews the aesthetics of all proposed projects as they relate to site design, architecture, lighting and landscaping. Some of the DCB’s design goals, as outlined in the Marina del Rey Design Guidelines, are to ‘establish world-class design that creates a unique character within Marina del Rey and enhances the visitor experience’ and ‘encourage development design that complements the unique surrounding environment and improves the perception of the Marina as a functioning harbor,’” Baker said.

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5 thoughts on “The Cult of Personality: Re-envisioning Southern California Waterfronts

  • Pingback: The Cult of Personality: Re-Envisioning Southern California Waterfronts - Sea Magazine

  • it’s too late Just take a trip down P.C.H.(101) Old charm is gone Houses and big development everywhere SAD. Good Bye “good old days”

  • Jay Becker

    Thanks for bringing this up. There seems to be a lot of development proposals aimed at generating more revenue for the local political governing body i.e. county or city that controls the port but little thought for the boaters. I think we just aren’t politicized enough. Minor correction: the “Little Red Schoolhouse” at Two Harbors has been closed for a couple of years now.

  • You wrote “It is fair to say change is good. It is also fair to question whether such changes come at the expense of personality and uniqueness.” It is IMPERATIVE to ask if waterfront change will promote recreational access TO AND ON the WATER – not just shopping and dining and what-have-you ALONG THE WATER FRONT. California has a lot of coastline. It doesn’t have a lot of harbors – which are the entrance to the ocean for boaters – whether their boats are yachts, kayaks, SUPs, whale-watch vessels, fishing excursions, mega-yachts, tall ships or even cruise ships. Whole Foods, movie theaters, dining establishments, hotels – they don’t have to be in Tidelands to have a view….they can be adjacent, or even blocks away. Recreational access is being lost in favor of tourist tax dollars and it doesn’t HAVE to be that way.

  • Wayne Craig

    To the people of Long Beach, why would you want to continue to work with a company that can’t even follow through with their contract obligations?

    After just 9 months the City of Redondo Beach formally terminated CenterCal’s contract anticipating its 99-year proposed lease for their mall in our harbor. This termination resulted from CenterCal’s multiple contract violations in the first few months that were never corrected. While this contract termination is yet another win for Redondo residents, the battle isn’t over, as CenterCal will most likely continue to sue everyone.

    Seeing what they have done in Redondo Beach, are you sure it’s something you want to experience first hand as well? All I can say is I hope you have good legal representation you may need it.



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