Campus Clash: Healthy Living Campus draws flak in Redondo Beach
After five years of plans, modifications and opposition, the Beach Cities Health District’s proposed Healthy Living Campus approaches a decision point
by Garth Meyer
Last September, Beach Cities Health District CEO Tom Bakaly, and the district’s Community Services Director Melissa Andrizzi-Sobel, knocked on the doors of neighbors with blue and white StopBCHD signs in their yards.
A few days later the two made follow-up visits to the homes they missed on their first outing.
StopBCHD is a grassroots movement that is against the health district’s proposed Healthy Living Campus.
Bakaly reported he and Andrizzi-Sobel went to 20 houses on their first trip, and talked to residents at 15 of them.
“We had a great dialogue and interchange with all but three,” he said. “Three people were not happy to see me, let’s put it that way.”
Last summer, the BCHD board unanimously approved an agreement with a San Diego real estate developer, to build a six-story, 217-unit senior assisted living facility. Revenue from the project would help fund the BCHD’s 40-plus, mostly free, community health programs.
In November, an opponent of the Campus ran for an at-large seat on the BCHD board against two incumbents.
Election day arrived and the challenger was swept aside.
Mark Nelson, a former member of the 15-member Healthy Living Campus Advisory Group, and defacto leader of StopBCHD, has maintained a stream of emails, public records requests, letters to the editor of local newspapers and online posts.
His records requests to the Beach Cities Health District have totaled more than 1,100.
Last July, CEO Bakaly issued a public request of his own, to Nelson and other StopBCHD supporters, for a face-to-face meeting.
Nelson declined, saying he would focus his efforts on the cities of Torrance, which borders the health district property, and the Redondo Beach planning commission, which will be the first, and perhaps only city board to rule on the Campus proposal.
An artist’s rendering of the proposed Healthy Living Campus, from the view above the intersection of Beryl Street and Flagler Lane. The Vons shopping center is at middle right. Courtesy of BCHD
The Redondo city council will only review the (conditional use permit) application if the planning commission’s decision is appealed.
“My prediction is it will go to the city council no matter what. Whatever the planning commission decides, someone will appeal,” said Mike Martin, the BCHD challenger in November.
He received 7,720 votes. Dr. Michaell Bholat drew 29,273 and Dr. Noel Chun 27,139 votes, the two incumbents.
“I ran so people who wanted to register a protest vote had a place to do it,” said Martin, a retired aerospace systems engineer/manager.
“The 7,700 people who voted for me presumably knew what was going on. It’s CenterCal all over again,” he said, referring to the failed King Harbor development.
“BCHD should go out and get more grants (for their funding) like normal health agencies. If they spent as much time going after grants as they do (on plans for the Campus) they’d be awash in money.”
He mentioned affordable housing as a possible use for the hospital site.
“There’s a lot of uses for public land around here, and not much public land,” he said.
BCHD is a “special assessment district” formed in 1955 to build South Bay Hospital. It opened in 1960 and closed in 1998. The district is funded in part by Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach property taxes.
The District land represents 11 acres of prime south Redondo property. The bluff was formerly a pig farm.
Nelson said he is not opposed to the concept of a Healthy Living Campus.
“Smaller, shorter, wider; and you need to get away from the edges of the property,” he said. “Do two to three stories, back from the street, with a buffer of green space and parking. That works.”
He has lived near the property since before the hospital closed.
“Most of us neighbors didn’t like all the traffic from the emergency room. But we recognized that a 24/7 ER had value, and could save our kids and parents in the event of an accident or acute illness,” Nelson said. “When the hospital closed, we were left with the noise and traffic, and none of the benefits.”
The inkling for the Healthy Living Campus started in 2009 with board meetings with a consultant on how to sustain the BCHD’s many services.
In 2017, one year after Bakaly became BCHD’s CEO, the district solicited public input on the Campus idea in a meeting at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.
“They are their own entity, they have their own elected board, it’s kind of like a school district,” said City Councilman Christian Horvath, in whose district the Campus site is located.
A risk assessment of the former hospital building found it will be safe to occupy for another three to five years.
“The building would have to come down (at that point),” Bakaly said. “As long as I’m CEO, it will be my recommendation to take it down.”
Nelson contends that the Healthy Living Campus requires approval by voters because part of it will be for a privately-operated senior living facility. The vote requirement will be triggered by the change from public to private use, Nelson argues.
Measure DD, passed in 2008 – in reaction to the failed “Heart of the City” harbor redevelopment plan – calls for a public vote on “a major change to allowable land use.”
The council in May  passed zoning that addressed inconsistencies left over from the failed “Heart of the City” harbor redevelopment plan. The HOC plan called for 1.6 million sq. ft. of new commercial and residential development, while a former specific plan for the area had called for 324,000 sq. ft. of commercial development. The council put a 400,000 sq. ft. commercial development cap in place.
The area has at least two pending projects – an as yet undisclosed redevelopment of the Redondo Beach Marina by its new leaseholder, Decron Properties, and a Shade “boutique” hotel that local entrepreneur Mike Zislis is negotiating to build.
Members of the group that supported Measure DD, Building a Better Redondo, told the council that such a zoning change is exactly what voters had in mind when they approved the initiative.
In 2016, voters approved the Kensington Assisted Living and Memory Care, on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach, which was leased from the Redondo Unified School District.
Bakaly counters that the proposed senior living facility does not represent a change of use because the district already leases to Silverado Memory Care, a senior living facility in the old hospital building.
Redondo Beach City Attorney Mike Webb said this week he has not prepared an opinion on the land use issue.
“The district’s legal opinion (2019) did not provide sufficient detail to make a determination,” he said. “And the city hasn’t received a project application from BCHD.”
The BCHD request for a conditional use permit – required to build – is expected to be filed in early 2023. Bakaly said he’s hopeful it will be decided by the Planning Commission in the summer. Last month the city council voted to retain consultants to review the application.
“In my opinion, it’s a fairly technical review, regarding findings of fact and conclusions of law,” Bakaly said. “It goes from 60 units today (at Silverado) to 217; it’s a new conditional use permit. We’re not updating an old one.”
Bakaly said the two biggest concerns he heard when he knocked on opponents’ doors were about the proposed location of an electrical yard/substation for the Campus, and the height of the new building.
“The height is going to go down some from the Master Plan,” he said.
Another StopBCHD complaint is the anticipated $11,000 – $12,000 monthly rent for the senior assisted living units.
“I think people should reserve judgment on the costs until they see the actual proposal,” Bakaly said. “We’ll see some changes in pricing as part of the conditional use permit (application).”
He noted that 10 percent of the units will be below market value.
In November, Bakaly was named “Man of the Year” by the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce. He credited the award to the BCHD staff, and the board’s “unprecedented response to COVID.”
The district ran the “Safe in the South Bay” program during the height of the pandemic, and helped the Chamber re-launch the Super Bowl 10k last February.
Bakaly grew up in Pasadena, and went to Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where he was a history and political science major. He served as the city manager of Park City, Utah for 10 years. Before he was the BCHD CEO, he spent four years as the Hermosa Beach city manager.
Former councilmember’s view
Bob Pinzler, a District Four (North Redondo) city councilman from 1993-2001, described the proposed Healthy Living Campus as “mission creep” in an Easy Reader letter to the editor last year.
Does he still believe that?
“On steroids,” he said. ”You’ve got to go back to the history of the district… the hospital soon became obsolete, it ended up being a white elephant… The State legislature allowed hospital districts to become health districts. Since then the BCHD has been trying to figure out a reason for being.”
“They mismanaged this property to the point that it is necessary to do something. The buildings are crumbling. They are not up to earthquake standards,” Pinzler said. “The finances don’t work. I told them 30 years ago to go to the people to ask if the hospital district should change to a health district (or disband.”)
He suggests STOPBCHD is on to something.
“Mark (Nelson) may have pestered them with a lot of public records requests (but) he has gotten to the core of the issue,” said Pinzler. “They are basically giving away public land for private use.”
The Campus idea itself brings a few more concerns.
“The proposal is not only problematic, it’s unsafe,” Pinzler said. “A hillside is in danger of collapse. There’s a school close by. Noise and dust from the building pollution will waft towards them… The only potential use for that land is a park.”
“I don’t think Bakaly is a bad manager. But he’s in a desperate situation,” he said. “He’s charged by the board to save the district. It’s not his fault, he’s been dealt a bad hand.”
The former councilman blamed the health district’s current situation on “delusions of grandeur” by previous BCHD boards and administrators.
“They decided they wanted to be more than they needed to be. Their primary assets were buildings and the buildings are falling down. This is their fault,” he said. “You should’ve had buildings that would’ve been useable for repurposing.”
The BCHD has expanded from its original mission, he maintains, without a public vote to do so, and built a “bloated management infrastructure requiring them to do this project to survive.”
“The district has evolved to meet the health needs of the community,” Bakaly said.
In defense of its management, Bakaly said, “Our personnel is 50 percent of our budget, which is way lower than most cities, at 60 to 70 (percent).”
BCHD has 46 full-time, and 63 part-time employees. Property taxes of $4.5 million provide one-third of the district’s $14.5 million annual budget. Another third comes from leases, and the final third from user fees, partnerships and grants.
Phase One construction of the Campus, if approved, may begin in late 2023, and be completed in 2026. Phase Two, if funded, would likely run from 2030 – 2033.
The view from the board
BCHD board president Dr. Noel Chun was re-elected to his fifth-term this fall.
“I don’t anticipate approval of the conditional use permit being a problem,” he said. “… You can look at the results of the election to show that we have a mandate to do this project.”
He questions the detractors’ arguments.
“Mark Nelson is a rather vexatious person. There is absolutely no way to appease Mark Nelson,” Chun said, and disputed Pinzler’s charge that the hospital building has been poorly taken care of.
“We have maintained that building meticulously. It was a hospital, it’s 60 years old. Buildings like that become obsolete over time,” said Chun.
The anesthesiologist added that building codes make hospitals prone to becoming obsolete sooner than other types of structures.
The BCHD’s two newer buildings would remain if the Healthy Living Campus is built. Only the former hospital would be torn down.
Chun also disputes the claim that rents for the proposed senior living were too high for health district residents.
“By far the wealthiest communities in the service area, outside of Palos Verdes, are Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach,” he said.
He added that those from outside who may move in would likely be parents and grandparents of beach cities’ residents.
If not, what?
If the project does not happen, Bakaly said BCHD services would be cut by 15 to 17 percent.
“We’re generating revenue to fund our free programs,” he said.
The lease with PMB – the San Diego-based real estate developer – is for 65 years, with the option of two 15-year extensions.
The district’s 510 Prospect Avenue building has a long-term lease, ending in 2030. The 520 Prospect Avenue building is on a lease for another 40 years.
The proposed Campus’ main, six-story building would house the 217 assisted living units, as well as an outpatient “PACE Program” for the elderly and Community Services for older adults. Allcove, the mental health/wellness center for adolescents and young adults, would be another tenant of the main building.
“What we have is a Master Plan. Let’s reserve judgment until everyone sees what it is exactly we are applying for,” Bakaly said. “We are a public agency and we will figure it out together.” ER