Mixed feelings on development in Redondo Beach
City planners laud mixed-use projects as a way to more affordable, vibrant neighborhoods. Critics call it another form of overdevelopment.
by David Mendez
Andy and Arinna Shelby love where they live.
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The couple, who moved into Andy’s South Redondo townhouse at the 1800 S. Pacific Coast Highway six years ago, can’t imagine a better place in all the South Bay for their lifestyle. Their townhouse is part of a mixed-use development, a gated walk street community featuring 98 homes atop a row of street level restaurants and retail in close proximity to everything the Shelbys need.
“We’re walking all the time,” Andy said, as he and his wife sat at in Riviera Village’s Coffee Cartel. The couple often walk from their home, set above a parking garage and a row of commercial units, to the Village for groceries, food and, according to Arinna, “Yogurtland, at least once a week.”
There is, though, one downside to their home’s location: traffic. The volume of cars, and inattentive drivers, makes their trips to the Village occasionally fraught with danger.
“We literally feel like we take our lives in our own hands when we cross that intersection, and that’s with traffic as it is now,” Arinna said. “Add a huge, bulky, dense development to the corner, and that’s going to add greatly to the traffic and danger for pedestrians.”
The Shelbys are members of “Save the Riviera,” a neighborhood organization composed of citizens from South Redondo and Torrance united by one goal: keeping their neighborhood the beautiful, beach-going community that they moved into years ago by attempting to keep out developments that they feel are “inappropriate for the community,” said Save the Riviera’s Amy Josefek.
Their biggest concern? Mixed-use developments, such as the recently-approved SeaBreeze Plaza, at 1914-1926 S. Pacific Coast Highway, or the pending Legado Redondo project, at 1700 S. Pacific Coast Highway, the current site of the Palos Verdes Inn.
Neighbors say that these projects represent overdevelopment, allowing for too much residential density and an untenable increase in traffic.
They have a champion on the Redondo Beach City Council. District 2 councilman Bill Brand argues that the city’s mixed-use zoning regulations are broken, and easily exploited by developers looking to make a quick buck at the expense of Redondo’s citizens.
City staff, however, see mixed-use as an opportunity to re-energize flagging commercial corridors, reducing traffic and bringing city streets to life while giving more people an opportunity to affordably live in desirable neighborhoods.
Higher residential density is part of mixed-use, staff reports acknowledge — but the potential for civic development and improvement is worth the trade.
“People are tired of having to having to use their cars all the time, trying to commute, and it’s difficult for the city to achieve a jobs and housing balance,” said Redondo Beach Civic Development Director Aaron Jones. “It’s a little more realistic to take trips off of streets by having shops and services close to residential.”
What is mixed-use?
Mixed-use development, as Jones put it in his presentation to the Redondo Beach City Council earlier this month, is “an association of uses forming an important relationship with one another.”
Redondo’s first stated goal with mixed-use, as written in the city’s zoning ordinance, is “to encourage residential uses in conjunction with commercial activities in order to create an active street life, enhance the vitality of businesses and reduce vehicular traffic.”
As Jane Jacobs writes in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” mixed uses are often the heart of a thriving downtown. City planners in Redondo Beach have grappled with exactly this lack of a vibrant city center for decades, ever since its historic downtown was razed at the time of King Harbor’s development in the early 1960s. In keeping with ideas of urban renewal then prevalent, much of what replaced the downtown was car and commute-centric — parking lots and condominiums.
“Many communities across America, since the 1920s or so, were built around the automobile, uses were separated, and downtowns were lost,” said Randy Berler, the former head of Redondo Beach’s Planning Department. “Along with that comes suffering of community character and walkability.”
Downtown Redondo Beach, once upon a time, was dependent on mixed-use developments, said former Redondo Fire Chief and District 3 Councilman Pat Aust.
“It was a big thing in the ‘20s and ’30s, and it died in the ‘40s and ’50s, and we lost our old downtown,” Aust said, indicating historic pictures of Redondo Beach’s downtown district. “It was all commercial on the bottom and apartments above, but it all went away by 1960 — no one would stay there but bums, no one would live in the apartments, and they all became flophouses,” he said.
Downtown Redondo Beach died as citizens began moving away from the city center.
“The thought was, the car was going to save the world — autopia,” said Aaron Jones, the city’s current Community Development Director. “Now we’ve placed people further and further from what we’ve needed. People moved out, businesses suffered, and as people moved outward, so did the commercial core.”
This was the period of substantial population growth in Redondo Beach.
Redondo Beach’s population grew steadily from 1910 to 1970, when the city gained more than 55,220 residents, according to the United States Census. The population influx flattened out over the next 40 years, gaining 10,673 from the 1970 census to reach 66,748 in 2010 (the population was 68,149 in 2014, the most recent count).
Redondo Beach is now largely built out, although state projections indicate the city can still expect population growth as California itself continues to grow in numbers.
Mixed-use has presented itself as a potential tool for a number of reasons, said Dr. Marlon Boarnet, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.
“To be a little blunt, we ran out of land — there are very few vacant lots in developed areas of Southern California, and we’ve hit a point where, because of levels of traffic congestion, we have to put people closer to their trip destinations,” he said.
“When you have a region as congested as Los Angeles, it’s not a good idea to tell people that they can live in Palmdale and work in West L.A.; people do that, but some people would like to live closer to where they work or shop. That requires some mixed-use and some density.”
Mixed-use developments require many factors to be successful. Berler cites Riviera Village as a particularly successful example, even though the area has only one vertical mixed-use development: 221 Avenue I, the only MU zoning in the village.
“It’s essentially a mixed-use area — it’s a very walkable center of shops, restaurants, coffee houses and businesses, with multi-family residential surrounding it; I live five blocks from the Village, walk there every day for all my daily needs and almost never get in my car. The idea is to see more of that,” Berler said. And though he’s not saying that Riviera Village can be recreated, wholesale, elsewhere in Redondo, the idea is that similar projects can be produced.
“You still have the potential in some of these mixed-use areas where people can live and walk to shops, and create a little more of that community character,” he said. “It does take a certain intensity of uses — enough area, enough residential, the right kind of commercial and a pedestrian character with strong design elements — but it’s possible.”
Berler notes that in Redondo Beach, even where there is not sufficient development to create a successful area where people walk to shops, these developments are very important for providing a variety of housing types and intensities. Such housing opportunities can make it possible for the adult children of existing residents to stay in the community and for people who work in the community, such as teachers and other middle income people, to be full-time community members.
“You can market to people that work in the area to try to attract those people to live closer to their work,” Berler said.
“Mixed-use zoning is also important for economic revitalization in portions of the commercial corridors,” Berler says. “In some cases, it is the residential component that makes new development economically feasible.”
Berler, who retired from work with the City of Redondo Beach nearly seven years ago, wants to make one thing clear: He doesn’t have a dog in this race.
“I’ve had no contact with anyone in the city, with city staff, officials, developers or members of the public, pro or con,” he said. “I’ve totally kept out of it and will not be taking a position on proposed developments. What is most important to me is that in the decision-making process people are as informed as possible about all the complex issues in terms of meeting the needs of the community as a whole.”
Redondo Beach’s mayor, Steve Aspel, has no problems, however, throwing himself into the fray.
“Mixed-use is not a four-letter word to me,” Aspel said. “It’s a political ploy right now to discourage any construction and any development. It’s a hot button that anybody against growth is going to use.”
That new mixed-use developments such as Legado or SeaBreeze generate significant amounts of traffic, particularly in light of multitudes of traffic studies and mitigation measures that indicate that traffic increases would be negligible if at all present, is a bogeyman designed to scare residents, Aspel argues.
“If SeaBreeze Plaza [in its current state] was a successful strip mall, traffic would be horrible — but the fact is, there’s not much there that people want to buy, but that depends on the tenants that are in there,” Aspel said. “If they were to build a 100 percent commercial development, traffic would be horrendous.”
This isn’t Aspel’s first go-round with mixed-use. His vote, as District 1 councilman in 2008, played a key role in the eventual denial of the Pearl Plaza project, at the intersection of Pearl Street and Pacific Coast Highway. The mixed-use development, which was to be owned by a trust led by a Torrance-area doctor, was to include 34 residential units and 15,500 square feet of commercial space.
Pearl Plaza was defeated after an appeal by the Woman’s Club of Redondo Beach, who were concerned about how the development would change the neighborhood’s character, said then-club president Vicki Callahan.
“A lot of the little places there were built in the early 1900s. People chose to live in the neighborhood because they like it,” she said at a 2008 city council meeting.
The appeal was denied by a 3 to 1 vote of the council, with an abstention from then-District 2 councilman Chris Cagle. That led the way to a veto from Mayor Mike Gin, who granted the appeal on the grounds that the project was incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood due to concerns regarding density, aesthetics and traffic.
Aspel was the lone vote in favor of the appeal. Had he voted in the other direction, Gin would not have been able to override the council supermajority, and Pearl Plaza would likely be there today. At the time, Aspel had hope for new life to the property, even without Pearl Plaza. Instead, nothing has changed — the site includes a used car lot and aging apartment buildings.
“That car lot is a dump,” Aspel said as he cast his vote. “It’s got to go. So if this thing doesn’t get built, I’m going to shake my head at myself if I’m going down the street in 10 years and that car lot is still there.”
It’s not yet been a decade, but the lot stands unchanged — and Aspel is, indeed, shaking his head.
“One of my only regrets as a council member is voting against that project,” Aspel said in a recent interview. “The owner said ‘ok, fine;’ he didn’t need to build anything, so he just left. The units that are there now, they aren’t exactly a showpiece for the community.
“I actually flinched, and I shouldn’t have backed down then.”
The project resurfaced in civic consciousness on the night of the SeaBreeze Plaza vote, when Brand in a last-ditch effort against the project, asked Aspel to consider a veto.
“He asked [that night] if I should veto like Gin did, but that was just political maneuvering,” Aspel said.
Brand bristles at the idea that his efforts against mixed-use development are simply playing politics.
“I’ve been supporting anything to put the brakes on mixed-use, whether it’s a moratorium, or a general plan update, or rezoning,” he said.
Currently, Redondo’s mixed-use zones allow for a maximum of 35 residential units per land acre, with a maximum building height of three stories rising to 35 feet. SeaBreeze Plaza’s 1.49 acre site allowed for 52 units, which Cape Point Development, the property owner and project applicant, pursued and received in its application.
In its initial design, Legado Redondo pushed for 180 units on its 4.3 acre site, taking advantage of a low-income housing density bonus available to them. However, due to community outcry and a near rejection of the plan from the Redondo Beach Planning Commission, the Legado Companies took their project back to the drawing board, to be heard again at a November 19 meeting of the planning commission.
It was at these meetings that the idea of a moratorium on mixed-use began floating into the public records.
“I think it’s a natural evolution when people begin to see what mixed-use is, what it means and what comes of it,” Brand said. “The Legado project, as well as the SeaBreeze project, both showcase exactly what mixed-use meant.”
And what it means, he implies, is “too much.”
“Look at [SeaBreeze] — they maxed out residential and minimized commercial space,” Brand said. “It wasn’t really about effective land-use, it was about maximizing the profits of the developer,” recalling a line of questioning directed at Cape Point president Nick Buchanan, by District 3 councilman Christian Horvath at the Sept. 15 meeting of the Redondo Beach City Council.
“Is there any compromise for more commercial space, and less residential? I don’t think you need to drastically reduce, but is there a number where it would still work and make the numbers you’re looking for?” Horvath asked.
“The value is in residential,” Buchanan answered. “I haven’t come up with a specific number, but my concern is that changing numbers would result in a redesign, and I don’t particularly want to go back through that process.”
Though developers like Buchanan are entitled to a maximum density of 35 units per acre in Redondo Beach, Nils Nehrenheim and Amy Josefek, both of Save the Riviera, question if it’s the correct move to take for the community.
“What [mixed-use] comes down to is downtown areas, places where there is already high density — we need public transit,” Nehrenheim said. “You can only get so much traffic on PCH.”
And public transit along that stretch of Pacific Coast Highway is sorely lacking — LA Metro’s northbound busses along route 232 have near half-hour waits between pickups at Redondo’s Prospect Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway stop.
Redondo is a lone-commuter-heavy city. According to the city’s 2009 traffic circulation study, 91 percent of work trips in the city are made in personal vehicles, with 83 percent of those drivers making trips alone. Through traffic engineering studies, 11 of the city’s intersections have been given Level of Service grades of F, indicating long lines of vehicles waiting through several traffic signal cycles.
Though traffic is an issue to the members of Save the Riviera, their biggest concern is the potential change to Redondo Beach’s culture.
“If Redondo Beach wants to stay this lovely beach community that we moved here to love and enjoy and appreciate, all of a sudden jamming all of this density into one space will change everything,” Josefek said.
Is Save the Riviera against the idea of having new members of the community incoming? Not necessarily.
“We’re in a situation where people are calling for income equality, but I don’t think that everybody deserves to live in relative luxury,” Josefek said. “I’ve worked really hard, and it’s fabulous that we were able to make this work…it’s a conversation that’s wonderful to have, giving people inspiration, but the idea that anybody is entitled to live anywhere they want isn’t practical.”
Real estate professionals working throughout the South Bay are feeling the pressure — and choosing to do business elsewhere.
A feeling of exclusion is just what concerns District 5 councilwoman Laura Emdee, who’s seen rumblings in online forums that residents want to establish an exclusionary air, for both potential residents and incoming businesses.
“I don’t want Redondo to have a reputation that we are not welcoming to businesses, but I also don’t want us to be a city that isn’t welcoming; that’s not the place I want to be, and I don’t want people to feel excluded,” she said. For her, it’s as much a problem in current-day Redondo as it is for the city’s future.
“One of the reasons I don’t have a problem with mixed-use is, how are our kids, or our parents who no longer need their big, empty house going to afford local home prices? It’s become a supply and demand issue: With fewer houses and more people, costs go up,” she said. “That’s great for those of us who already own, but what about our kids or our parents? We need to have other options too.”
Redondo, Brand argues, has plenty of residential development as it is.
“We’re as densely packed as any town can hope to be, so when it comes to additional development we have to look at the fact that we have significant traffic congestion, 11 overloaded intersections, constraints on water…all of these impacts are very important,” Brand said.
But a fear of traffic isn’t enough of a justification to push back against traffic, according to Boarnet.
“To be a bit blunt, if you’re worried about traffic, putting all of a town’s residents in one place, and jobs in another place, creates a built-in need for commuting and traffic,” he said. According to Bournet, good mixed-use development is “part of the way to help cope with traffic, as opposed to the opposite.”
“Conceptually, there are all kinds of ways that mixed-use development can address traffic concerns…good mixed-use development has a high trip-capture rate,” he said.
Further, Berler cautioned, a lack of change will, inevitably, end in stagnation and deterioration.
“No matter what new developments occur, there’s going to be traffic — unless you want nothing to happen,” he said. “A larger commercial-only development will create more traffic than a mix of multi-family residential with a smaller commercial component. No one is going to spend a fortune to replace a deteriorated building with another building that’s not going to succeed. If you don’t allow some intensification, there’s no incentive for anybody to revive those areas.”
Some people in the development community argue that is exactly what is happening in Redondo Beach.
“[El Segundo] has embraced being business friendly. I hate to look at Redondo Beach, how they have just muffled any new project in that city,” said a commercial real estate brokers who asked to remain anonymous, contrasting the billion dollars in development occurring in El Segundo with Redondo Beach’s relative dearth of new development. “No developer wants to touch that city, from a commercial standpoint, because the city is just so anti-growth and anti-change.”
Andy and Arinna Shelby say they aren’t against change, but just hope the city slows down and really looks at the issue of mixed-use.
“One of the reasons we go to the meetings and say that there should be a halt on mixed-use development isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be any building going on,” Andy Shelby said. “We’d like the city to take a step back and look at the way things are currently zoned, to see if it makes sense, and take a look at a broader view.”
They, and their cohorts at Save the Riviera, may have gotten their wish. The Redondo Beach City Council, as of their Oct. 20 meeting, has elected to keep the idea of a mixed-use moratorium in their pocket. They will instead decide how they will approach potential changes to the city’s general plan, with particular regard to mixed-use development, in a November meeting.
“The decisions we make today about building behooves us to make a wise decision, instead of jumping at a project because that’s how it’s zoned,” Arinna Shelby said.
“If we do that, then we might be making huge problems that we can’t just undo.”