Redondo Beach 2020: Redondo powers down, parties, dines out and socially distances
AES power plant sale finalized
The AES Redondo Beach power plant sold this year, following more than a decade-long effort to find a new use for the 51-acre site.
Weeks after California’s leaders ordered everyone to stay at home to reduce the spread of COVID-19, AES announced that it had closed escrow on a sale of the land to developer Leo Pustilnikov and partners. The amount of the sale was not disclosed, though Realtor Carlos Vigon later said it was less than the original asking price of $200 million.
More than 250 potential buyers from around the world signed non-disclosure agreements. Most were high-profile development firms. Pustilnikov, a Ukranian immigrant in his mid-thirties, was among the most low-profile of them all. Vigon described the buyer as a visionary with the courage to purchase a property beleaguered by a history of contention.
“You could write a book about this transaction,” the realtor said. “It’s somehow fitting that it would close in the midst of a global pandemic, in a financial crisis, in the unlikeliest of moments.”
The power plant has been the subject of multiple ballot measures and vehement debate about its future use. Recent developments indicate the debate isn’t over, yet.
Redondo sues water board
In September, the California State Water Resources Control Board voted to extend the life of four, gas-fired power plants along the Southern California coast, including the AES plant on Harbor Drive. The plant had been slated for retirement on Dec. 31, 2020, pursuant to a statewide law passed in 2010 that aims to phase out “once-through cooling,” a process that uses ocean water to cool turbines and endangers marine life.
For a decade, community activists and city officials have been anticipating the end of this year as the end of a decade-long fight with a power company over its plant on 51 acres of Redondo Beach. But then, in September, just weeks after a heat wave and two rolling blackouts in California turned the lights off for people who had been sheltering-in-place for five months, the State Water Board had a virtual hearing.
After hearing testimony from various people, including council members from Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach, the board voted to extend the plant’s license to operate by one year. The extensions are said to be worth more than $100 million to AES. Leo Pustilinikov, as developer representing the group of companies that purchased the property in March, said earlier this year he would preserve 25 acres of the site as open space, on the condition that the plant could remain open until 2023.
“This is big money,” Mayor Bill Brand said after the decision was made. “That’s why they’re fighting so hard for all these extensions. … For AES, these extensions are like Christmas. And the Water Board is like Santa Claus.”
Proponents of an extension for the Southern California plants argued it would keep the lights on as the state transitions to renewable energy. Critics said extending the life of power plants was a peculiar solution, given climate change most likely contributed to the heat wave.
Days after the decision was made, the Redondo Beach City Council voted to sue the State Water Board for failing to conduct a comprehensive environmental assessment before granting the extension. The city filed jointly with the City of Hermosa Beach.
Two beloved Redondo Beach diners closed this year, as the city and world sheltered-in-place to avoid the coronavirus pandemic.
Polly’s on the Pier closed after serving breakfast for more than 30 years. Two years ago, the pier it had occupied was condemned, and the diner reopened on the nearby International Boardwalk, which proved to be a less popular location. Then, regulations designed to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus cut seating in half.
“We wanted to make it work. It was working,” said Polly’s owner Terry Turk. “Out of the red, out of the red, out of the red, and then the day that virus scare came, it came down to nothing. Just like turning off a faucet.”
Ruby’s Diner in Redondo Beach, a mainstay on the city’s waterfront since 1990, closed permanently the day after Labor Day. For 30 years, Ruby’s was a popular diner among boaters, tourists, and locals. For 20 of those years, it was a hub of the car collector community. Every Friday night between May and October, its parking lot would host “Cruise at the Beach,” a car show that typically featured 250 classic cars.
After more than six months of canceling shows, several local bands found a way around restrictions on large indoor gatherings. In the heat wave of summer, they played in the ocean.
People gathered, socially distanced, in boats and on stand-up paddleboards to hear music played from the deck of a boat. On one Saturday, The Tiger Squadron, a precision flying team based at the Torrance Airport, performed overhead.
“It’s a sad time right now,” said Redondo Beach contractor George Burgos, who grew up listening to South Bay bands and was involved in organizing the shows. “We’re losing Saint Rocke — that’s a big chunk getting cut out of our hearts. That place has been our little Troubadour, our little House of Blues. We lost Suzy’s … And so many of our local bands are sitting at home, with so much uncertainty. We really need to try to keep live music and local bands alive in the community. We need that right now. Live music is what connects us. It’s what puts us in our happy place.”
Moises Juarez of local band Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds said he was grateful to have been able to give the gift of music during a time of heightened anxiety.
“I’m stoked that my community is behind me 100 percent and trusting me to bring up some good vibes because that’s what everybody needs right now,” he said. “It wasn’t like we got paid. It was just for the community, the boating community, the harbor community … People need positivity. They need a light at the end of this tunnel. Not to be like woe is me, but we had $80,000 worth of shows taken away. There’s so much uncertainty right now. We just feel so grateful and lucky to have played and we’re stoked to be able to lift everybody’s spirits in these crazy times.”
From Riviera Village to French Riviera
“SURPRISE!!!” read a Facebook post by Redondo Beach councilmember Nils Nehrenheim, published several months after people stopped dining at restaurants in the year of the novel coronavirus. Accompanying the announcement were photos of new dining spaces in the Riviera Village, constructed in what previously were metered parking spots, with green turf carpeting the floors and murals depicting California beach culture decorating the barricades that separated tables from traffic on Catalina Ave.
“Is that the smell of new grass in the Village?” Nehrenheim wrote. “Perhaps some fresh paint? Development done right, giving hope and a new life to restaurants to save their businesses. The village hasn’t been this full for months.”
On July 4 and 5, the Riviera Village looked a little more like Europe, or perhaps Pier Ave. in Hermosa Beach in the summer. The outdoor dining spaces, dubbed parklets by the Riviera Village Association, were brimming with diners and drinkers.
“People loved it,” Mayor Bill Brand said. “It’s also a way for restaurants to stay in business. Otherwise many of them would be closing or would remain closed.”
The parklets were part of a larger trend in cities across the U.S. permitting al fresco dining to give restaurateurs some reprieve from the economic consequences of the global pandemic.
“This allows restaurants to operate at pretty much their regular capacity,” said Jeff Ginsburg, president of the Riviera Village Association. “What it’s also appeared to have done is attracted some more people to the Village.”
The idea has long been in the pipeline, he said, but the pandemic drew it out.
In April, a bioluminescence event beckoned Beach Cities residents beyond signs announcing the beaches were closed to encourage social distancing.
After dark, the waves began turning neon blue, lighting up the coastline. Caused by the movement of waves agitating aggregations of dinoflagellates, known by day as red tide, the event was the talk of the town.
At night, after weeks of very few signs of human life on the beach and Esplanade, the Redondo Beach shoreline filled with people taking pictures of the electric-blue breakers. Social media and Nextdoor were inundated with photos. After a few days, police barricaded the roads. The waves returned to their usual programming.
BCHD spearheaded COVID response
The Beach Cities Health District (BCHD) in Redondo Beach became a hub of the county’s coronavirus response this year.
The health district has administered over 100,000 tests to date, sometimes as many as 700 per day, and has provided meal deliveries, errand services, and social and mental support to Beach Cities residents throughout the pandemic.
In the midst of this, on Nov. 3, residents voted to fill three seats on the health district’s board. Two incumbents, Jane Diehl and Vanessa Poster, were re-elected, and challenger Dr. Martha Koo won her bid for a seat. Together with Noel Chun and Michelle Bholat, they will steer the health district through a contentious next chapter.
The district is finalizing plans for its Healthy Living Campus, a major redevelopment featuring a six-story assisted-living facility and an eight-story parking structure. The project has prompted resistance from some residents, who bemoan its size and proximity to residential neighborhoods.
The health district has said the facility will generate revenue to fund the free programs it offers to residents. Management and staff have also said the building being torn down to make way for the Healthy Living Campus is seismically unsound. CEO Tom Bakaly wrote in an opinion piece published by Easy Reader that “doing nothing is not an option.”
In November, Poster, her husband, and her 93-year-old father all developed COVID-19. She attributed their recovery, in part, to programs offered by the health district.
A beautiful, happy place
Twelve years ago, Rabbi Yossi Mintz, founder and director of the Jewish Community Center Chabad of the South Bay, envisioned a state-of-the-art facility where cutting-edge research, technology, and expertise would help people with special needs carve pathways into society.
Statistics pointed to a need for this kind of place: 75 percent of neurodivergent high school graduates in the U.S. don’t meet four-year college admittance requirements, and eight in 10 are unemployed.
In December, the rabbi’s dream went public, in the form of a press release and renderings of a $36 million, 55,000-square-foot facility. The facility will be built at 850 S. Inglewood Ave. in Redondo Beach, the former site of Franklin Elementary. The Redondo Beach Unified School District offered the property to the Friendship Foundation, a non-profit organization co-founded by Mintz and Skechers president Michael Greenberg and focused on integrating neurodivergent and neurotypical kids.
The facility will train people with special needs in such areas as graphic design, coding, music mixing, and cooking. The campus will also offer multigenerational mentoring, giving older adults the opportunity to impart professional and life experience to students, and focus on building health, wellness, and life skills.
“A lot of families with special needs are looking at an abyss when their kids are out of public education and asking themselves, now what?” said Nina Patel, managing director of Friendship Foundation. “I think the Friendship Foundation finally is going to be able to answer the ‘now what’ question.”
In a year of economic challenge for many, the foundation has raised $27 million, or 75 percent of the project’s price tag. The facility is expected to be complete by 2022.
“It’s going to be this beautiful, happy place,” Mintz said.
Skatepark on the pier
Professional skateboarder David Bernier began advocating for a skate park in Redondo Beach four years ago. In October, the city council authorized construction of two skateparks. A $110,000 skatepark was approved for Parcel 10, a long vacant pad on the pier across from the International Boardwalk. A smaller $30,000 park at Perry Park was also approved. The L.A. Kings Foundation is contributing $25,000 to both skateparks.
“Redondo needs a skatepark … I’m glad to see us taking a step and finally, finally, finally finding something that could work,” Mayor Bill Brand said.
The pier skatepark will host skate camps and lessons. Bernier said he’s going to talk to the arts commission about making the park “something that pops and brings a splash of color to the pier.” ER