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No on B wins, rejecting AES’ bid to replace its Redondo Beach power plant with mixed-use development

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A potential walk street through Harbor Village, the AES mixed use proposal that voters rejected Tuesday night.

A potential walk street through Harbor Village, the AES mixed use proposal that voters rejected Tuesday night.

by David Mendez and Mark McDermott

Voters in Redondo Beach appear to have rejected a change in zoning to remove industrial uses from their city’s waterfront after Measure B narrowly lost Tuesday night.

The measure, which proposed to replace the AES power plant with a mixed use development that included 600 residential units and a boutique hotel, was opposed by 51.9 percent of the votes thus far counted — 5,614 voters were against Measure B while 5,213 voted for it.

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Some uncertainty remains in the 1,500 provisional ballots that remain to be tallied, but with a margin of 401 votes to overcome, Measure B is all but certain to be defeated. The final tally will be announced Monday.

“It’s over,” said Mayor Steve Aspel, a leading Measure B proponent. “They won. People spoke.”

“I guess the vocal minority isn’t such a minority after all,” said District 2 Councilman Bill Brand. “What some people thought was a vocal minority was really a silent majority.”

Turnout was 24.6 percent of the 44,417 registered voters in Redondo Beach, according to City Clerk Eleanor Manzano. The measure’s defeat came as a surprise to even its opponents. AES, a multinational corporation which is one of the world’s largest power producers, sold Measure B as “the only guarantee of an industrial free waterfront.” The corporation, which drafted the ballot measure and was supported by a majority of the City Council and the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce, by last filing period had outspent opponents $857,000 to $8,700.

Former Redondo Beach councilman Kurt Schmalz and Mayor Steve Aspel await election results at the Yes on B campaign party at HT Grill in Riviera Village. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Former Redondo Beach Mayor Steve Aspel and councilman Kurt Schmalz await election results at the Yes on B campaign party at HT Grill in Riviera Village. Photo by Brad Jacobson

“I thought we were going to lose,” Brand said. “When a corporation comes in and spends close to a million dollars, and the opposition only spends $16,000, tops…I thought we were going to lose.”

Brand and his longtime political ally, citizens’ group Building a Better Redondo president Jim Light, waged a campaign that focused largely on alleged traffic impacts of AES’s proposed “Harbor Village” plan.  According to Light’s calculations, the plan would have created 11,269 new weekday car trips and 12,391 weekend trips. The campaign was aided by R4, a newly established citizens group that led canvassing and phone bank efforts.

The Harbor Village plan called for a change from industrial zoning to mixed use and commercial zoning, allowing allowing 600 residential units, 85,000 square feet of commercial development, and 250 hotel rooms. The zoning also required that 20 percent of the 50 acre site, or 10 acres, be open space.

But Redondo voters, many who have endured a history of questionable waterfront development that has earned their city the derisive nickname “ReCondo Beach,” balked at the new development.

“I will congratulate Bill Brand and Jim Light on their victory,” Aspel said. “It was a grassroots campaign. Basically they fought a good fight. No hard feelings. We will proceed forward tomorrow. But we might be stuck with a power plant for a while.”

Yes on B

The man most responsible for crafting the plan that became Measure B, AES Southland president Eric Pendergraft, watched election results unfold Tuesday night with a growing sense of disbelief.

Pendergraft, Aspel and about 100 supporters of the measure held what was to have been a celebration party at HT Grill in Redondo’s Riviera Village and remained hopeful for most of the night as B clung to a narrow lead built by the early count of mail-in ballots. The measure won 10 out of the city’s 13 voting precincts via mail-ins, building a 2,996 to 2,546 lead.

But as vote totals were tallied from ballot box votes, a trend quickly emerged: precinct after precinct rejected the measure. Finally, late in the evening, as votes from District 2 — where the power plant is located — were finally tallied, the lead switched and the room at HT Grill grew relatively silent.

Pendergraft did not hide his shock.

“I am stunned, actually,” he said. “I thought it was going to be close, but at the end of the day people would vote for progress.”

Pendergraft is an engineer who found himself in the odd position of first convincing his superiors to take AES into the real estate development realm and then at the helm of a political campaign. He said he became personally vested in Measure B’s success — he would drive to work each morning, and as he hit the crest of the hill on top of 190th Street, he envisioned a waterfront free of industrial use.

“It’s personally devastating for me, this outcome,” he said. “At the same time, I completely honor the will of the people. We read the situation wrong…. Life goes on. You wake up again tomorrow morning. But I am puzzled.”

He said that voters appeared to believe that the power plant would be gone with or without Measure B, as opponents argued, both in ballot arguments and on the street, door-to-door. Pendergraft said that the current power plant would indeed be gone, but now the most likely outcome is either a modernized plant or another industrial use, such as the battery storage project AES just launched in Long Beach.

“I mean, we weren’t bluffing,” Pendergraft said. “The voters spoke, and we’ll go back to industrial use — a power plant, desal, or battery storage.”

Opponents of Measure B argued that AES would not be recertified for a new power plant by the California Energy Commission. Pendergraft said the company may reapply to build a new plant — it had withdrawn its application — but that voters had taken “a real gamble” if they believed Measure B’s defeat would end in a more scaled back compromise.

Measure B, Pendergraft said, was AES’s compromise.

“If the message sent is we’d prefer an industrial waterfront….then it makes sense,” Pendergraft said of the vote. “But I’d be extremely disappointed if people voted against this believing we’d come back with a better plan — we really scaled back what we were proposing from what our land use consultants proposed. This was a really good plan.”

“We are prepared to go back to doing what we do for a living, our core business — producing electricity.”

Aspel called the election “democracy at its finest” as the plan was vetted and rejected by voters, regardless of his own support for it. He praised AES’s efforts.

“It was a win-win for AES,” he said. “If B had won, they would have been paid to go away. Now they get to keep their industrial use and keep doing what they do, energy production.”

The mayor also praised Pendergraft, who only a few years ago was considered a political enemy of the city.

“When Eric Pendergraft came to me last summer with this idea I thought it was a reasonable plan. We could finally work collaborative with AES,” Aspel said. “Whatever misgivings people may have or had about Eric are incorrect. He is a good man. I have found him to be a dedicated, sincere man that I am proud to call a friend. He stepped way out on a limb to convince his superiors to support the zoning change. I truly believe he thought he had the best interest if Redondo Beach in his heart.”

Aspel said he saw a certain logic in the vote.

“The people of Redondo Beach have spoken,” he said. “They’d rather stay with a power plant rather than condos or traffic…Power plants don’t cause traffic. AES has 30 employees. We don’t see a bunch of cars coming in and out of there for work.”

Politically, going forward, Aspel said that if AES reapplies with the CEC to build a new power plant, he would not favor the city again filing as an official “intervenor.” He said that Brand and B opponents guaranteed the removal of the power plant with or without the measure.

“We’ve already spent a quarter of a million dollars,” the mayor said. “There is no reason to be an intervenor again.”

City Treasure Steve Diels looked at Hermosa Beach’s defeat of oil drilling in its own Measure O and saw a possible compromise: drilling for oil at the AES site. This option was contemplated as an environmentally superior alternative to the E & B oil drilling proposal in Hermosa Beach in the Final Environmental Impact Report for that project.

“I want to drill in Redondo,” Diels said. “Redondo can bail out Hermosa. We get rid of the power plant, they get rid of the oil.”

Diels said one overlooked aspect of Measure B was it’s potential impact on property values.

“It’s a disappointment for property values citywide,” he said. “This is an endorsement for power uses on that site going forward — instead of pulling power production out of there, [voters] reinstated it…I thought I wasn’t going to have to stare at that power plant anymore. It’s crazy.”

Aspel said he was still committed to a future without an industrial waterfront. But he said achieving that outcome would now be more difficult.

“Hopefully we don’t have an industrial use here for another 100 years,” Aspel said. “But the citizens of Redondo are going to have to live with their vote.”

No on B

The tension was palpable early on at the Cheesecake Factory, where supporters of No on B and Candace Allen Nafissi, the only candidate in any race this year campaigning against Measure B, had set up their election night party.

Brand was confident early on while watching the early return numbers — the close margins between the mail-in ballot returns, combined with early indications that precinct voting was leaning against Measure B, spurred him onward.

Councilman Bill Brand celebrates with opponents of Measure B at the campaign’s party at the Cheesecake Factory in Redondo Beach’s King Harbor. Photo by David Mendez

Councilman Bill Brand celebrates with opponents of Measure B at the campaign’s party at the Cheesecake Factory in Redondo Beach’s King Harbor. Photo by David Mendez

Todd Lowenstein, the president of Redondo Residents for Responsible Revitalization, however, wasn’t as encouraged. Visibly nervous, he often paced around the room before retaking a position around the monitor set up to watch the city’s election night stream.

“I’m cautious,” he said. “Cautiously optimistic. This isn’t my first rodeo…it isn’t over until the fat lady sings, you know?”

But as the clock neared 11:30, the mood turned — it wasn’t long before the 30-plus in attendance began clapping, cheering and singing loudly enough to be heard outside the restaurant.

“To see Measure B go down…I’m speechless,” Brand said to the tight crowd of supporters, many of whom campaigned and canvassed in opposition to Measure B. “It’s because of this team, right here, firing and executing. That’s what we have to do to get Candice in City Council!,” he said to further applause, championing his candidate in the upcoming District 3 runoff election.

Later, after Brand had a moment to collect his thoughts and return a message to Aspel, he revealed that he came into the night thinking that Measure B was going to win—until he was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. “I think it speaks to the true psyche of Redondo Beach. The people want the power plant gone, so it was close, but they don’t want a big development plan to replace it,” he said. “I think a lot of people got educated and said ‘I want to do something that’s more balanced’ and maintain their quality of life.”

One of the differences in this election was the emergence of R4, a new citizens group that led the “ground game,” sending out canvassers every night who likely were a key to the on-the-ground precinct voting victory on election day. 

“It was a group of neighbors who spent a lot of hours away from their families working on this,” Loewenstein said. “These are regular citizens, not people people who are paid or who are normally civic activists. These are just people who are really concerned about the future of their city.”

Loewenstein said the campaign was a “David versus Goliath” match up, and that part of the victory was attributable to the substance of the arguments that were made against Measure B.

“It wasn’t just just walking precincts or calling people or producing mailers,” he said. “I think we hit on key issues most people were concerned about — traffic, over-development, and school overcrowding. The community felt people weren’t listening to their concerns and that [Measure B] was only going to compound these problems.”

He also thought AES overplayed its hand. “They had too much advertising,” Loewenstein said. “People thought something was not right when a corporation spends so much on a local election. Voters are smart. They understood there was way too much at state, and for AES to gain that might be at their expense.”

A turning point, Brand believes, came within the past few weeks, noticeable by the increase in social media activists rallying against the measure. “People who were going to vote on Election Day started to really do their homework,” he said, in reference to Measure B’s defeat at precinct sites, where a net 851 votes against it overcame the 450 vote mail-in ballot margin in its favor. “It’s a message, maybe, to absentee voters; they might want to wait until they get in all of their information, rather than rushing to mail in their ballots.”

The most relieved person in the room seemed to be Light, who had been campaigning along with Brand to rid Redondo of the power plant for more than 14 years. He had been at home for much of the night, a bundle of nerves, he said, until the numbers started to turn, and Brand called him down to join the party.

“It feels great,” he said. “It proves that money doesn’t necessarily win the day. When you’ve got the energy of good people behind you, and you’ve got the facts behind you, you can still win, even against big money.”

Despite AES’s assertions that Measure B’s defeat would force the company to return its focus to industrial uses of its property, Brand believes the demise of the power plant remains inevitable.

“There isn’t going to be a new power plant in Redondo Beach,” he said. “It’s time for the city to work with the residents and AES to craft a vision for our waterfront that better balances growth with our quality of life — something that’s good for AES, good for the city and good for the residents.”

“I’m going to continue to push for the city to lead this process, and not sit as a bystander as it has over the last ten years. It’s long past time for the city to lead.” ER

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