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Redondo's Heart Is at the Beach

As early as February, the Redondo Beach City Council could adopt a specific plan for about 150 acres of waterfront real estate that planners believe could become a new downtown.

The "Heart of the City" specific plan envisions a broad mix of stores, offices, apartments, townhouses, live-work flats and parks in a part of town that has been dominated by a huge power plant and cut off from the ocean. For many years, Redondo Beach has been a "beach town" in name only.

While nearby Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach have evolved as desirable, funky beach towns, Redondo never really had a chance. Redondo Beach's original downtown near the coastline was demolished in the name of urban renewal during the 1960s. Large, boxy structures, including the Civic Center, replaced the organic downtown, and the city essentially turned its back on the beach. The historic harbor is practically cut off from the rest of town.

"It's a site that has been victimized by poor planning practices," said Michael Freedman, of Freedman, Tung and Bottomley, whom the city hired as a specific plan consultant. "It's not what you would expect to find in such a lovely setting."

But while Redondo may lack a beach town vibe, it does have what Planning Director Bill Meeker calls "a once in a lifetime opportunity" to remedy the situation. About three years ago, AES Corp. announced that it planned to downsize its huge power plant along the coast in Redondo Beach and redevelop about half of the 50-acre site. Public and private planners immediately began considering suburban-style big-box centers for the site. As they got further into reviewing things, however, city officials realized they had a chance to address not only the AES site, but also the waterfront itself, which Meeker describes as "17 1/2 acres of asphalt parking with a smattering of retail."

The city brought in the Urban Land Institute's Advisory Services Panel to review the situation and present some options. The ULI found that Redondo Beach was not benefiting from its waterfront as much as its neighbors were. The ULI found that there was little activity along the waterfront, that the waterfront lacked a sense of place and that the primary north-south thoroughfare was unfriendly to both pedestrians and automobiles. "Public investment and private development in the study area have occurred only incrementally and intermittently over the years," the ULI report stated. "Consequently, the whole is not equal to the sum of the parts."

"The ULI," said Freedman, "provided a great boost in terms of helping the community understand that they could get investment and that they needed to focus on more than just the AES site. They [ULI] totally raised the bar as far as what the community could expect."

After the ULI issued its report in March 2000, city officials decided to pursue a specific plan for a district, of which the AES property is only a small part. City officials brought in Freedman's San Francisco-based firm and together they designed a process that leaned heavily on public involvement. During the later half of 2000, Freedman conducted four public workshops, each of which attracted more than 300 people. He also organized a number of meetings with stakeholders. Last April, the city released a draft plan. It did not necessarily match the ULI's recommendations, but instead built on the concept of creating a vital city core. City planners then began an extensive outreach and educational program, Meeker said. Planners met with stakeholders, civic groups and all 18 city commissions. The city also maintained a detailed website that contained every public document from the process.

Later in the year, planners conducted several public workshops on the Heart of the City specific plan for the Planning Commission

"This is probably the most ambitious and most open planning process the city has ever undertaken," Meeker said. Despite the publicly driven process, naysayers remained. When the specific plan and an environmental impact report reached the Planning Commission for a formal public hearing in December, dozens of people raised questions and spoke in opposition.

The essence of their complaint is that the plan would allow too much development in too small an area. Residents contended that the plan would allow housing development that is too dense, would bring too much traffic to town and would not provide enough parking. Some people also complained that they did not have time to review all of the documents.

Freedman conceded that the project has been "very, very frustrating" because it has been so hard for the community to reach consensus. Except for the specific plan area, Redondo Beach is a built out community, and its residents have conflicting desires, he said. The plan divides the area into districts � three waterfront districts, the "Catalina corridor" and public space along the water. The waterfront districts are all mixed-use areas, with a concentration of businesses related to the adjacent harbor. Two waterfront village core areas emphasize ground floor retail, restaurants, professional services, and arts and civic facilities.

The Catalina corridor is the primary residential district, with multi-family residences, offices and neighborhood-serving commercial uses allowed. The plan envisions Catalina Avenue as a "grand boulevard" with wide sidewalks and extensive landscaping. At full build-out, the plan would allow about 600,000 square feet of commercial and office space, and approximately 3,000 new residences. Development would occur on vacant infill sites and on real estate that has already been developed but is underutilized. The plan details several parks, greenbelts and access points to the water. Currently, The Strand, a popular multi-use pathway that runs for many miles along the beach, is interrupted in the specific plan area. The plan calls for forging a connection, which Meeker thinks is essential.

"Right now, people just don't have the feeling that they can use The Strand to visit Redondo Beach because they have to go out onto Harbor Drive, and they feel they conflict with traffic there. So they end up turning around and going back to Hermosa Beach," Meeker said. The activity level that The Strand represents is exactly what Redondo Beach officials seek for their new downtown.

"We're trying to create a very pedestrian-oriented atmosphere here � create public passageways down to the waterfront. A number of the south bay cities are older cities and don't have that opportunity," Meeker said. Freedman and officials insist that the specific plan does not intend to turn Redondo Beach into a tourist zone. The district is designed with locals in mind.

"They lost their downtown and they want to get that back at the waterfront," Freedman said.

The City Council is scheduled to begin considering the Heart of the City specific plan in February. Once the council adopts the plan, it will go to the Coastal Commission for approval. The city does not have a certified local coastal plan. The Heart of the City specific plan will to the Coastal Commission as part of a proposed LCP, Meeker said. Coastal Commission review could take some time.

Contacts:

Bill Meeker, City of Redondo Beach, (310) 318-0637. Michael Freedman, Freedman, Tung and Bottomley, (415) 291-9455. Heart of the City website