Ballona Wetlands A Success Story!

by Sandy Wohlgemuth

Originally published Western Tanager Vol. 57 No. 6 March 1991

Whatever happened to Ballona Wetlands? It seems like a lifetime ago that we were deeply concerned about the fate of this last remnant of a vast marshland in Playa del Rey. We remember the struggle to wrest a pitiful bit of land from Howard Hughes' Summa Corporation, the formation of the Friends of Ballona Wetlands, and the appearance of National Audubon on the scene.

The years drift by and nothing seems to happen. A visit to the wetlands today [article written in 1991] is depressing: very little wildlife and a lot of dying vegetation. But at long last change has arrived. And things are looking up.

Let's begin at the beginning. Once upon a time Ballona Creek opened out into 2,000 acres of thriving wetland in what is now Playa del Rey. Before the creek emptied into Santa Monica Bay the marshes and ponds it fed were home for great numbers of birds, small mammals and invertebrates. Ballona was one of the prime migratory stopovers and wintering areas for water-related birds on the entire Pacific coast. Shorebirds, gulls, terns, ducks, long-legged waders, hawks and owls filled the air and prowled the pickleweed and mudflats. Over 200 species of birds have been recorded there.

As the city grew, waterfront property became more valuable. The marshes were drained and filled. The wetlands shrank as Venice, Playa del Rey and Culver City appeared and expanded. Ballona Creek became a concrete-lined flood control channel in 1932, "perhaps the single most important factor in reducing the wetlands area." (Marina del Rey/Ballona Land Use Plan, December 1982). In 1960-1962, Marina del Rey was born as more wetland habitat was lost. Beginning in the early '40s, Howard Hughes bought up much of the land on the south side of the creek and built an airfield and a helicopter plant.

In 1976, billionaire Hughes died his property and power remaining with his Summa Corporation. A bombshell exploded in early 1978 when Summa announced its plan for Playa Vista. This was to be an enormous development of almost 1,000 acres with 7,000 housing units, two or three hotels, a 600-slip marina, a shopping center and high-rise office buildings. Summa magnanimously offered to set aside 72 acres of the wetlands as a bird sanctuary.

The reaction to this appalling plan did not come from the major environmental organizations but from a tiny group just around the corner. Ruth Lansford called a meeting at her home in Playa del Rey with a few of her friends and neighbors. On the sign-in sheet at one of the first meetings were biology teachers from nearby Loyola Marymount and Santa Monica College, a couple of Audubon members and a Sierra Club man.

One of the moving spirits of the Friends of Newport Bay was there, offering advice, inspiration and hope. (This was the small group that had saved Upper Newport Bay from development by the most powerful landowner in California, The Irvine Company.) Objection to Summa's plan was not only for its destructive effect on wildlife but on the loss of open space and the tremendous increase in traffic and air pollution that a doubled population would bring.

The Friends of Ballona Wetlands were a handful of political amateurs with no money but a lot of guts. As the weeks rolled by more people joined. Membership was one dollar. Los Angeles Audubon helped out with a little money, some publicity in the Tanager and with non-profit mailings. The Friends were encouraged by the declaration of the Los Angeles Planning Commission that 445 acres of Ballona now constituted Significant Ecological Area #29. An SEA designation is supposed to prevent development in sensitive habitats, but Los Angeles County's Board of Supervisors had the power to veto the Planning Commission's decision. Summa strongly disagreed with the commission and told county officials that Ballona was not worth maintaining as an ecological system. They hired Envicom, an environmental consulting firm, which found that some of the area was viable wetland but that much of the SEA was degraded beyond hope of restoration. The Friends responded with admirable vigor. More people joined the fight, angry letters poured in to county offices, and field trips to the wetlands were organized to show the public what they might be losing. A monthly newsletter kept members up to date, and pleaded for money and volunteers. Noted marine biologist, Rimmon Fay, became a staunch ally and Tom Howell of UCLA (later head of the American Ornithologists Union) wrote a cogent criticism of Envicom's report.

The hearing before the Board of Supervisors on May 16, 1979 was nervous time with Summa's Playa Vista plan the main attraction. The Friends had sent out an "SOS - URGENT - SOS" with compelling cries to battle (ISN'T IT WORTH ONE DAY OF YOUR LIFE TO SAVE IT?). They packed the hearing room with Ballona supporters. Alas, in spite of their numbers and their eloquence, the supervisors "...warmly received Summa Corp.'s request to build a large development on the county's last remaining wetlands..."(L.A. Times).

For the next few years no work could begin on Playa Vista as the state Coastal Commission had not yet ruled upon it. The wetlands were part of the Marina del Rey/Ballona Land Use Plan, which itself was a segment of the Los Angeles County Local Coastal Plan (LCP). LCPs were mandated by the California Coastal Act of 1976 which required each coastal community to work up a blueprint of its future intentions. The Coastal Commission had to approve all LCPs before any development could take place. The Friends continued to grow and extend their activities. They produced their own plan with generous open space and wetland area. An excellent multi-media program was created to dramatize the value of the wetlands. Ed Tarvyd of Santa Monica College brought it to Sacramento to show to legislators, Governor Brown and the Coastal Commission. Herb Clarke put on one of his great slide shows, highlighting the birds with remarkable views of the extensive wetlands as they were before the Marina and Hughes wiped them out.

In December 1982, National Audubon discovered the Ballona Wetlands. Saving wetlands had long been one of National's primary conservation missions. Here was a terribly neglected yet productive wetland that simply cried out for tender loving care. Audubon met with Summa, which must have been happy to find a respected environmental organization that would create a prestigious ornament to Playa Vista.

How did the Friends feel about National Audubon and the discussions with Summa? There had to be a natural resentment toward a big outsider barging into the territory of a bunch of locals. Especially when the Johnny-come-lately seemed to be pals with the bad guys. But National did not see itself as a bully pushing around a smaller competitor. It saw no basic reason for conflict with the Friends. After all, both organizations had the common goal of preserving the wetlands and fulfilling an educational function. Any differences that arose could be worked out. National had been asked by Summa to provide suggestions for restoration of the wetlands, establishment of an interpretive center and educational programming. Summa spoke of National as a possible operator of the wetlands and eventual owner. It held out the alluring promise of $10 million for their efforts.

The Friends were decidedly concerned about the size of the wetlands that the approaching Coastal Commission hearing would consider. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had said that a wetland between 275 and 325 acres was the proper size for Ballona. Initially, the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) had agreed with USFWS estimates but changed its mind (it was rumored) under political pressure from Deukmejian's office. DFG's final recommendation was 162 acres plus 36 acres of buffer zone. It also supported the extension of Falmouth Avenue north across the wetlands and over Ballona Creek to serve the proposed new Summa marina and the business and residential properties to be built there.


Summa’s - Proposed Land Use Plan

This extension would have the devastating effect of further fragmenting the habitat, eliminating species that require more space and freedom of movement. This acquiescence to a major roadway bisecting an endangered wetland by an environmental agency is hard to believe. DFG said they were afraid that if the Falmouth extension was eliminated, Summa would cancel the restoration and development plan arguing, in effect, that half a loaf was better than none. (Jan. 10, 1984 memorandum from the DFG director to the Coastal Commission).

The Friends rallied all their allies for the Coastal Commission hearing. They pleaded with Dick Martyr, then National's head of the Western Regional Office, to join the other environmental groups in advocating the USFWS position of maximum wetlands. At the March 22, 1983 hearing, Martyr eloquently described the rich Ballona Wetlands of the past and stressed the urgency of preserving what remained. He spoke of endangered species and the tragic loss of wetlands along the entire coast. He emphasized the importance of California wetlands which he called the "weak link" in the chain that supports migrating and wintering shorebirds and waterfowl under the Pacific Flyway. Though Martyr asked the Commission "to carefully address the comments..." of the USFWS call for the larger acreage, he did say that DFG's recommendation "represents a manageable unit." This tacit support for a smaller wetland which included the Falmouth extension brought dismay to the other groups present.

On January 12, 1984, the Coastal Commission, on a 9-3 decision, basically agreed to Summa's plan - including the Falmouth extension. It "compromised" on 175 acres plus a buffer zone to bring the total area protected to 209 acres. The L.A. Times said Playa Vista "...would include 8,800 apartments, homes and condos and more than 2,400 hotel rooms and create 700-900 boat slips." The Times went on to say "A tearful Ruth Lansford, speaking for environmentalists, asked the commission members, 'If Ballona Wetlands is saved in its entirety, will the Summa Corp. survive? But if Summa builds up in its entirety and the wetlands are halved, will the wetlands survive? If there is any question in your mind, give the wetlands the benefit of the doubt,' she pleaded."

In December 1984, The Friends of Ballona Wetlands, together with the League of Women Voters and the League for Coastal Protection, sued Summa Corp. to halt implementation of the Playa Vista plan. The suit charged that the commission had violated the Coastal Act by failing to adequately protect the wetlands and provide for their restoration. It accused the commission of approving an inadequate size for the wetlands and with illegally authorizing the Falmouth extension. The pro bono case was in the hands of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, a widely-respected non-profit group of attorneys.

The suit made its way slowly through the Los Angeles Superior Court. National Audubon, which had signed a contract with Summa, proceeded with plans, bringing in experts in museum design and veteran planners of the very successful Monterey Bay Aquarium. Summa's $10 million was footing the bill. As the work gathered momentum, National was criticized for concentrating its efforts on a high-tech expensive interpretive center at the expense of the wetlands themselves. At one point, a restaurant and a gift shop were under consideration. Attendance forecasts ran as high as 994,000 visitors a year. (LA Times, June 14, 1985).

A great thorn in the side of the Friends was Pat Russell, the entrenched councilwoman for the district, who had the reputation of never meeting a developer she didn't like. She was challenged by Ruth Galanter, a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist, who ran against Russell in 1987 and won. This was a great victory for Summa's opponents. It was no longer a one-sided fight. Some of the political clout had shifted.

Meanwhile, momentous changes were stirring in the background. In 1984, the state inheritance tax lawsuit against the Hughes estate was settled when Summa paid the state $44 million and 73 acres of "Parcel C" of Playa Vista property (see map). In February 1988, State Controller Gray Davis decided to keep Parcel C when Summa offered $75 million for it.

Then a quiet but dramatic event took place: Maguire Thomas Partners, a development firm, bought the controlling interest in Playa Vista in February 1989. Ballona became a brand new ball game. Where Summa had a reputation of hard-nosed, uncompromising power and an obvious indifference to the wetlands it owned, Maguire Thomas seemed to grasp the importance of getting along with its neighbors. It understood their fear of being overwhelmed by excessive development. And Maguire Thomas appeared to be sensitive to the emotional significance of this priceless wetland to great numbers of people in southern California.

In June 1989, after discussions with community groups, Nelson Rising, head of development for Maguire Thomas, announced major cutbacks in the huge plans it had inherited from Summa. Office space was to be reduced by 1 million sq. ft. and retail space by 300,000 sq. ft. Residential units were to be increased to about 11,000 units. The L.A. Times story for June 20th said, "The changes represent a victory for residents living near the project and for Ruth Galanter,... (Pat) Russell's support for the project was widely viewed as a major cause of her ouster."

The Friends negotiated with Maguire Thomas for over a year which resulted in more changes that were to prove beneficial to the wetlands. In September 1990, Controller Gray Davis sold Maguire Thomas "Parcel C" north of the creek for $85 million plus 60 acres of land south of Jefferson and west of Lincoln. This 60 acres (in "Parcel B," Maguire Thomas’ Revised Plan map) in the original Summa plan was to have been residential with high-rise buildings and a golf course. Now it was to be wetlands. A month later, on October 18th, the new owner and the Friends settled the six-year-old suit.


Maguire Thomas' - Revised Plan

At what Ruth Galanter called "an orgy of mutual congratulations," a press conference held in the wetlands was indeed a day of celebration. Instead of the tiny 72 acres that Summa had offered to the world in 1978, the Ballona Wetlands were now to be 280 acres.

The settlement:

1. Maguire Thomas Partners (MTP) will contribute up to $10 million for restoration and maintenance of the wetlands.

2. MTP will support the elimination of the Falmouth extension. If Falmouth remains, the agreement with the Friends can be terminated.

3. Both MTP and the Friends will "vigorously pursue" funding for a full tidal system in the wetlands. (This is an expensive project that will provide maximum flushing for the marsh vegetation and will create new habitat.) It is hoped that mitigation funds obtained from development of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will be available.

4. The cutbacks MTP had announced in June 1989 will result in 25% less commercial development and reduce retail use by 33%. A regional shopping center will be eliminated and affordable housing will be increased by 110%.

5. MTP has agreed to a plant nursery on 4 acres of the old Playa del Rey stable site where Summa had planned a 225-unit building.

6. Since the revised Playa Vista plan must still be approved by the Coastal Commission and other agencies - which will take some time - MTP will provide $750,000 for interim wetland restoration.

A Wetland Board of Trustees has been formed that will make all future decisions regarding the restoration and maintenance of the wetlands. Representatives of MTP, the Friends, the local City Council member and the state controller will be on this board.

National Audubon's contract with Summa-MTP expired in 1990 and was not renewed. However, Nelson Rising of MTP is very enthusiastic about National's role as an educational force in Ballona. MTP is financing a project to enroll over 30,000 children in the Audubon Adventures program. Audubon Adventures is an exciting, hands-on series of lessons for elementary schools designed to make nature study and conservation fun as well as a learning experience. National has just established an education office in Playa del Rey to implement the Ballona Wetlands Education Program. This will train docents to lead tours and activities in the wetlands for both youths and adults. Director of the new office is Melanie Ingalls who has been Education Chair for LAAS [Los Angeles Audubon Society] and has placed over 300 Audubon Adventure programs in Los Angeles schools.

For the initial announcement of the new program, a press conference was held in the wetlands on December 6th. Speakers included Ruth Galanter, Nelson Rising, Jackie Goldberg of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Mary Thomson of the Friends. They were talking to an audience that included 60 school children, all wearing bright yellow Audubon Adventures t-shirts. These 3rd to 6th graders were from a nearby school who listened pretty well to their elders telling them they were the hope of the future. They fidgeted normally, talked to their neighbors and "aaaahed" when a Great Blue Heron flew close by. When the meeting was over they rushed for the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and then went on a treasure hunt in the pickleweed.

What struck this observer was the upbeat ambience of the day. The kids did seem to be the promise of the future. It was not difficult to imagine the drying, dying pickleweed eventually getting its proper share of water in a restored wetland. A message from the Friends was on the literature table. It read, "The Friends of Ballona Wetlands Welcomes National Audubon... We know that Audubon's commitment is extremely important not only here in our own wetland, but nationwide. We hope that in the future their program will help to make a 15-year battle such as ours less necessary and improve the climate for further rescue and restoration of wetlands."

 Originally published Western Tanager Vol. 57 No. 6 March 1991 

 Transcribed for the Los Angeles Audubon Society (LAAS) Western Tanager "Articles from the Archives" July 2013 by SMC.