Where Did The “Old Heart” of Redondo Beach Go?

Urban renewal took the final bite out of Redondo Beach’s downtown and created a much different use of land and resources that continues today.
Photo: Redondo Beach Historical Museum Archives

By Wayne Knutsen 

Skirmishes over the creation of a new commercial and residential hub for Redondo Beach–the “Heart of the City” plan–filled local newspapers during 2002, but this battle was by no means unique in the history of the city. Some 38 years previous, the city council and a group of concerned citizens waged an eerily similar contest over a proposal for “urban renewal,” and it was the council’s victory, and the eventual destruction of the old downtown, that helped set the stage for the most recent political struggle.

Redondo in the 1960s
In the spring of 1964, the city of Redondo was struggling with a multitude of problems. The construction of King Harbor, the port long coveted by the beach town, was suffering construction delays, caused by huge storms the previous winter that damaged the breakwater and wreaked havoc on the uncompleted boat slips and marina facilities. This slowdown was in turn lessening lease income from the project-the council was even forced to evict one of its lessees-and jeopardizing the city’s ability to make payments on the $9 million in revenue bonds sold to fund harbor construction.

But, these financial difficulties paled in comparison to the problems surrounding the council’s attempt to finalize plans for the redevelopment of the city’s blighted downtown, a program known officially as the “Redondo Plaza” project. That the old downtown needed help was not a source of dispute, as the commercial district was a mere shell compared to its turn-of-the-century glory days. Although it had once boasted attractions like the El Ja Arms, one of the finest luxury hotels on the west coast, and still supported an array of businesses, competition from malls like the South Bay Center, now the South Bay Galleria, with its multitude of new and modern stores and, most importantly, 5,000 free parking slots, overwhelmed the old shopping area. As with many American main streets in the 1960s, buildings were now empty and shuttered, but with the government in Washington offering substantial funds for urban renewal, a solution seemed in the offing.

A Plan to Save Downtown
The city formed a redevelopment agency in 1962 to apply for Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency funds to study the feasibility of a government-backed program for the 50-acre area roughly bounded by Diamond St. on the north, Emerald St. on the south and Catalina on the east, and which had the bulk of its central core running along Pacific Ave., a major north-south corridor that then ran parallel to the beach behind the Redondo Pier. The resulting plan called for relocation of the existing businesses and construction of a mixed commercial, apartment and office development, with apartments being the primary new land use. But, before the city could secure federal funds, it also had to adopt a new Master Land Use Plan for the entire community. This document substantially altered local zoning by calling for high-rise development along the south beach bluffs, and greatly increasing housing density in North Redondo, among other areas of the city.

Approval for the Plaza development and the new master plan by the planning commission, redevelopment agency and the council was swift, but the start of the program was delayed by two events. The first was the passage of Prop. 14, a reactionary piece of legislation that not only made racial covenants that restricted the sale of property to “whites only” legal, but also outlawed local anti-discrimination ordinances, such as those required by the federal government in order to receive federal monies. After some scrambling, local authorities decided that since their project was already in the planning stages, that it was a “grandfathered” exception to the new law.

Then and Now
The greater impediment to implementation was a petition drive, organized by two local citizens, Shelley Jones and George Watt, and signed by over 1,500 registered voters, that demanded a citywide vote on any new master plan or land use project-a call almost precisely replicated in the “Heart of the City” petition drive launched by newly elected councilman Chris Cagle. The group’s primary concerns seemed to be the loss of the commercial core and, like opponents to the later proposal, the vastly increased housing density called for in the project. Council reaction to this petition is where the similarities between 1964 and 2002, however, end.

While the Heart of the City plan was quickly scrapped when an organized opposition arose, in 1964 the council, backed by the opinion of city attorney Arnold Cowan, declared the petition ambiguous and unlawful and chose to ignore its call for a special vote. What followed was a series of legal battles, eventually won by the council, and some mild compromises on housing density, that allowed the project to commence. The old downtown was razedand, in its place, the comparatively tiny International Boardwalk commercial area, the complex of offices on the “Upper Pier” and the various phases of the Village condominiums and townhouses were, over the next several years, eventually constructed.

If anything is to be learned from this earlier chapter in Redondo Beach’s history, it is that zoning and development controversies are never really settled in Southern California, but, like the lead character in a grade B slasher film, continually rise from the dead to plague the living. It is also clear that such political decisions profoundly impact the character of a city far into the future. Would the Heart of the City program have been broached if the old downtown had not been destroyed? What if, instead of leveling the commercial district and building apartments, the area had actually been “renewed,” a la 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica or Old Town Pasadena? Would Redondo be a different community today? Clearly, political activism matters, and whether a park or a commercial development is eventually constructed on the proposed Heart of the City site, citizens should be aware that the decision will resonate and profoundly influence the town’s future.

127    Land parcels acquired
188   Structures demolished
127    Individuals relocated
138   Businesses moved
868  Families moved