By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
What do you do if you’re an L.A. County official, faced with a Marina del Rey developer who, despite angry tenants, legal problems and rotting docks, wants to extend his county lease? If that developer is former lobbyist and powerful businessman/ attorney Doug Ring, you recommend giving him control of the multimillion-dollar property for an extra 40 years.
Ring is just one of the real estate magnates circling Marina del Rey these days with visions of a new marina — complete with a four-star resort and entertainment center — dancing in their heads. But Ring stands out as the one with the best political connections and the longest history of political largess — he’s been a major campaign contributor for decades — as well as the marina landlord with one of the worst records for maintenance and tenant complaints.
Negotiations over extending the leases at Marina II are now under way with the Department of Beaches and Harbors. But as the county considers doing a few more decades of business with Ring, boat owners complain that dock repairs have been dangerously neglected, apartment tenants are threatening to sue amid accusations of mismanagement and broken promises, and lawsuits once filed over Marina II’s business practices are being refiled. One recent plaintiff even succeeded in challenging the legal status of Marina II’s ownership.
As county officials decide who will be the chosen ones on hand for future bounty, the deliberations over Ring’s status raise questions about the county’s own performance. Based on the record to date, neither the supervisors nor their minions at the department of Beaches and Harbors have proved capable of managing the competing interests and myriad problems arising from a public asset that some consider a crown jewel of L.A. County real estate.
In the early 1960s, Marina del Rey was an undeveloped gamble that the county planned to lease to wealthy entrepreneurs willing to build a marina on a former swamp. A $13 million bond resolution from 1959 had paid for the drainage, streets, sewers and other needed facilities first, with hopes that soon the public would have access to boating and a waterfront park. The property was then leased to developers to build apartments and docks, and the county in return got a small cut of the millions of dollars in annual revenue.
It’s 30 years later, and the marina is not a gamble but a revenue center, not a public playground but a posh residential retreat for well-heeled Westsiders, and now the Board of Supervisors has approved a plan to bring another hotel and a Third Street Promenade–style shopping center to the harbor. The county is in the driver’s seat for these new deals as developers bid for a piece of the action — five on the entertainment complex and four on the hotel.
In the meantime, the elite group of businessmen holding current leases on the apartment buildings and boat slips that make up the seaside development have a chance to avoid such bruising competition. They can instead apply on an exclusive basis to extend what were originally 60-year leases. Nearly all of the 51 leases making money for the county — about $26 million in fiscal year ’97-’98 — will expire by 2029, when the properties would return to county control. But county officials assumed that a wait would jeopardize the plans for new development at the marina and, in March 1998, issued an "invitation" for current leaseholders to apply for extensions. Marina activists, who have criticized the county’s supervision of these leaseholders in the past, saw the extensions as further reward for powerful campaign contributors at the expense of the public.
"They’re giving away this public asset to a handful of people," said John Rizzo, president of the Marina Tenants Association. "It’s not a public marina run for the people. It’s set up as a way to get campaign contributions, not to benefit people who live [at] and use the marina."
It’s a familiar refrain for Rizzo, who has been fighting this battle for 20 years. He and others have argued that the county doesn’t receive a fair share of the revenue generated by the marina, that the county charges lower rents to the developers than market values dictate, and that the marina does not operate — as called for in the marina’s master lease — to the "maximum benefit" of the public. In 1994, Rizzo managed to persuade the L.A. County grand jury to ask the District Attorney’s Office to investigate all the county’s leases. The D.A.’s Office met with Rizzo to discuss the situation further, but chose not to investigate the charges, instead informing Rizzo in a terse letter that "without substantial evidence to indicate that a crime has been committed, our review of your materials will remain closed."
There seems little dispute, however, over one of the central charges made by marina tenants — that lax maintenance has allowed many of the facilities to fall into disrepair. County staff seem to validate that claim even as they advise the board to go ahead with the extensions, predicting that "as the leaseholds near expiration, maintenance levels will inevitably decline, rents will grow at progressively slower rates, and the project could become blighted."