Every morning while it's still dark, they leave their homes scattered across Los Angeles County to arrive at Mother's Beach in Marina del Rey before dawn. They wade into the water, lugging their boats, in groups of eight or four.
With the coxswain tucked in the stern of the boat quietly issuing instructions, the rowers make their way into the channel, oars slapping against the placid saltwater finger of the Pacific Ocean.
Recent movie The Social Network portrays rowers as members of a privileged WASP elite, with a boundless sense of entitlement. That's not what the rowers at Mother's Beach look like. They come in all ages, sizes and ethnicities and represent a wide variety of professions, including students, retirees, teachers, computer programmers, actors, administrators and lawyers. They take to the water in outrigger canoes, kayaks, skulls and shells.
Some of them have been rowing since high school, others are novices to the sport's rigors and rituals.
Mother's Beach, all 450 feet of it, has had a low profile. The last time it was in the news was in August, when some docile sharks took up residence to play offshore.
Those aren't the sharks that worry boaters at Mother's Beach and residents of Marina del Rey.
They say they're worried about a different kind of shark that they see as much less benign — Los Angeles County officials whose plans to foster massive private development would undermine public recreation and clog traffic.
Those plans include six major projects: a 19-story hotel and time-share tower; a 526-unit apartment complex; 114 luxury units for senior citizens; a six-story residential, commercial and retail complex; a five-story office building with a six-story parking tower; and a 161,000–square-foot complex of retail, commercial and residential space.
It's the latest battle in a long war over what Marina del Rey should be.
The founders of the marina, 400 acres of choice shoreline adjacent to 400 acres of water, all owned by Los Angeles County taxpayers, had a dream: Create a publicly funded oasis where a person of any income level, not just members of the yacht club, could use the harbor.
That lasted about five minutes.
County politicians and private developers who partnered with them saw the marina as a potential bonanza. The dream and the reality have been in conflict since 1965.
Officials at the county Department of Beaches and Harbors promise that their "redevelopment" plan will leave public recreation intact and won't create more traffic.
"We're really not trying to bully these people," says Michael Tripp, principal planner for special projects in the Department of Regional Planning, who says the county will balance development with recreation.
But Tripp and harbor department officials insist the marina's 8,500 residents and critics of the county plan wait until later on to participate in a "visioning process" that addresses ways of protecting recreational and public uses.
That's completely backward, says marina activist David Barish, co-director of We Are Marina del Rey, a group that for years has fought development in the marina. Barish, who has written a point-by-point critique of the county's proposals, says once the developments are approved, it's too late for "visioning."
"Do we really need more condos and more high-end retail?" Barish asks. "The highest priority should be a community-based master plan, one that focuses on the original mandate for the marina as a public recreational asset. We don't want to live in Marina del Vegas."
Many critics say the plans amount to privatizing a big chunk of the marina and would bring an end to public recreation by reducing access, increasing traffic and limiting parking.
One of those critics, veteran attorney Barry Fisher, has become increasingly devoted to rowing over the past six years and spends early mornings working on his stroke in solo boats or doubles.
Fisher's latest cause is protecting Mother's Beach as a refuge for rowers. He's vice president of the Los Angeles Rowing Club, whose members launch their boats early in the morning from the beach.
Fisher notes that Marina del Rey was built primarily with public money and was intended as a public resource.
"This is completely at odds with the spirit of how the environmental laws are supposed to work," he says. "Those laws require that you present assessments, disclose impact and present mitigation. Here, the whole process is so stacked, it's not fair."
He's referring to five of the six proposed developments that the county has designated its "pipeline" projects, from the 526-unit apartment complex to the luxury housing for retirees.
The county regional planners aren't actually evaluating the five projects. Instead, the planners are establishing acceptable criteria for development within guidelines set by the California Coastal Commission. They then will place the criteria in an amendment to a document known as a Local Coastal Program, which must be approved by the coastal commission.
Then, developers will come back for approval of the five projects.
Fisher says the pipeline criteria are nothing more than county officials "greasing the skids" to clear the way for the desired developments and approvals by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
A plan to slash public parking near Mother's Beach by more than 60 percent is of particular concern to rowers who rely on the lots for beach access.
The publicly owned lots, which are easy walking distance from the saltwater, are worth a fortune if the county lets a private developer transform them into the imposing luxury office, residential and shopping complex the county has in mind.
Steve Cho, immediate past president of the marina's outrigger canoe club and an architect, says, "Each of those spaces is worth big-time money. One space is worth $200,000."
County planners also want to squeeze some rowing activities into an area used by motorboats, and force rowers to launch from a floating dock.
This idea has caught the attention of the national rowing group USRowing, and it's not pleased. In a letter to county planners, USRowing CEO Glenn Merry said "serious safety concerns loom" if local rowers are made to navigate their low-lying, man-powered crafts next to "large vessels in close proximity with little room for error or escape."
That could pose a particular challenge for one group of novices — the 15 high school girls in RowLA, a program started by Liz Greenberger, which not only provides free rowing training but also helps prepare for college those students who otherwise wouldn't have access to either.
On a recent Saturday, four of the girls competed for the first time. "We didn't win, but we didn't feel defeated," says one, Penny Gallardo. "It was our first race."
Gallardo, a 15-year-old at Culver High, said before her friends told her about RowLA, she'd never heard of rowing. Now she's been doing it for about a year. "I like it — it's really hard. Our coach said that in all the years she's been doing it, she's never seen anyone do a perfect stroke."
A former county official sees the county's planning process undermining access to the shore for kids like Gallardo because of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Reducing parking and increasing development discourage Angelenos from coming to the marina for recreation.
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Instead, critics see the unique public marina being nudged toward becoming like much of cluttered L.A. — chain stores, dense housing and luxury towers.
Jim Fawcett, former planning director of the Department of Beaches and Harbors, is now director of marine science and policy outreach at USC's Sea Grant Program. He says the county's plan to turn public parking at the marina into private development clearly "forecloses the possibility that the county will enhance the opportunities for public recreation" there.
"There's this struggle within the mind of the county: Is this a recreational resource — or is it a cash cow?" he notes.
The Department of Regional Planning has scheduled its next hearing on the marina development for Dec. 15. Gallardo and her RowLA team will compete in the Christmas Regatta at Mother's Beach on Dec. 5.