It could have been any other early-fall Southern California barbecue. The easygoing weather, old friends and good food in a sleepy beach town — Playa del Rey.

But partygoers were dismayed over three developments proposed by Edward M. Czuker and his company, EMC Development LLC, for the heart of the community. The developer was said to be seeking three projects including about 148 residential units and encompassing roughly 20,000 square feet of retail.

Czuker is not known for subtle or small. He once plunked a faux–French chateau apartment complex on a stretch of Lincoln Boulevard. And he was involved in megadevelopments in Marina del Rey and Channel Islands Harbor in Ventura County. Would Czuker’s plans spell the demise of the last original beach town still standing in Los Angeles?

To look at Playa del Rey is not to look at much, at first. Real estate interests tried and failed to define the community, founded in 1901, through large-scale development projects at four pivotal points in the town’s history, says local historian David “Duke” Dukesherer. The attempts did not always work out. During the depression, Fritz Burns, general manager of a local real estate empire, was so destitute he lived in a tent.

Instead, Playa del Rey grew more or less organically. Today, it is a sliver of a town composed of nondescript architecture and mini-neighborhoods like “the Jungle,” jammed with 1950s apartments and gentrified condos a stone’s throw from the beach. Up on the bluffs, more luxurious homes have taken root.

Even “the village,” as residents dub the small retail area where Czuker has two parcels, has none of the quaint visuals this designation implies on the coast. Instead, it’s ramshackle bars, funky cafés and squat little stores.

Residents, however, see the 11,000-person town differently. “It’s kind of a little gem, this little beach village we have,” says Marcia Hanscom, an environmentalist. “People enjoy the beach and the wetlands, but it’s a quiet little town during the evenings.”

With swank Manhattan Beach to its south, the skyscrapers of Marina del Rey to its north, and the insta-city of Playa Vista to its east, the area has still got that hometown feel.

“You can walk down the street and say hi to neighbors and friends,” says Lance Williams, who, 13 years ago, purchased Playa del Rey Florists, a local institution for decades.

The yearning here for livable space is, in truth, replicated all over Los Angeles, where large-scale development and mansion-ization are sweeping away communities. Mom-and-pop stores are wiped out by chains, and unique histories give way to the generic.

Joe Geever, born in neighboring Westchester, which sits atop a bluff and looks out over the Ballona wetlands, camped on Playa’s dunes as a kid. Now he’s an attorney for the Surfrider Foundation, which fights to protect the ocean.

“Playa del Rey is representative of a cultural heritage,” Geever says. “The beaches in the ’60s and ’70s were not the place for wealthy residential development. Back then, they were really attractive to people who went out and used the beach — swam and surfed.”

Until the 1970s, places like Palos Verdes were populated by those “fascinated with coastal culture,” notes Scott Hulet, who edits The Surfer’s Journal. “People who spent every waking moment they weren’t at work on the beach.” The ocean was beautiful, but also part of the fabric of life, from the black sea bass they spear-fished to the lobsters and abalone they dove for.

Hulet pegs the demise of Southern California’s beach-town lifestyle to a specific event: “I see the tipping point as being really definable — and that’s when you could no longer find abalone, in the late ’60s,” he says. Locally, the kelp beds and sea life were being wiped out by undertreated sewage, runoff and other degradation from L.A.’s burgeoning population.

“Now,” says Geever, “I’ve got a sense that people who live right on the beach in the most expensive property, they’re not there because they use those resources. They’re there because they like to look at them from inside their darkened windows.”

The notion of living closer to the natural world drew many to Playa del Rey. The Pacific lay to the west, Ballona Creek to the north, the Ballona Wetlands to the east, and a freshwater lagoon sat at its center.

“The beach was my backyard,” says Dukesherer, whose family also lived in Westchester, and spent hours on the water together. “I have a crystal-clear recollection of being on my dad’s paddleboard, with my dad. He was in awe of the ocean.”

Dukesherer became a surfer and took on that philosophy. “I learned a lot on Toes Beach — about people, respect for the water, respect for the land. You’re dealing with some pretty big waves, so you better respect the ocean and the tides. You’re trying to control them but they can control you pretty darn fast.”

Julie Inoye, a resident for 30 years, mirrors Dukesherer’s values. “We have 200-plus acres of open space and wetlands. Where else do you have that in the city? I grew up on a farm; so did my husband. I’m very appreciative of land. I don’t think we own land, we care for land.”

It’s this custodial identity that drives concern about Czuker’s proposed development for Toes Beach. His plan to build 28 homes there would wipe out a stretch of very rare sand dunes.

“[That] is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, like we don’t have enough homes on the beach already,” Dukesherer says.

“The one piece that really raises red flags for me is development on those coastal dunes,” agrees Geever, who also learned to surf at Toes Beach.

Known technically as foredunes, “they are the last [such topographies] in the whole Santa Monica Bay area,” according to Janice Whiffen, who heads Save Our Dunes Alliance. “There are professors at UCLA who bring their students to this area to study foredunes.”

“My colleague Tony Orme did so for many years,” says Travis Longcore, a lecturer at UCLA who specializes in conservation biology and restoration ecology, and is co-founder and science director of the Urban Wildlands Group.

Longcore sees the dunes as a key component of a project to re-establish and link natural habitats that were once part of a strongly connected ecosystem including Baldwin Hills, the Ballona Wetlands, the lagoon, the foredunes and even grasslands near close-by LAX.

While representatives of Czuker’s company have met with some residents, presenting the firm’s ideas to the local neighborhood council in August, last month Czuker’s team ramped up its activity, approaching the area’s Los Angeles City Council representative, Bill Rosendahl — a traditional step taken by any smart L.A. developer about to file official papers and seek permission to build in an area.

With both the dunes and the beach-town ethos threatened, community members are gearing up to resist. “We learned from Playa Vista that we acquiesced too much, that we gave too much — we’re not going to do that now,” says Dukesherer. Despite years of battle by more than 100 environmental groups, the go-ahead for the massive Playa Vista came down, in part, to a single politician — then-Councilwoman Ruth Galanter — a reflection of Los Angeles City Hall’s infamous practice of letting each of the 15 council members act as sole “development czar” for the huge, 266,000-person City Council districts they represent.

But Dukesherer notes that this time, city planners and politicians, and even the California Coastal Commission, may not have the last word: A report to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on the impacts of climate change has projected that by 2050, Czuker’s prized Playa del Rey properties may be underwater.

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