PACIFIC PALISADES - The infeasibility of Will Rogers State Beach (WRSB) as a temporary site for housing the homeless was raised in numerous conversations among multiple city, county and state organizations long before Councilmember Mike Bonin proposed a feasibility study.
This information was revealed in public records requested by Chris Spitz of the Pacific Palisades Community Council (PPCC), where she is secretary and a chair emeritus.
Bonin requested the feasibility study of putting up temporary homeless housing at several Westside parks and beaches in late March 2021. The City Council directed the Study in late May. The City Administrative Officer (CAO) responded to that request on August 10 by recommending that the City of Los Angeles not pursue building tiny homes or allowing safe camping sites at WRSB, Dockweiler State Beach, City-owned parks in Mar Vista and Westchester or a privately owned lot at 5000 Beethoven Avenue in del Rey.
On June 1, Spitz filed the public records request (directed to the CAO), which asked the CAO’s office for all communications that transpired before and during the decision-making process. She received these documents a few days after the CAO released its findings.
Spitz says that although community members and beachgoers throughout L.A. Council District 11 (CD11) and beyond are relieved that Will Rogers was not found feasible for homeless housing, PPCC's Executive Committee believes it is important for the public to have a complete picture of all relevant facts.
"These documents confirm the extent to which public officials worked to advance their misguided plan to use state beach parking lots for homeless housing," says Spitz. She adds that through her June 1 request and earlier PRA requests, she discovered that discussions about using WRSB for this purpose began more than a year ago, as early as August 2020. She also notes that factors demonstrating the infeasibility of the location were communicated to the council office and the CAO throughout the process but were not acknowledged.
"Unfortunately, it appears that our officials, for the most part, ignored, kept from the public or made little or no effort to ascertain fundamental, dispositive facts."
Spitz says she learned from State Senator Ben Allen's office that because the state is under a pandemic emergency order, state resources (such as WRSB) are generally not allocated for use by local governments unless no equivalent resources are available at the county level. "This information alone demonstrated the feasibility was not there from the get-go,” says Spitz.
In its report, the CAO noted that Will Rogers was not built for 24/7 residential use. The site, for example, has inadequate utility capacity and would need new hydrants, which were pointed out in early communications among multiple agencies.
According to the public records given to Spitz by the CAO office, the L.A. Bureau of Engineering and CD 11 staff began to explore the possibility of pallet shelter housing one year ago.
In one of the first email threads on September 9, 2020, CD11 and CAO staff noted that they were "excited about the possibility of a pallet shelter site" and wanted to begin looking at Will Rogers, among other sites. Bonin's office stated: "This one has a lot of players. It's part of the beach parking at Will Rogers beach...managed by [the Department of] Beaches and Harbors. Supervisor [Sheila] Kuehl's office is involved."
A few days later, key staff at Beaches and Harbors (B&H), CD11 and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority exchanged information.
The emails were essentially about timing for the approval of the site, but also highlighted concerns expressed by B&H Deputy Director Kerry Silverstrom. "Allow me to respond with some off-the-top issues I see,” Silverstrom wrote. “This is a state beach, so we need to assess if securing State Parks’ approval is required. In addition, Coastal Commission approval would be needed (‘could be the longest aspect of the process’); ‘infrastructure enhancements’ might be needed for water and sewer access; lines might be added to power poles at the site for electricity; a ‘community engagement process’ would ‘presumably’ be undertaken; a ‘tri-party agreement’ between the City, County and LAHSA would ‘perhaps’ be needed; there is a ‘curfew issue’; there are issues with current County anti-loitering and anti-habitation ordinance provisions [no overnight sleeping/camping on the beach], but exemptions ‘can fairly easily be accomplished.’ A final issue: loss of parking revenues to the county, a concern of B&H that ‘needs to be discussed with Kuehl's office.’"
September 22, 2020 emails sent by the CAO’s office, again pointed out the complications of using the site, calling for the involvement of the City Attorney to review the various ordinances that might impact the CDP with the Coastal Commission. "If it is overnight, the City and County have to deal with the ordinances."
A retired Cal Parks Angeles Superintendent expressed concern about the use of beach property, as explained in October 5-6, 2020 emails. "I'm trying to get from him the State code section he peeled off, which I didn't pay appropriate attention to during my call," wrote a representative of B&H.
Other email exchanges on those two days raised concerns about lost beach parking revenue and community members' pushback about youth camps during the summer. "We can deal with our beach ordinance conflicts," the email from the B&H representative states. "Although Will Rogers doesn't always sell out, during the summer…we would be heavily impacted and, given the extreme heat, we're even seeing the lots reaching full capacity now."
From October 2020 through February 2021, infrastructure was discussed in emails. They again expressed concerns about the accessibility of running water and electricity and installing new fire hydrants.
In early March 2021, shortly before the motion requesting a feasibility study was filed, a CD 11 representative told CAO staffers that “the boss is firmly set on all of the sites.”
A letter in mid-June from Mayor Eric Garcetti to Supervisors Kuehl and Janice Hahn with the subject line "County-owned beaches" indicated his support for the proposal and requested that B&H "waive the requirement for the City to pay for parking revenue lost for the duration these sites may be used in the future." Garcetti explained that the cost to the City for the three-year term [the term being contemplated] for the use of these sites would be "$35,904 annually or $107,712 for the three-year term" for WRSB.
Another email in June from the CAO (then Richard Llewellyn, who left at the end of June and is now interim chief of staff for the Mayor, replaced as CAO in early July by former deputy chief of staff to the Mayor Matt Szabo) alerted CAO staffers and the City Attorney’s office to the fact that constituents were “lawyered up.”
Jumping ahead to June 22, 2021, emails once again addressed the use of a state park: "The State Department of Parks and Recreation would need to approve the use and sign onto your Coastal Commission CDP application."
An additional document involving an L.A. County Safe Parking Lot Survey completed by B&H showed: “We are concerned about individuals having unfettered access to the sand and ocean when it’s dark and when the beach is ‘closed.’ Also, the lot is occasionally used at night by filming companies.”
Costs of building at the site were also discussed. One email indicated the estimated cost of the Will Rogers site would be $3,091,615.
While email exchanges took place between the core groups of CAO, Bonin’s office and other agencies the PPCC addressed concerns with emails sent to multiple state, county and city agencies during the same time -- concerns the PPCC points out should have made the feasibility nonexistent from the beginning. Among them, the fact that governing documents [by which the city has been only a month-to-month lessee for 22 years], the Cal Parks General Plan for WRSB and controlling state law all require that the beach be used for public recreational uses only.
Emails sent from David Card, Chair of the PPCC, points out that one of the primary reasons for the PPCC” s opposition to homeless housing at Will Rogers is that: “Governing documents make clear that WRSB is a State Park which is to be used for recreational uses by all members of the public, not for housing of any kind.” The emails also state that putting up housing at Will Rogers would violate the Coastal Act's core mandate to protect public access to the beach, shoreline and ocean [public trust land].
As to whether a feasibility study was even needed in the first place: “This is nonsense. A study, whether conducted by the city, county or state, is clearly not required to understand that it should be out of the question to use state beaches and their appurtenant facilities for homeless housing. State beaches are our crown jewel public resource, where dwelling or habitation is expressly prohibited by LA County law,” the PPCC highlighted in a public statement.
“We haven’t been able to find a single other instance in California where a homeless encampment or shelter of any kind has been allowed to be located at a public beach. The reasons for this are obvious. As Judge Carter recognized, these treasured public spaces must be reserved for use by all citizens as they were intended to be used: for public access and recreation, not as dwelling spaces for the homeless.”
The PPCC also said the fact that they and the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness – which daily conducts outreach with homeless individuals at WRSB -- were left out of the process from the beginning was “disturbing”.“Given the importance of this matter and the legitimate concerns expressed by constituents, the failure to acknowledge our concerns or respond at all is disturbing.”
Something Council District 11 Candidate Traci Park has also highlighted. “The city spent a lot of time and resources to conclude what we all knew all along: these locations were never feasible in the first place. If [Mike] Bonin had bothered to engage with the local community before bringing this motion, we could have told him that our beaches and parks were not suitable. He didn’t ask, and he didn’t care.”
Spitz says she hopes that what she and the PPCC discovered through the latest public records will help as other areas [such as the MDR boat launch, a County-owned property] are still being considered. She also says that transparency is key in the process.
"We hope and trust that this ill-conceived idea will not be raised again—and that appropriate, safe sites, not involving beaches or parks, will be found to house the homeless in Los Angeles."