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Ballona Wetlands Restoration: Separating Fact From Fiction

Kristin Yinger |
March 1, 2013 | 9:39 p.m. PST

Senior Arts Editor


The site of the Annenberg Foundation’s proposed interpretive center, adjacent to the Little League fields (Google Maps).
The site of the Annenberg Foundation’s proposed interpretive center, adjacent to the Little League fields (Google Maps).
Almost a month ago, an announcement that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife was set to sign a deal with the Annenberg Foundation to allow for the building of an interpretive center in the Ballona Wetlands added to the controversy surrounding the park's restoration. 

Some people were up in arms over what they heard or read: that not only would this center be built on an ecological reserve but part of that square footage would be used for a parking lot and that there would be a restaurant too. But what if some of the details people got heated over were inaccurate? 

The proposed $50-million, 46,000-square-foot Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve interpretive center could offer an auditorium, classrooms, facilities for animal adoption and care, exhibits on wildlife and the wetlands, office space and optional retail and concessions space as well as parking, according to the amended notice of preparation

Encompassing more than 600 acres, the Ballona Wetlands has several different types of areas from the uplands to saltwater marshes to the freshwater marsh, to the sand dune and intertidal zones. Part of the land used to be owned by famed aviator Howard Hughes. While some nonprofit groups work on certain sections doing restoration, there are now plans in the works for a full-scale restoration on the wetlands. The proposed interpretive center would sit on one acre, in between Culver Boulevard and the Ballona Creek, on land that it is in very poor condition. 

While there has been no deal signed yet, a memorandum of understanding has been signed by the Annenberg Foundation, the fish and wildlife department, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Committee and the State Coastal Conservancy. The memorandum is a non-legally binding agreement to continue discussions about the project. 

The news that there had been a deal signed was just one of many misunderstandings that Rick Mayfield, Wildlife and Land Programs Supervisor for the South Coast Region at the fish and wildlife department, is trying to debunk. 

“This is the initial part of the environmental impact report process. There was nothing set in stone and nothing selected,” Mayfield said. “No decision has been made to move forward. The department will decide on a range of alternatives after comments and community input by the summer. It’s all pretty conceptual right now.” 

The department made available the updated planning document that specifically describes the Annenberg Foundation’s interpretive center proposal as being an alternative considered. The public has until March 16 to submit comments about the alternatives, Mayfield said. 

The Annenberg Foundation’s statement on the project showed its commitment to not only bettering public access to this section of the wetlands, but also to the larger restoration project. 

“Among other goals, the Ballona project will provide opportunities to educate visitors on the ecological importance of wetlands, native habitat and how the community can interact with it in a responsible, respectful way,” the statement said. “Encompassing about one acre, the interpretive center is only one small part of the effort.”

The lot in question for the proposed interpretive center is adjacent to Little League fields and bordered by Culver Boulevard on one side, Lincoln Boulevard on another and also the 90 Marina Freeway and the Ballona Creek bike path. The existing baseball fields have parking spaces for 200 cars and Mayfield says that there will be no additional parking spaces added with the current plan. 

In addition to misleading claims about the parking lot, there is concern over a proposed restaurant. According to Mayfield, “There is no talk of a restaurant. I’ve been at every planning meeting and discussion. The Little League has a snack bar. The ball fields will stay and be improved. And if the snack bar could be improved so that people visiting could get a water [bottle] and a snack there, then we will improve it.” 

Nonprofit groups working on the ecological reserve point to this area as being one of the most degraded sections of the over 600-acre wetlands expanse. Executive Director of nonprofit Friends of Ballona Wetlands, Lisa Fimiani, also “an impassioned bird watcher,” has been keeping an eye on the area to see if there are signs of improved health but has not found any. 

“I have been looking for indicator bird species that the area is doing better, but it’s mostly weeds and fill. There are not a lot of native plants or bird species,” Fimiani said. “My personal experience tells me it needs a lot of restoration. The area where Annenberg wants to build desperately needs the restoration.”

Friends of Ballona Wetlands has worked to conserve the wetlands for 35 years, 20 of which they have spent giving weekly tours, many to elementary school children that come from all over Los Angeles to see the county’s only remaining watershed. They work closely with the CDFW and are allowed to carry out their own restoration projects, using hand tools and volunteers to weed out non-native plants and re-plant damaged areas. 

“We welcome in general into the watershed anyone who wants to improve the watershed,” Fimiani said. “Annenberg sounds like they want to do the right thing.” 

But she admits she is curious about the plans going forward. “Some aspects sound a little odd; like that they want a veterinary clinic and classes on the proper management of pets,” she said. “This is an ecological reserve, why are they bringing in pets? But then you need to step back…Wallis Annenberg (President and CEO of the Foundation) loves her pets. There are a lot of pets who are abandoned in the wetlands.” 

The freshwater marsh contains nesting islands for many different species of birds and acts as a water filter for Playa Vista. (Kristin Yinger/Neon Tommy)
The freshwater marsh contains nesting islands for many different species of birds and acts as a water filter for Playa Vista. (Kristin Yinger/Neon Tommy)
Friends of Ballona point to the success of the freshwater marsh paid for and maintained by Playa Vista as a precedent for partnering with larger organizations to bring about restoration to the wetlands. 
Dedicated eight years ago, these 18 acres provide nesting islands for migrating birds and a home for native California plants and also act as a runoff filter for Playa Vista. The marshes act as both a sponge and a filter, cleaning the water along the way. 
June Walden, a docent from Friends of Ballona, was a Loyola Village Elementary School teacher in Westchester for years before joining the Friends in 2000. 
“Friends does what is best for the wetlands. Sometimes it means compromise. Sometimes it means getting Playa Vista to build this,” Walden said. The freshwater marsh “is only 18 acres of 610. There are so many possibilities.”
This could be a sign of pragmatism coming from an environmental group, but not all groups feel the same way and some, like the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, stand by the principle of not building on any part of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve. 
Mayfield remains optimistic and is especially intrigued by one of the design concepts for the interpretive center. “Half of the facility would be put to understanding the wetlands. When you walk in one end of the building, it would be the uplands and as you progress through the building you would walk through the other areas, like the marshes and then out to the ocean at the other end,” Mayfield said. “Each section would have different exhibits about that part of the wetlands. It would show how the whole watershed works without you hiking out there.”
Want to learn more about the reserve and its various areas? Check out this report by the EPA (Figure 7 on pg. 18 shows the outlines of Areas A, B and C.)
Reach Senior Arts Editor Kristin here



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