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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

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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Walter Lamb (not verified) on September 24, 2013 6:22 PM


The LA Times saw fit to revisit this issue after they learned more facts about the proposal, and NeonTommy should do the same. The author acknowledged that she didn't talk with any of the many organizations that oppose this project. We all make mistakes. However, someone at NeonTommy ought to do a proper fact checking and write a proper article.

Walter Lamb
Ballona Wetlands Land Trust

Nancy Graalman (not verified) on March 6, 2013 10:31 AM

Neon tommy editors quashed any validity of Kristin Yinger’s piece on the Annenberg Foundation’s Ballona Wetlands development proposal by tabbing it as “News,” when the only journalistically appropriate slot would have been neon tommy’s “Opinion” section. Perhaps the Senior Arts Editor and her professor(s) were aiming for a “news analysis,” but there can be no analysis without a balance of sources and research, no matter how long the effort takes to make sure the facts are correct ( . . . “Dewey Defeats Truman” comes to mind as what happens when rushing trumps verification).
Most disturbingly, the “article’s” headline and content carry the scent of the Annenberg Foundation’s accelerating campaign for its proposed project. That organization’s recent newsletter included a section titled “Setting the Record Straight,” which seems to echo in Ms. Yinger’s pejorative thesis question: But what if some of the details people got heated over were inaccurate?
The Annenberg newsletter promises to offer “clarity around the concepts so far,” but yet offers only bromides such as "The primary objective is to create a world class community resource"; "Great care will be given to minimize the “footprint” of any built structure"; "Hardscape will be kept to a minimum, but sufficient to support public safety access.” The wiggle room within these and the sliding scales of other development “concepts” should raise the antennae of all . . . and especially any news organization claiming that it can separate fact from fiction.
The most chilling words used to rationalize construction over a natural resource come in varying and euphemistic forms, including the description of “limited acreage”; “interpretive center”; “already degraded land”; and, square-footage “footprints” (a two-dimensional image that ignores the infrastructure and peripheral impacts). Each phrase masks an intent to deviate from the contracts written to protect public lands. It should be incumbent upon any reporter or news organization to study those deeds and to scrutinize the revisions sought that could ultimately betray the public trust.

Jonathan Coffin (not verified) on March 5, 2013 3:25 AM

This article appearing under the moniker of the "Annenberg Digital News" is self serving promotion of the Annenberg project proposal to build the "interpretive center" on the Ballona ecological reserve. It sets up opponents to the project as straw men. The details of the proposal are irrelevant. I'm opposed to the very idea of building an "interpretive center" on the ecological reserve. I don't find the idea intriguing at all but misguided.

Sharon Yarber (not verified) on March 4, 2013 8:47 PM

A dog and cat adoption facility with "themed" adoption suites, disguised as an educational center where people can walk around INSIDE to learn about nature OUTSIDE, in an ecological reserve is beyond ludicrous. The MOU makes it patently clear that 15-20 acres of area C will be impacted by this project. For anyone to suggest that a "mere" one acre of land in the reserve, which is already significantly smaller than it was and should continue to be, will be affected is (i) preposterous,(ii) wholely inaccurate and (iii) indicative of a lack of investigation into the realities of this debacle. The MOU speaks for itself. That the public is unable, notwithstanding Public Record Act Requests, to see any renderings of what Annenberg proposes to build and what Mr. Mayfield has apparently seen and is keeping hidden and confidential about the totality of the project, is beyond disgraceful. There is absolutely no transparency here - no one in the DF&W or Annenberg wants anyone to know what is REALLY contemplated. But I know - because I saw what Annenberg tried to build in Rancho Palos Verdes on coastal blufftop land owned by the public for recreational purposes. This land at Ballona is deed restricted to recreational uses. Institutional uses are not permitted in recreational areas under any zoning ordinance I have ever seen. That a draft EIR is being prepared where the consultant has not even seen any kind of rendering of what the proposed project icludes makes a mockery of the entire EIR process. I have an idea. Let's dispense with the EIR, fire all of the overpaid and overly pensionized staff of the DF&W who fail to understand that their job is to PRESERVE and PROTECT not destroy and develop limited, precious ecologically sensitive land, round up all of the birds, fish and other wildlife, taxedermy everything and put it in a museum so that future generations can see what life WAS back in the good old days (oh, and SELL the land to the highest bidder at a public auction - not in a negotiated private deal- and let the "philanthropic" purchaser who wants to education the children of tomorrow actually BUY the costly coastal land AND build the museum out of pocket.

David Kay (not verified) on March 4, 2013 1:25 PM

Nice article. Your professor should give you an "A".

It will be interesting to see the proposed interpretive center footprint and uses detailed in the project EIR (which is months away) and the analysis of impacts of that footprint and those uses. Taking a position that an interpretive center proposal is good, bad or neutral before an environmental analysis has yet to be drafted is premature.

From our experience across the state, we do know this about ecological reserves: (1) people who visit need a place to park, or they will park haphazardly off-road, often in sensitive habitat, (2) when they step out of their car, they need a receptacle in which to dispose of their fast-food trash, or they will toss it to the wind (3) they need sanitary restroom facilities, and (4) they need signage to instruct them on rules and direct them to a patrolled network of trails, or they will create damaging social trails.

The easternmost section of Area C, the highest elevation land in the entire Ballona reserve and most distant from tidal influence, dominated by non-native grasses and already developed with the ball fields seems an appropriate location to propose an interpretive center, subject to proper environmental analysis.

At San Dieguito, the regional Joint Powers Authority proposed a 6,000 sq.ft. visitor center, surrounded by 60 parking spaces, on upland area adcacent to a main thoroghfare, similar to the Annenberg proposal (location-wise).

David Kay
President, Board of Directors
Friends of Ballona Wetlands

Walter Lamb (not verified) on March 4, 2013 6:25 PM


It is certainly disappointing that you would rate the article by how well it hews to your own ideological views, rather than how well it was researched and sourced. This is the mindset that gave us Fox News. I hope Kristen will see your complement for what it is and understand that her efforts fell short on this one.

Inerestingly, your own comments support our position. No where in your list of necessities is a companion animal center, which your executive director admits is "odd" (an understatement in our opinion). The animal center is the primary driver for the project as well documented in several articles on the topic, including Vanity Fair and Forbes, and past planning documents for the similar project proposed for Rancho Palos Verdes. I'd be interested to hear you comment on this as you made no mention of it in your comments.

Interestingly, your organization has been running educational and interpretative programs for many years without the need to 46,000 sq ft of buildings. Why would you not use your own success as a model?

The MOU does clearly indicate that Friends of Ballona will be a beneficiary of the deal, as you have been of most of the deals struck in the area. I don't know you, but I do know Lisa and I know how passionate she is about what has been done in Area B and she has every right to be proud of that. However, I think you see this as a pragmatic decision where the sacrifice is offset by the money coming in and many of us just disagree. We can't keep trading land for dollars and expect to leave much for future generations.

Here is the MOU language: "A key goal of the Foundation will be to provide support for existing programs currently run within BWER, such as marsh and dune tours, providing program space for classes and
lectures furthering the current Volunteer based habitat restoration program and the promotion of
nature study, bird Watching classes and tours."

As for your suggestion that people must wait for the draft EIR before getting involved and asking questions, that certainly plays into the project proponents hands. The public scoping comment period ends on March 16th, despite our repeated requests for an extension to 90 days. After that deadline, the ability of the public to influence the scope of the EIR is significantly diminished.

If you think that the project is in the public interest and that opposition to it is illogical, then I would think that you would prefer an article that seeks to present multiple points of view, rather than suggesting that an article that only reflects your point of view should get an "A". Frankly, that says a lot.

Walter Lamb
Ballona Wetlands Land Trust

Donna (not verified) on March 4, 2013 12:11 PM

CORRECTION No. 2: Area C is NOT 15-20 acres in size! That is Fiction. It is app. 60-73 acres - depending on which report you read. Maybe you could do us all a favor and investigate this to find out what surveyor's measurements have determined the size to be. Find out the Facts, please.

As for your interpretation of the MOU language and the way it was worded, I'm sure that the way you read it is the way the Foundation would want the public to read it. However, grammatically it would be worded differently if the acreage applied to Area C. It doesn't. It applies to the proposed development. The statement simply says the Foundation "desires to construct and operate facilities . . comprising approximately 15-20 acres" (the “Ballona Interpretive Center") within Area C.
The portion of Area C's 60+ acres for the proposed facilities would be 15-20 acres.

The proposed building size is UNKNOWN as 46,000sq.ft. is only the "footprint" - the outline on the ground, the foundation. This foundation would be just over one acre. That's the Fact. There is nothing about how many stories high it might be. It could be 2 or 3 times 46,000sq.ft. without changing the footprint. Would you look into this? There must be some designs by now of the proposed Center. Ask Mr. Mayfield what he was shown. Ask the Annenberg Foundation to make the designs public before March 15.

Glad I helped you realize how important it is for a reporter to check documents for the facts rather than relying on statements from various sources, even "official" statements. Double check with your sources. If you don't have the facts before the deadline, then don't submit the article. Please publish another article with the true facts, rather than just making online corrections to this flawed one.

Walter Lamb (not verified) on March 4, 2013 3:03 AM

Kristen - Your response that I am welcome to disagree with your article would make sense if we disagreed about something subjective, like a movie or restaurant review. Your facts are wrong because you didn't properly research and source your story. As a result, the main theme of your article, that opposition to the Annenberg proposal is based on fiction, is false and misleading to your readers. I'm sorry, but that is simply not good reporting. If journalism students are being taught that you just publish whatever you have when the deadline arrives, regardless of quality, then that concerns me greatly, as does your comment that the beauty of online is that you can just make corrections to the story on the fly (but probably long after most people have read it).

Also, please give some thought to your comment below regarding the size of the project. Your interpretation of the MOU would mean that the writers of that detailed, official document didn't bother to check how big Area C is. You could find out how big Area C is by reading the EPA document that you linked to at the bottom of your article (Answer: roughly 64 acres on both sides of Culver Blvd). You could then read the MOU more closely to see why the total project area is larger than the 46,000 sq ft of actual buildings:

The Foundation is Willing to design, construct, maintain, and operate the Ballona
Interpretive Center and supporting infrastructure which could include such items as restrooms,
interpretive elements, recreation elements, and landscape elements. The Foundation intends to
plan and design the area surrounding the Ballona Interpretive Center as an integrated element of
the Restoration Project.

I really hope that you can take a step back and understand why this is so troublesome. I am a busy person with a full-time job and family and deadlines of my own. I have been volunteering time and donating money toward the preservation of this ecosystem for over 10 years (and others have for far longer). It should not be my job to point these basic things out to you. Rather than be defensive about your article, perhaps you could take responsibility for it, and take the time to correct the record with a complete redo of this article.


Walter Lamb

yinger on March 3, 2013 5:33 PM

Walter-I chose this topic of my own accord because I currently reside in Westchester and have grown up in the area. I am the only one who bothered to cover this for the website. We do not have an environment section and I felt that the wetlands was something that needed to be discussed. The LA Times as well as other local publications have all reported initially on this evolving story and I did a follow-up to their articles. As with those publications, we have deadlines that must be made. These interviews I felt added something to the public discussion over the newest developments with the project. You are more than welcome to disagree with me or dislike what I have written.

Walter Lamb (not verified) on March 3, 2013 3:00 PM

Aside from my criticisms of the one-sidedness of the article, there are some additional points that need to be addressed:

- there are plenty of native plants and birds in Area C. There is a group that does monthly restoration events trying to improve he area. We've asked for Rick Mayfield to set up tours so that people can see for themselves what is there but he hasn't done so.

- as Lisa Fimiani notes, this is about a center for domestic pets. It doesn't belong in an ecological reserve, no matter how much Ms. Annenberg loves her pets (I love mine, too, by the way, and have rescued and found homes for many stray cats)

- the quote about the area that Annenberg wants to build on needing restoration seems odd. How are these buildings restoration? If the area is currently degraded due to all he fill that was deposited there, how is depositing more fill, which is specified in the MOU, going to improve the habitat there?

- Mr. Mayfield's comment that kids will be able to learn about the watershed without having to hike out there reflects an approach to nature education that we strongly disagree with. Ms. Fimiani knows first hand how much children can learn in a purely outdoor educational setting. While we disagree with her organization's past decision to settle with the developers and to give up on large parcels of land within the original ecosystem, we applaud what they have done with the land that they gained access to as part of that settlement. We wish that they would join us in urging Annenberg to duplicate that success in Area C.

Walter Lamb