Get ready for the slow lane on PCH

Remember when driving on PCH felt like this? Take a good look. Roadwork is on the way.

Pacific Coast Highway may be famed for its scenic vistas, but for locals, the real talk of the town is its construction zones.

“It’s a running joke here,” says 14-year resident P.J. Manney. “As soon as the tourists arrive, Caltrans shows up. This year, though, we’re actually a little freaked out.”

That’s because, beginning next week, traffic in Malibu and Santa Monica is expected to become extra congested for locals, commuters and sightseers, thanks to two long-term and several shorter-term public works projects along PCH.

The upshot? An already frustrating—and occasionally dangerous—stretch of one of America’s most storied highways is about to acquire even more roadblocks.

“The reasons are all positive, but getting there is going to be a real inconvenience,” sighs Elizabeth Anthony, who is bracing for a long, gridlocked summer near her home on Point Dume.

“I can’t say we shouldn’t have these projects, but for those who live out here, they’re a real concern.”

The roadwork arises from a variety of safety and environmental issues, and is being coordinated by the various jurisdictions. Among other measures to minimize the pain, officials plan to use “dynamic lanes” to ease traffic backups, creating more southbound lanes on PCH during morning rush hour, for instance, and more northbound lanes in the evening rush when commuters are heading home.

Still, locals say, PCH will be a slog. Among the projects:

  • The second phase of the $9 million Coastal Interceptor Relief Sewer. This will shut down a 900-foot southbound stretch of PCH to expand sewer capacity between Chautauqua Boulevard and the Annenberg Community Beach House. Expected to start April 15, the year-long City of Los Angeles project will improve the capture of urban runoff that now runs directly into the ocean. The upgrade, financed by a bond measure, is necessary to meet federal water quality standards. Work will occur every day except on Sundays.
  • A City of Santa Monica repair and repaving project around the California Incline, the slanted street that connects Ocean Avenue along the Santa Monica bluffs to PCH down below. Work will start in early September and is expected to continue at least through 2015.
  • An assortment of safety-related City of Malibu projects, some of which have already begun. A particularly hazardous intersection at PCH and Big Rock Drive, for instance, will finally get a long-awaited left-turn signal, and a nearly 25-year-old “arrestor ramp” for runaway trucks is being improved at the Kanan Dume Road intersection with the coast.

Besides these big-ticket projects, “we’re also putting in a new, lit crosswalk at La Costa and doing a bike lane project from Busch Drive north to the northern city limits along PCH,” says Malibu Councilwoman Laura Zahn Rosenthal. Several bus stops also are being upgraded and traffic messaging will be improved.

Work is expected to be finished before summer, Rosenthal says, adding that the inconvenience ultimately will be worth it.

“That turning lane at Big Rock will make a big difference to the 240 homes up there,” she says. “We have bus stops right now that peoples’ legs actually hang over onto PCH if they sit on the bus bench. And we’ve been trying for a long time to make the Zuma Beach area safer.”

Cyclists say they are especially grateful for the Zuma Beach project, which will make it easier for bike traffic to get past the parked cars that often line the shoulder of the road on the beach side of the highway.

“There’s an area there that’s covered in ice plant and people park unevenly around it,” says Eric Bruins, planning and policy director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. “So you’ll be going along and there’ll be five cars parked evenly along the shoreline and then one that’s haphazard. There are a lot of near misses that easily could become tragic if they aren’t fixed.”

In the meantime, however, Bruins says, his constituency, too, is bracing for even more PCH difficulties than usual.

“It’s already not for the faint of heart,” he says, noting that most motorists believe—incorrectly—that bicyclists are required to keep to the shoulder. Bruins says that, on PCH, that shoulder waxes and wanes, in part because of natural landslides and coastal erosion, so bicyclists frequently find themselves forced to merge with other traffic, which can be lethal.

Locals, meanwhile, say they’ll simply try to go with the slow-flow, though some predict their Westside coping skills will be challenged.

“Some of my friends are hunkering down in Malibu and will be working at home,” says Manney. “My husband’s offices are in Beverly Hills and Orange County, though.”

The family’s solution? “He’s going to start renting hotel rooms.”

Posted 4/10/14

Kitty cat 90210

Virginia Robinson Gardens Superintendent Tim Lindsay with Harry, his new employee.

Even a cat can dream big in this town. Take Harry. Just five months ago, he was wandering the alleys. Now he lives in a landmark 6.5-acre Beverly Hills estate.

At the Virginia Robinson Gardens, a 102-year-old historic property owned by Los Angeles County, staffers say the white stray with the black tail and ear has been an unofficial colleague since April.

“He just showed up one day and started following one of the gardeners around,” said Superintendent Timothy Lindsay on a recent morning. “He was very friendly, very domesticated—and very vocal.”

“Meoooow,” confirmed Harry, glancing up from the tiled Italianate pool, where he appeared to be alternately drinking and scouring the blue water for signs of sea life.

“He likes to think there are fish in there,” whispered Lindsay.

Harry visits his water cooler, modeled after the Villa Pisani in Veneto, Italy.

Harry switched his tail. Lindsay said he was recently named Chief Mouser and Rat Patrol.

The property, built by the heir to the Robinson’s Department Store fortune and bequeathed to the county after his widow’s death in 1977, is a paradise, even by non-cat standards. A national, state and local landmark, it is now operated by the county Department of Parks and Recreation and supported by the nonprofit Friends of Robinson Gardens as one of Los Angeles County’s first great estates.

The owners, Harry and Virginia Robinson, were community pillars in L.A. for decades, famed for their star-studded parties, their elaborate landscaping and the many pets on whom they lavished attention.

“I think they were more dog people,” Lindsay said, noting the canine paw prints in the concrete walks connecting the estate’s five gardens. “And they had 300 blue songbirds that she imported from New Zealand, and a toucan that spent time on the loggia, eavesdropping on all the Hollywood gossip.”

But Lindsay said the cat, who sauntered in without even a microchip of identification, had such a confident air that the gardens staff named him after the estate’s founder. After a student working on the grounds volunteered to take him to the veterinarian to make sure he was vaccinated against rabies, the staff and live-in groundskeeper took him in and started to feed him.

“He’s a great mouser, and averages two a day,” says Lindsay. “He brings them to the kitchen door and drops them. And he’s so entertaining—he flops over like a dog and wants you to rub his belly. He sleeps in the laundry room in the staff quarters adjacent to the main house. We have a little bed for him.”

Harry isn’t the only creature to have adopted the gardens, says Lindsay. Coyotes drop in occasionally, and two horned owls have taken up residence in the estate’s King Palm grove. But, he says, the cat is the estate’s only domestic pet.

“He’s made this his house,” Lindsay said as Harry trotted across the flossy emerald lawn, settling in for a nap near the Renaissance Revival pool pavilion, which was modeled after Italy’s famed Villa Pisani. “The cat’s no dummy. He picked the nicest place in the neighborhood.”

Posted 10/24/13

Where summer lingers after Labor Day

Lance Wichmann says he finds serenity on the Santa Monica sand when the crowds disappear in September.

Lance Wichmann’s playpen was a patch of warm sand at the foot of Ocean Park Boulevard. His family’s Santa Monica house was less than a block from the beach, and his mom started carrying him there before he could walk.

Today, more than seven decades later, you can still find Wichmann at that same spot, sunning himself in retirement, a few tentative steps from the shoreline home that remains in the family. He knows just about everything there is to know about beach life around lifeguard station 26, which draws some of the heaviest crowds in Southern California during June, July and August.

And one of the things Wichmann knows (besides the best body-surfing breaks) is this: although Labor Day on Monday represents the unofficial end of summer, it’s the beginning of a two-month-long, locals-only holiday, when ideal conditions come to the beach—but not the people. The truth is that, unlike other coastal areas throughout the nation, air and sea temperatures here drop an average of only a few degrees between Labor Day and Halloween.

Before long, sea gulls will outnumber people on L.A. beaches, a trend that took off this week.

“It’s so much quieter,” the 72-year-old former insurance executive said of LA.’s extended summer season of September and October. “I know Santa Monica is a tourist town, but I like it when I can come down here at low tide, when the kids are back in school, and walk along the sand by myself. To me, it’s spiritual.”

Let the rest of the country use Labor Day as its farewell to summer. Here in L.A., savvy beachgoers know that the occasion actually signals “the start of the beach season,” joked county lifeguard Captain Kyle Daniels, who oversees community services and youth programs. In September and October, he says, “the days are warmer, the winds are lighter and the views of Catalina are better.”

And the crowds are so much thinner that, after Labor Day, lifeguard stations are staffed every mile or more, rather than every 200 yards. “I don’t want to say it’s easy,” Daniels said of the workload that comes with reduced staffing levels. “But it’s less intense.”

There are other signs in the bureaucracy that, come this weekend, vacationers are about to vanish.

Carol Baker, a spokesperson for the Department of Beaches and Harbors, offered this post-Labor Day tidbit: the agency’s facilities and property maintenance division, which oversees beach restrooms, has just received its last major order of toilet paper and expects to use only 400 cases during the winter months, compared to as many as 1,000 cases during the summer.

When asked about her own favorite beach month, Baker declined to pick a favorite. “I know this will sound like a bubbly cheerleader, but every month at the beach is my favorite.” That said, she acknowledged that “some of the best summer days are in the fall.”

And that may be particularly true this year because of the fog that has shrouded the coastline during August—or, as Baker calls it, “Fogust.” This week saw some of the best weather of the summer, with the weekday visitor count already way down.

“In July, you could barely see the sand, there were so many people,” lifeguard Chris Smith said on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon as he kept watch over a couple of body boarders and surfers not far from where Wichmann was working on his tan. “The crowd is non-existent right now.”

“It’s a secret,” he added, “that the beach season is still going strong in October.”

Up along the bike path, meanwhile, business was slow enough at Perry’s café that chef Robin Hathaway could take a break to talk to a visitor about the post-Labor Day rhythms. “All the locals come down to reclaim their spots,” Hathaway said. “People have their routines. It’s more health and fitness oriented—running, riding, yoga, skate boarding, surfing.”

Of course, if the café had its way, she said with a wink, “summer would last forever.”

Lifeguard Chris Smith has a secret: after Labor Day, he says, the beach is at its best.

Posted 8/29/13

Beyond “Baywatch”

“Baywatch” made county lifeguards into global sex symbols—and made them leery for years about celebrity.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department is rarely surprised when Hollywood comes knocking. After all, their firefighters and lifeguards have some of the more exciting real-world jobs here in Tinseltown.

But for more than a decade, the department has shied away from film depictions.  

“Our image is very important to us,” says Capt. Thomas Richards of the department’s public information unit. And, he says, shows like “Baywatch”—which turned L.A. County lifeguards into global eye candy in the 1990s—left county taxpayers, as well as some lifeguards, feeling burned.

Now, however, the department is dipping a cautious toe back into the show biz waters with a proposal to streamline the approval process for film requests.

Scheduled for consideration next week by the Board of Supervisors, the plan would let the department contract on its own with film production companies to do the limited filming necessary to create TV pilots, “sizzle reels” and other supporting material for pitches to the county.

The idea, Richards says, is to give fire officials—and ultimately the Board—a fuller sense of how county employees might be affected by or depicted in a proposed film or series while easing the frustration of producers, who often get a flat “no” from the department or wait weeks or months for an answer. Such filming would not be for public consumption, and the Board would retain final approval for any use on film of the department’s image, personnel, facilities or equipment.

“If we can show firefighters and lifeguards in a positive light, that’s a good thing, and these requests come to us all the time,” says Richards. But, he says, the current approval framework can be cumbersome and lengthy, and the requests are often time-sensitive.

That’s an understatement, says Bud Brutsman, chief executive officer of Brentwood Communications International, Inc., a North Hills production company that came to the county six months ago with a request to film county lifeguards for a reality show proposal featuring Venice Beach.

Brutsman says the show, operating under the working title “Venice 24/7”, has been commissioned by the Travel Channel as a West Coast spinoff of its successful “Airport 24/7: Miami,” a reality show about Miami International Airport. “The concept is to follow all aspects of the city—police, HazMat guys, lifeguards. For Venice, it’s a very positive thing.”

As part of the deal, he says, he has to shoot a so-called “sizzle reel”—a 2-to-3-minute collection of scenes that functions both as a preview and as proof that the producers have the access to generate a whole series. To do this, he has had to seek permission to film from both the City of Los Angeles and the county, which share responsibility for the community’s various municipal services.

But while the city services were shot in a matter of weeks, he says, he’s still awaiting permission from the county, which provides the community’s lifeguards. 

Richards says that’s partly because the department decided to seek the policy change before responding. But, he says, decisions on filming, even for small proposals, currently require Board approval, which can be time-consuming.

The department spokesman adds that county lifeguards actually like the Venice project, viewing it as an opportunity to show real people performing a real public service. That’s a far cry from the way the department has viewed past TV depictions.

“Baywatch was very successful—for the producers of Baywatch. And that’s something that still comes up,” says Richards, noting that little revenue from the series ever found its way into county coffers, and that lifeguards came away feeling objectified by the show’s slow-motion scenes of god- and goddess-like actors loping down local beaches.

“Our lifeguards are the best in the business,” he says. “And the county got very little from that experience.”

Brutsman, the producer, hopes to convince the department that his show will be different. Still, he notes, delays and distrust just make it harder to do show business in the industry’s backyard.

“I gotta bear the cross for Baywatch?” he jokes. “”Hey, I didn’t like that show either! But if it helps, we can leave our slow-mo camera at home.”

A proposed reality show about Venice Beach has been waiting for months to shoot a 3-minute “sizzle reel.”

Posted 8/1/13

Group swim meetup? Better get an OK

Beach permits are being expanded for groups like this paddleboard yoga class. Photo/YOGAqua

For the L.A. Tri Club, a Santa Monica-based triathletes organization, there are few better places to train for their running, swimming and bicycling contests than Malibu’s Zuma Beach.

But last summer, they hit choppy waters.

“A member was posting on our website, saying ‘I’m going to swim on Saturday at 8 a.m., come along,” club president Paul Hekimian remembers.  “But when we got out there, the lifeguards were saying we needed to pull a permit.”

The problem? Thanks to the power of social networking, there was a crowd in the ocean—a phenomenon that has been happening with ever greater frequency.

“It’s something we’ve seen for a while on the land, with people who train for marathons and so forth,” says Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors. “But now we’re seeing it more and more with organized water activity.

“We want to make sure that we know when these groups are coming, so they don’t interfere with ordinary beach access or something we’ve scheduled, and so we can make sure that they’re safe.”

That’s why the Board of Supervisors this week made some adjustments to the county’s policy on beach permits for organized summer activities at county owned or operated beaches, stretching from Nicholas Canyon above Malibu to White Point/Royal Palms beach along the Palos Verde penninsula. The only exemptions are for city-managed beaches in Santa Monica and Hermosa.

In years past, the only organized, regularly occurring activities allowed during the busy summer beach season were those conducted during business hours on weekdays by groups such as surf or day camps that bid on specific locations as part of a competitive process. Others—such as, say, big groups of swimmers who wanted to work out together—typically were denied summer permits by Beaches and Harbors or turned away if authorities caught them, even when the beach was less busy.

But in the last couple of years, Silverstrom says, demand from water sports enthusiasts and fitness groups have intensified to the point that the department decided to expand its policy. Permits will now be available for regular gatherings of groups such as swim clubs, triathlete teams and paddleboard meetups, as well as for organized summer recreation in the early mornings and evenings.

But the new rules come with a cost that’s unlikely to put some applicants in a sunny mood.

Like other groups now using the beach, they’ll have to pay a $200 administrative fee (click here for an online application), produce proof of liability insurance and reimburse the county for the cost—about $50 an hour, on average—of any extra lifeguards.

There is no size threshold for water activity groups, partly, officials say, because most of the water-based crowds have sprung from social networks, which tend to produce a variable turnout.

“Someone on Facebook will want to meet up for yoga on paddleboards, and one week 12 people will show up, and the next week there’ll be two,” says Beaches and Harbors spokeswoman Carol Baker.  “But whatever the size, if something happens, the lifeguards are the first responders and have to know who’s out there.”

The fine-tuning comes two years after an overhaul of Beaches and Harbor’s permitting system, which is only now being rigorously enforced as grace periods have ended and a team of code enforcement officers has come online.

Beach users have mixed reactions. The off-peak permit decision delighted Sarah Tiefenthaler, whose standup paddleboard yoga class, YOGAqua, had to move this summer because she lacked a permit to continue operating in Marina Del Rey on weekends.  

“It’s wonderful to hear that there’s even a glimmer of hope,” Tiefenthaler says, adding that if she can get back into her old Mothers Beach location, she won’t mind the permit fees.

Meetup groups are less sanguine, however.

“I think this is murky,” says Hekimian of L.A. Tri Club. Though scofflaws can be fined from $100 to $500 for gathering without a permit, he notes, social networks like his have no clear lines of responsibility.

“It’s like a member of Facebook saying, ‘I’m going for a workout, who wants to join me?’” he says. “If that member doesn’t get a permit, who gets the bill? Facebook?”

Beaches and Harbors officials say that no group gathers en masse unless someone’s organized it, and that they don’t care who pays as long as someone gets a permit.

“When 30 people jump in the water for a swim at seven in the morning, it’s really important that lifeguards be there,” says Baker, who adds that “some of these meetup groups say they’re not organized and then you go online and see that they are.”   

As the new rules settle in, eight code enforcement officers will be patrolling the beach this summer with an eye out for groups that appear to be organized.

“We’ll issue them a flyer the first time we meet them, and tell them that if they’re conducting a business or an organized activity, they need a permit,” says Vivian Sanner, who is handling beach code enforcement at the department.

“If they say, ‘No, we’re just a bunch of friends,’ we’ll let it go the first time. But if we see them again, same time, same place, we won’t be as nice.”

Meetups like this one in Santa Monica have grown with the rise of social media. Photo/Paul Hekimian

Posted 6/6/13

A surf pioneer gets his day in the sun

A wave of support is building to give surfer Nick Gabaldón his own holiday.

A new holiday celebrating the diversity of Southern California’s beach life has been quietly gathering momentum at the Santa Monica Pier.

Nick Gabaldón Day. The name may not be familiar now, but it’s about to get bigger, starting with an all-day event June 1 on one of Santa Monica’s most storied beaches.

Launched by a group of historians and surf enthusiasts with the support of Heal the Bay and other organizations, the event honors Nicolás Rolando Gabaldón, the first Southern California surfer known to be of African-American and Mexican extraction.

Gabaldón grew up in Santa Monica and surfed on a stretch of shore colloquially known as “The Inkwell” because it was one of the few beaches during the Jim Crow era on which black beachgoers were welcomed. He went on to surf in Malibu with some of the biggest names of the sport’s formative decades.

For years after his death in a 1951 surfing accident, he was all but forgotten, a casualty of the cultural myopia of a racially fraught era. But in recent years, he increasingly has become a rallying point for cultural historians, environmentalists, surfers, inner city groups and others who want the beaches to feel more inclusive.

Five years ago, the City of Santa Monica dedicated a plaque honoring his contribution to surfing, and at least two documentaries since then have focused on his story and the history of African-American surfers. Last year, Heal the Bay and the Santa Monica Conservancy partnered with black swimmers, surfers and divers to combine a coastal cleanup day with a lesson on Gabaldón and the history of The Inkwell, an experiment that led to this year’s more elaborate celebration.

The event, which starts with a paddle-out on the south side of the Santa Monica Pier, will include free surf lessons (click here for reservations), documentary screenings and a beach reception with Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. Organizers—who include the Black Surfers Collective, the Santa Monica Conservancy, the Surf Bus Foundation, the California Historical Society and Ridley-Thomas’ office—say they are hoping it will lead to an official annual observance.

“Surfing has always been a multicultural activity, but we’ve been denied access through gates that are sometimes legal and sometimes not,” says Rick Blocker, a retired Leimert Park schoolteacher and founder of, a web site that recognizes surfers of color.

Adds Meredith McCarthy, Heal the Bay’s program director: “It’s a way to bring people to the beach who may have never felt welcomed, and a way to start connecting to communities.”

Yearbook photo of surf pioneer Nick Gabaldón.

Wayne King, 85, who knew Gabaldón as a Santa Monica High School surfing buddy, jokes that if his friend were still alive, “he’d never believe it—he was just an ordinary guy in the neighborhood.”

King himself was a child when his family moved to Santa Monica from Missouri in 1937. “We were in segregated schools and couldn’t go to school higher than sixth grade back there. My parents knew if we were to have any kind of a chance, we’d have to move to California.”

His father became a welder at Douglas Aircraft Co., King says, and the family settled near 19th Street and Delaware Avenue, in a neighborhood of mostly black and Latino families. King liked to swim, having learned while playing on rafts in the Mississippi River. The Gabaldóns—they were divorced, he says, and Nick lived with his African-American mother—lived a few blocks from the King house. Inevitably, the boys met on the sand.

Today, he notes, his old local beach is one of the swankiest on the Westside, situated between Bay and Bicknell streets just south of the Casa del Mar hotel. In those days, however, it was much narrower and rocky. Nonetheless, on weekends, the sand filled with African-American and Latino families, and the kids who were fortunate enough to live within walking distance developed a level of comfort there that their inland contemporaries didn’t share.

Over time, he and Gabaldón made friends with some white lifeguards who had noticed that the two boys enjoyed bodysurfing.

“They had one of those big, old-time wooden boards and asked us if we were interested, and they and a couple of other kids in the neighborhood, the Pilar brothers, taught us to board surf,” he remembers. It was “exhilarating”, he says, and eventually, he and Gabaldón bought their own boards and began looking for bigger waves to tackle, a challenge that drew the easygoing young black men into a culture that was dominated by white and Pacific Islander surfers.

It also forced Gabaldón to eventually buy a car, King says, because motorists on Pacific Coast Highway were so reluctant to pick up a black man. At least once, he says, Gabaldón told him he’d paddled all the way from Santa Monica to Malibu on his surfboard, a legendary trek that inspired the name of one of the documentaries about him, “12 Miles North: The Nick Gabaldón Story.”

“We were like a pair of flies in a bowl of buttermilk,” he laughs. “But we didn’t really get a hard time from other surfers. People who hang around the beach are a different breed—they might look at you funny at first, but once you got in the water, you were all the same.”

The two remained friends as Gabaldón joined the Navy, then returned home to attend Santa Monica City College. King recalls being on the beach the day his friend died.

“It was 1951, the first week of June,” King recalls. “He decided he wanted to shoot the pier, go in between the pilings. All of a sudden, this rogue wave came up and he disappeared.”

King, who now lives in Altadena, eventually became a 32-year City of Santa Monica maintenance worker. “I spent 11 or 12 years cleaning those beaches, and I never went back in the water,” he says now. “Seems like after Nick passed, I just lost interest.”

Others did not, however.  After Surfer magazine did an article on black surfers that mentioned Gabaldón in the early 1980s, Blocker began questioning his Malibu surfing buddies.

“People said, ‘Oh, yeah, that black guy in the ‘40s and ‘50s? Yeah, he was here.’ Well, to me, that attitude seemed wrong. His story seemed to me like one that needed to be remembered.”

So, picking up where Surfer magazine had left off, Blocker began writing, and his research found its way to Alison Rose Jefferson, a Los Angeles historic preservation consultant and doctoral candidate in history at UC Santa Barbara.

Jefferson, who was researching race and the history of Southern California’s leisure spaces, had her own interest in Inkwell beach and the community around it. Her work, and that of Blocker, in turn, drew the attention of Heal the Bay, which last year involved Blocker in efforts to toughen pollution limits in the county’s municipal storm water permit.

Jefferson views the interest in Gabaldón as part of a broader move to reclaim history among groups who have felt left out. But, she adds, raising his profile through alliances like this one also broadens the influence of groups like Heal the Bay, and reminds African-Americans and Latinos throughout the region that they, too, have history with California’s coastline and a stake in what becomes of it.

“Nick Gabaldón was a quintessential Californian. He’s multi-ethnic, part of his family immigrated to this country, and he participated in the California dream, pursuing his passion,” she says. “And people of color want clean water, too.”

Sunbathers at Santa Monica's segregated Inkwell beach in 1931. Photo/Los Angeles Public Library

Posted 5/16/13

Beverly Hills cultivates some history

The Virginia Robinson estate is now a federal, state and city landmark.

Virginia Robinson put Beverly Hills on the map as an enclave of the rich and famous. Now, more than a century later, Beverly Hills has returned the favor to its storied grand dame.

The Virginia Robinson Gardens, bequeathed to Los Angeles County after its namesake’s death in 1977, last month became an official local historic landmark. Built in 1911 by the Robinson’s department store heir Harry Winchester Robinson and his then-new bride, Virginia, the 6½-acre estate on Elden Way—now run under the auspices of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation—has long held landmark status at the state and national level.

“This was essentially the first great estate in Beverly Hills,” explains Robinson Gardens Superintendent Timothy Lindsay.

Virginia Robinson with one of her beloved pets.

But Beverly Hills created its historic designation only a year ago, prompted by the near-demolition of an architecturally significant house designed by Richard Neutra. The city has since named seven local landmarks, with more in the pipeline, according to Noah Furie, a former Beverly Hills planning commissioner and founding chairman of the city’s new Cultural Heritage Commission.

The Robinson estate was the second property in the city to receive the designation, after the neighboring Beverly Hills Hotel.

“This is one of the most unique properties in our city,” says Furie. “With all its different types of gardens, and its owners being the founders of one of Los Angeles’ most important department store chains, and their many contributions to the immediate and greater community, it checked off multiple criteria in our ordinance.”

Furie says the new local ordinance has proven to be a milestone for Beverly Hills. Even before the aborted demolition of Neutra’s Kronish House in 2011, preservationists had feared for the city’s architectural history.

“It was getting to the point that, if we didn’t do something, our past would be lost forever,” he says. “Significant estates done by master architects had been subdivided into multiple properties. We’d lost, including major remodels, the Burton Green estate, the Max Whittier estate, the Gershwin House—the list is a mile long.”

Robinson Gardens has the largest King Palm collection in the continental U.S.

The new preservation ordinance imposes strict rules for changing or demolishing buildings that are older than 45 years and that either have some historic or cultural significance or are designed by master architects.

The Robinsons discovered their site in the early 1900s while searching for the Los Angeles Country Club in what was then the rural edge of the city. When they finished the house, designed for them as a wedding gift by Virginia’s father, architect Nathaniel Dryden, fields of barley stretched before them to the horizon.

But as the city grew up, the property, which was landscaped by Virginia and a dozen full-time gardeners into an expansive collection of lush, terraced gardens, became a public gathering place and an A-list destination. The Italianate pool house alone was 3,000 square feet and the palm grove still boasts the largest collection of Australian king palms in the continental United States.

Celebrities from Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers cavorted at the Robinsons’ lavish parties, as did a who’s who of Southern California society and business. Even after Harry Robinson died in 1932, Virginia—who took over the  department store chain that her husband’s father had founded—maintained the civic momentum, accompanied by her beloved pets (she never had children and never remarried). For 33 years, her home was the site of a famed Hollywood Bowl kickoff gala; her last major domo came from the Vatican and spoke five languages, according to the estate superintendent Lindsay.

“Virginia Robinson worked with Dorothy Chandler to build the Music Center, she was great friends with Lillian Disney and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor,” Lindsay says.

And, he adds, Virginia adhered to a level of hospitality that would have impressed Downton Abbey.

“She had a large staff of 21 trained in the same level of etiquette as the White House,” says Lindsay. “After 6 p.m., the men all had to put on black tie and tails. Invitations were handwritten. There was always valet parking. When you arrived at the house, one man in white gloves would open the gate and another would open the door and announce your arrival, and she would meet you in the receiving line.

“Remember, Southern California was still pretty much a dusty cowboy town, in those days. But she set a standard for gracious living. She had a legendary elegance.”

Beverly Hills was a frontier in 1911, when the Robinson estate was built.

Posted 2/7/13

Westward ho for CicLAvia

Manifest destiny: CicLAvia's getting ready to roll all the way to the coast. Photo/planetc1 via Flickr

Saddle up, Westsiders: L.A.’s favorite rolling street party is headed your way in April.

CicLAvia, the car-free bicycle and pedestrian fest started in 2010, is on the move again, preparing for its most ambitious year yet with three events, including one that will stretch from downtown to Venice Beach on April 21.

It’s part of a major expansion that organizers hope eventually will stretch to all corners of the county and create 12 separate, localized CicLAvias each year.

“Up till now we’ve been downtown. Now we want to show that it will work in the rest of the region,” said Aaron Paley, CicLAvia’s co-founder. A second 2013 CicLAvia is being planned for June 23 with a new route expected to run along Wilshire Boulevard from downtown L.A. to Fairfax Avenue near LACMA. And this year’s third event, on October 6, will return to familiar territory downtown, although with a deeper stretch into Boyle Heights and a new route into Chinatown.

The downtown-to-Venice Beach route will be the longest yet for CicLAvia—15 ¼ miles each way—and carries with it some important cross-town symbolism.

“One of the things that’s exciting about connecting downtown and the Pacific is just the sheer drama and the significance of it,” Paley said. “We know that the east-west connection is very difficult and for people who drive it every day, it’s a challenge…The idea that you will be able to walk or ride your bike—or go in your wheelchair or do your inline skating—and go from downtown to the beach is just of historic significance.”

Venturing out on such a long ride should be attractive to many participants, but Paley said the event is more about creating a pop-up “linear park” on city streets than throwing down an endurance challenge.

“This isn’t the marathon. It isn’t all or nothing,” he said. “We want kids to be able to explore, maybe get out and ride in the streets for the first time that day. And if they ride a half mile, that’s great.”

The hope is that participants will arrive via public transportation if possible—perhaps by taking the Expo Line to the Culver City station at Venice and Robertson, or riding the bus to the Pico/Rimpau Transit Center at Venice and San Vicente.

Paley said the impetus for pushing outside the downtown zone and toward the ocean this year came from Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who kept asking: “When can we go all the way to the beach?”

The mayor, he said, even burst into a planning meeting to promote the idea—prompting a round of brainstorming in which the Department of Transportation’s special events traffic guru, Aram Sahakian, came up with the idea of using Venice Boulevard, a route traveled by other events like the Los Angeles triathlon.

“We’ve used it before. We know exactly what we’re dealing with,” Sahakian said.

Taking the route deep into the Westside—where traffic woes are among the city’s worst—will require plenty of outreach to make sure residents and businesses know what’s coming. “I’m crossing my fingers and praying that they won’t be too unhappy,” Sahakian said.

So far, so good, said Diana Rodgers, who manages the Mar Vista Farmers’ Market and is enthusiastic about the coming of CicLAvia to her area.

“We love it and we want to be a partner and provide refreshments,” she said.

The farmers’ market, which takes place on Sundays and is located on Venice at Grand View Boulevard, is accustomed to rolling with the closures that come with big events like the marathon and triathlon, Rodgers said, and should be able to take CicLAvia in stride.

“As long as we have the information, we tend to do OK, as long as we have crossing guards at the points needed,” Rodgers said.

Westside cyclists like Cynthia Rose, director of the group Santa Monica Spoke, said the new route will be a big draw in her part of town.

“There’s a huge pool of enthusiastic Westside supporters and they’ve felt sort of geographically separated,” she said. “Now all of a sudden it’s going to be that connecting of the dots, from the ocean to downtown Los Angeles.”

Paley said the final map for the downtown-to-Venice Beach route is still being fine-tuned. The CicLAvia team will be taking an exploratory ride along the proposed route Sunday to see how it works and connects with two major hubs downtown—City Hall and Union Station.

Beyond the 2013 lineup, he’s looking forward to CicLAvia’s gradual multi-year expansion.

“We want the entire county to be able to benefit from Ciclavia,” Paley said.

So what’s on tap for 2014?  “I can tell you that the Valley,” Paley said, “is high on our list.”

Eventually, organizers hope to hold monthly CicLAvias in every part of the county. Photo/LAist

Posted 1/17/13

Transforming a prime beach vista

A long-deserted stretch of Will Rogers State Beach is poised for a makeover. Photo/Marina Chetner

The dirt lot overlooking the sand at Coastline Drive and Pacific Coast Highway has been vacant for three decades or so. Once it held a beachfront café owned by the restaurateur who started Gladstones. Then fire destroyed the place twice in five years.

So it sat, roped off and abandoned, little more than a cluster of faded parking spots and wooden pilings, as homeowners resisted the opening of a new restaurant along the already congested highway; after a while, passersby forgot that much of anything had ever been there.

This week, however, the county took the first steps in a $9.5 million plan to re-open the 1.9-acre site and make the beach there more welcoming to the public, starting with a spacious view deck that will not only provide improved passage to the shoreline, but also offer a stunning view down the coast toward Santa Monica Pier.

“This will be a great place to stop and listen to the waves and enjoy the sunset,” said Charlotte Miyamoto, chief of the county Department of Beaches and Harbors’ planning division.

“This will finally make use of an area that hasn’t been visited much,” Miyamoto added. “Right now, there’s a bus stop there and not much more.”

This wasn’t always the case. The site, at the northwesterly end of Will Rogers State Beach across PCH from the entrance to the Getty Villa, was once the location of an oceanfront café owned by Robert Morris, who in the 1980s was one of Los Angeles’ best known restaurant owners.

The spot had had an eatery on it since 1976, when the county had approved a summer concession and snack bar. A later restaurant on the site, Jetty’s, started by Morris and a partner, burned down twice—once in 1979 and again in 1984, according to Coastal Commission records.

After that, hopes dimmed for a comeback; at one point, Morris announced plans to reopen the restaurant, rename it the Malibu Deck and make it part of a proposed “restaurant row” of oceanfront dining on public beaches.

But the pushback was powerful. Pacific Palisades homeowners protested that a new beachfront restaurant would worsen congestion and generate crime, garbage and noise. And the state and county couldn’t agree on a plan for such an enterprise on the site. (Much of the state’s beach property here is operated by Los Angeles County and the lease revenue would have helped the county’s general fund in the midst of a recession, but the state was less enthusiastic at the time.)

Eventually, without a design that met current building and safety codes for the area, the restaurant lease was terminated. The empty lot was roped off and anyone who stopped at the site in hopes of a beach shortcut had to make their way down a steep embankment, where they found little more than those 52 ghostly-looking pilings and a narrow strip of sand.

By the late 1990s, the county had begun to explore ways to reopen the site’s beach access, but it took years to negotiate a workable plan with the California Coastal Commission. Among the sticking points were initial plans to shore up the bluff with a rock-covered, sloping embankment, which coastal commissioners felt was too intrusive. Eventually, the commission called for a 610-foot-long, 15-foot-high seawall that added several million dollars to the cost of the project, but preserved more of the beach. 

The current design, approved this week by the Board of Supervisors, will create a refurbished, 26-space parking lot next to a landscaped, 2,100-square-foot public view deck, from which pedestrians can access the beach via an ADA-compliant access ramp.

Construction costs are estimated at $5.76 million, plus some $3.5 million for plans, plan checks, consulting services and other construction costs. The project is set to break ground in April, with completion expected in October, 2014.

The site will be transformed with a viewing platform, along with parking and enhanced beach access.

Posted 1/8/13