The main attraction in Marina del Rey often feels like a ghost town these days.
It is Fisherman's Village, a string of waterside stores and restaurants with a vaguely carnival air. Tourists used to flock there like sea gulls that descend on handouts of popcorn. But Fisherman's Village was virtually customer free one recent weekday.
"Business is terrible," said Mouha Gabr, proprietor of the Angler's Choice Seafood Restaurant, where patronage has dropped 85 percent since September. "It's the economy; people don't have money to spend. I'm borrowing from friends and family to stay afloat."
If he can take any solace in it, Gabr is not the only struggling proprietor. Other village and marina businesses say they have been hit hard by the recession.
And while the downturn in the economy may have exposed a problem, it is not the only issue. A $1.5 billion makeover of the aging harbor which the county owns and leases space to businesses is taking far longer than planned. Now, with the credit crunch it could take years more to complete.
Since county officials first floated the idea of revitalizing the marina in the late 1990s, some projects have been completed. But still on the drawing board are six boat-related projects, five hotels, six apartment buildings, a retail center and a new county administration building 19 projects in all.
In the case of Fisherman's Village, the county had hoped to be moving forward with a new hotel, new and renovated stores and restaurants, as well as new boat slips and a waterfront promenade the kinds of attractions that would once again draw crowds.
But revitalizing the marina has proved to be challenging, given the complexity of carrying out development at a place where business owners hold ground leases. That has required negotiation of complex deals that extend leaseholds in exchange for development rights and commitments to move forward on projects.
And that's not to mention the regulatory authority that outside agencies wield because of the marina's seaside location and the sometimes virulent opposition from residents who fear development will change the marina's character and raise the costs of living there.
"We're moving as fast as we can. We were hoping that we would have been able to get through all this by now," acknowledged Santos H. Kreimann, director of the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors, which had planned on completing the entire marina redevelopment by 2013 a date that is now clearly out of reach. "The downturn in the economy has definitely had an impact."
But since the late 1990s, the marina has in a sense missed the boat. Two economic booms have come and gone. And now, it is harder than ever to get project financing.
The marina used to be a hopping place.
Upon its completion in the mid-1960s, it was a hot spot for swinging singles, including pilots and jet setters from the nearby Los Angeles International Airport.
It still boasts of being the largest manmade small-boat harbor in the world and home to some 5,000 pleasure craft. But about two decades ago it began its slow decline as a tourist attraction.
That's why the county decided to invigorate it about 10 years ago. And it's not as if there's been nothing completed. So far, county officials have worked with developers to rebuild two apartment complexes, remodel and expand a hotel, and complete several other projects.
In all, 11 are done, but many may be years from completion, including a high-rise hotel, shopping centers, and new boat slips and docks.
By comparison, the private developers of the nearby Playa Vista community have built 3,246 housing units, and more than 3.2 million square feet of office and retail space since 2002, though plans had been under discussion there for years.
At the marina, several projects have been delayed by legal challenges from a group called the Coalition to Save the Marina, which represents some residents and business owners who essentially believe the county's plans are too big.
"We certainly are opposed to high-rise residential development on the waterfront," said Executive Director David DeLange, whose group has filed lawsuits mostly on environmental grounds against more than six projects.
"Our goal is to preserve the original intent of Marina del Rey as a small-craft harbor. The implication is that residential and commercial uses should be secondary to recreational uses."
None of the lawsuits succeeded in blocking the developments entirely, but they have caused significant delays, DeLange said, by forcing the California Coastal Commission to review projects more closely.
The commission, which has broad authority over development in coastal areas, has recommended that the county "adequately assess boater impacts" of the proposed developments, "expand affordable boating opportunities" and be aware of "sensitive biological resources" such as a heron rookery.
To get a feel for just what developing at the marina is like, consider what Michael Pashai has been through in his efforts to improve and expand Fisherman's Village.
Pashai, under various names, holds more ground leases at the marina than anyone else including a half-interest in Fisherman's Village. His company, Golden Pacific LLC, and partner co-lessee Jade Enterprises, are seeking to add a 132-room hotel, 65,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, and 32 commercial boat slips to the village.
They've been at it for nearly nine years.
After submitting initial plans to the county, Pashai said, the partners had to conduct separate studies regarding the development's potential effect on wind, parking, traffic and sewers even how the new buildings might alter shadows.
On several occasions the partners had to run it all by the county design review board and regional planning commission. And just two weeks ago, Pashai said, he received the county's response to the project's environmental impact report, which he was told requires revision. Still to come: review by the coastal commission and, finally, obtaining $60 million in financing.
"It's virtually impossible to get financing," said Pashai, who's at least a year away from even looking for it. "Everything has taken much longer than we expected."
David Levine, president of the Marina del Rey Lessees Association, believes the future of the marina now is linked inexorably to economic recovery.
"Restoring the credit markets is essential to the viable redevelopment of the marina," Levine said.
So far, however, only one project is in immediate and direct jeopardy due to lack of financing: the closely watched modernization of the Marina del Ray Landing & Fuel Dock, which is the marina's gas station for boats. The plan calls for adding high-speed pumps, a small market and 10 extra slips at a cost of $5.5 million. But one loan fell through and the operator has so far been unable to get new financing. (See sidebar.)
"As the only fuel dock in Marina del Rey this is a cornerstone of the boating community," said operator Greg Schem. "Without a fuel dock, the fishing business goes away."
Indeed, underlying all the big redevelopment plans is the health of the boating industry, which nationwide has been hit hard by the recession. Two yacht brokerages have closed at the marina, and Schem, who also operates a boat repair yard, said he's beginning to see business tail off.
"People are pulling back," he said. "They're not buying boats and, if they have them, they're using them less."
Still, the biggest concern for some are the tourists.
Beverly Moore, executive director of the Marina del Rey Convention and Visitors Bureau, said her agency is projecting a 10 percent decline in hotel and tourist-related revenues in 2009. Yet she remains confident that the bad times will pass.
"I think we're in good shape to weather the downturn," she said. "Travel is susceptible to sensitivities in the marketplace but we've weathered these challenges before."
Meanwhile, over at the sagging Fisherman's Village, the pressing question is who can hang on long enough to see the change.
Gabr, the Angler's Choice Restaurant owner, is not sure how much longer he can go on borrowing money to say in business amid the recession.
Lucy Liampetchakul, owner of Thai Garden, an outdoor caf & #233;, also is fearful she might have to close. She has seen sales of ice cream, cold drinks and food decrease by 20 percent to 50 percent, depending on the day.
"Business is very slow," she lamented. "There are fewer tourists, and even when they come they don't buy anything. If it keeps going this way, we may not survive."
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