MDR: Business owners in the Marina are concerned about plans for homeless housing near the boat ramp. Courtesy photo

The idea that a waterfront parking lot home to Marina del Rey’s only public boat launch could be converted into a homeless camping or tiny home site, is causing a stir among the local business community.

Critics of the proposal say that the parking lot is an inappropriate location due to its designation as a staging site and landing zone in the event of air or sea disaster; its proximity to heavy machinery and watercraft vessels; and the adjacent area’s economic dependence on visitors and tourism.

CD-11 Councilman Mike Bonin, who identified the potential site, said that in the face of an “urgent and growing crisis” he will “leave no stone unturned” in searching for housing solutions. In May, Bonin requested that City staff conduct a feasibility study of various Westside parks and beach parking lots for emergency shelter or housing.

Bonin’s bold proposal earned him praise from homeless housing advocates, but backlash from a segment of local residents, many of whom channeled their frustration into the Recall Bonin campaign.

The City Administrative Officer returned with an initial feasibility report on Aug. 10, deeming most of the sites unfeasible, but recommending further assessment for three locations including the Marina’s Lot 2.

Janet Zaldua, CEO of the Marina del Rey Convention and Visitors Bureau, is spearheading an effort to bring the voices of local businesses to the attention of public officials and sent a letter to Sup. Janice Hahn outlining their concerns.

While there are numerous reasons the CVB considers the site an inappropriate location, Zaldua believes the initial study should have deemed it infeasible solely on the basis that it is a designated staging and boat launch area in the event of an emergency.

“It’s listed in LAX Airport Emergency Air/Sea Disaster Plan, for not minor rescues, but major rescues which are designated and defined as 10 or more people,” said Zaldua. “It’s been used in the past to recover folks who were in distress on the water such as a scuba diver who lost oxygen.”

L.A. County Sheriff Capt. Chris Johnson, who heads the Marina del Rey substation, also expressed concern about placing a homeless camping site on an emergency disaster and evacuation site.

“If there is a major emergency, like some kind of air or sea disaster in the Santa Monica Bay Area, this is the only feasible place that we can actually launch boats, or use a large area for a command post or a triage area, as well as any kind of helicopter transport,” said Johnson.

For local business owners, the fears of the immediate impact a homeless camping site would have on the number of tourists and visitors feel more urgent than a potential future disaster.

“Can you imagine bringing your guests to the boat ramp or Dock 52 and they run into an encampment of tents?” said Alex Balian, who has been in the yacht charter business in Marina del Rey for over 20 years. “It’s not a safe situation and it’s a very bad image for visitors and tourists to come here and see this. It’s not a good sight.”

Rick Oefinger, who owns Marina del Rey Sportfishing, is worried about a potential uptick in crime and said that coming out of the pandemic his business cannot afford another drop in customers.

“The bank account of Marina Del Rey Sportfishing is maybe 30 percent of what we would have expected in 2019,” said Oefinger. “These days with social media things get broadcast all over the world. If my truck got broken into and my belongings taken out of the Marina Del Rey boat ramp, I’d say go launch in San Pedro, never go back to Marina del Rey.”

Zaldua said she worries for the safety of unhoused individuals who might be struggling with mental illness or drug addiction and are wandering around near to large trailers, machinery, and boats being backed up.

She also echoed the fears of business owners that a camping or tiny home site would deter visitors and tourists, who are the main drivers of the Marina’s economy.

“We’ve seen what happened in Venice Beach over the summer,” said Zaldua. “They’ve had a decline in tourism and their businesses, particularly those that are along the boardwalk, were impacted and experienced a loss of business and loss of visitors.”

Capt. Johnson said that he was concerned about the idea of bringing a group of unhoused individuals into the Marina as the unhoused population is relatively low and there are no homeless service providers based in the area.

“I’m convinced that once you allow 20 or 30 tents or tiny homes in the launch ramp area, you’ll attract other homeless individuals trying to set up tents and have their own camps in the area,” said Johnson.

From the perspective of Mike Bonin’s office, these concerns are issues that should continue to be studied as the proposal moves forward.

“The City Administrative Officer’s report recommended that the city continue to explore the feasibility of creating alternatives to encampments at the boat launch ramp parking lot in Marina Del Rey, and the issues you raise are among the things that continued assessment will consider,” said David Graham-Caso, Bonin’s deputy chief of staff.

Other locations continuing to be studied include the Dockweiler Beach RV Park and Los Angeles World Airports owned sites.

Clara@smdp.com