By MARISSA PIANKO
Circling the News Contributor
Almost 20 years after California State Parks purchased the 1,659-acre property at the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Topanga Canyon Road, Phase 1 of the Topanga Lagoon Restoration Project has begun.
Impassioned community members and representatives from over a dozen agencies gathered on February 29 in Santa Monica to launch planning for the site, which currently includes the Malibu Feed Bin, the Reel Inn, Rosenthal Wines and, perhaps most notably, the abandoned Topanga Ranch Motel.
This is the first step in a projected 10-year road to completion.
The Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCD), an organization focused on conservation planning and design, organized the public meeting and is working closely with State Parks on the project.
Craig Sap, District Superintendent for California State Parks, said the meeting was designed to gather ideas from the public on what they’d like to see at the coveted site. Business owners, historians, native-plant specialists, political representatives, ecologists and civil engineers were among the attendees. And with that variety came diverse and conflicting interests.
Topanga Lagoon History
Acquired by State Parks in 2001, Lower Topanga Canyon connects the nearly 10,000-acre Topanga State Park to Topanga State Beach.
The project’s property on the north side of PCH contains significant ecological and archeological elements. Running directly behind the buildings is an important waterway, the Topanga State Creek and Lagoon, which connects the mountains to the sea. Nestled behind the abandoned motel is a site once inhabited by both the Chumash and Tongva Native American tribes.
The State purchased Lower Topanga Canyon for close to $45 million with funding from Proposition 12 (approved by California voters in 2000). Over the years, officials explored several plans, and in 2012, the State Park and Recreation Commission approved the Topanga State Park General Plan.
According to the General Plan, the aim is to “Embrace the concept of restoration and renewal of both the land and its people by restoring Topanga Creek and Lagoon, from shore to canyon, through a balanced approach of lagoon/creek hydrological science and design with the interpretation and protection of the existing Native American and historical resources. This concept has the potential to integrate modern land management techniques with traditional sustainability practices as well as provide for wonderful interpretive and educational opportunities and public access to the Lower Topanga Zone.”
Eight years later, the primary goals remain the same. As part of the Phase 1 planning, the RCD laid out the following considerations:
- Restore Topanga Lagoon without impacting the surf break
- Engage community to establish goals for the lagoon and visitor serving elements of the project
- Provide a natural gateway into Topanga State Park with minimal built structures
- Provide affordable overnight lodging and concessions
- Evaluate opportunities for adaptive reuse of Topanga Ranch Motel
- Locate interpretive and educational elements for visitors
The combination of the ecological components, historical assets, archeological sites and commercial properties attracts a variety of stakeholders with varying interests. This, coupled with controlling interests of several state agencies, from California State Parks to the Coastal Commission, and different funding mechanisms, from state bonds to private grants, creates a perfect storm for conflict.
Topanga Creek courses through the Santa Monica Mountains and ultimately into the Topanga Lagoon, which, depending on the tide and rainfall, connects to the Pacific Ocean. It is one of the few remaining coastal stream courses in Southern California.
In the late 1800s, Topanga Lagoon was a sprawling wetland that attracted migrating birds and rare fish. But over the years, with the construction of what ultimately became PCH, much of the wetlands were lost to development. Large parts of the area were filled with 12-15 feet of dirt. In the 1920s, the Los Angeles Athletic Club purchased part of the property and developed it into tent cabins. It was later developed into more permanent structures, laying the groundwork for what became the Topanga Ranch Motel.
Due primarily to this development, the lagoon mouth became significantly smaller, changing the entire ecological landscape. The once vast wetland is now a barely visible waterway that runs under PCH.
Delmar Lathers, a naturalist and lifelong resident of Topanga Canyon, says widening the lagoon and restoring the wetlands is essential. This land, he says, is a “super rare habitat” and everything from migratory birds to the endangered steelhead trout and freshwater goby depend on it. He acknowledges that there are other interests on the site, especially from business owners, but he says, the health of the lagoon is more important than everything else.
Rosa Dagi, an RCD senior conservation biologist, said the ecological situation became more dire after the Woolsey fire ripped through the Santa Monica Mountains Watershed. She reported that the fire devastated the steelhead trout and freshwater goby habitat. Topanga, she said, is the last stronghold for these species.
Water quality has also become a significant problem in the area. Heal the Bay consistently gives the lagoon an “F” grade on rainy days. Dagit says these issues are not a result of run-off from the upper watershed, but rather human and dog waste left behind around the lagoon.
Another consideration for Lower Topanga Canyon is the fate of the Topanga Ranch Motel. The 1930’s motor court-style motel has mostly sat vacant since State Parks purchased the property. Over the years, the salt air, ground erosion and lack of maintenance has left the motel dilapidated. The site has become a magnet for “ghost hunters” and curious tourists.
At the time of purchase, Topanga Ranch Motel was housing 70 long-term residents, who had come to know the property as their home. So when State Parks issued eviction notices in 2002, most of the residents were distraught. Many pleaded to stay on the property until the State was ready to break ground.
However, Craig Sap says State Parks was unable to manage the motel in its existing condition. There were several code violations, including a leaky septic system that was leaching into the groundwater. Further, local ecologist Suzanne Goode said that ongoing human habitation on the land was further destroying the Topanga Creek ecosystem. “Every time a car drives through the water, it disturbs the sediment, sending it downstream,” Goode told the LA Times in March 2002. “[The traffic is] a source of sedimentation and pollution.”
Even still, the old Topanga Ranch Motel has a specific role in this redevelopment. In a Topanga State Park Existing Conditions and Issues document, it stated thati n the 1930s the motel provided an “attractive, cost-effective alternative for middle-class automobile travelers visiting the Topanga Beach.” The history and age of the motel make it eligible for historic status.
As a requirement for approving the project, the California Coastal Commission mandated that the Topanga plan include the redevelopment of an affordable motel. Whether that means reusing some of the existing structures or building from scratch is still unclear, but there is certainly political will and historian interest behind the affordable overnight concept.
Yet another consideration is the archeological aspects of the site. According to the Topanga State Park Environmental Impact Review, Lower Topanga Canyon was a Native American village some 6,000 years ago and is the site of some of the “earliest and most significant archeological studies” in the region. Experts believe there is a high probability that there are additional Native American sites adjacent to Topanga Creek and below Topanga Ranch Motel.
According to the EIR, California State Parks intends to protect the Native American resources and hopes to incorporate them in interpretive and educational centers. The report states that both the Chumash and Gabrielino/Tongva Native American groups were consulted about the project and were “generally supportive” of California State Parks 2012 General Plan.
The biggest source of contention, though, seems to rest between the business owners and the ecologists. Today, Malibu Feed Bin, Oasis Imports, Reel Inn restaurant, Rosenthal Wines, Wylie’s Bait Shop and Cholada Thai run the width of Lower Topanga Canyon.
While most of the business owners seem generally supportive of some sort of lagoon restoration, they are all interested in preserving their businesses. However, in order to widen the lagoon, it is likely that at least some of the businesses will need to be moved or shuttered.
Andy and Teddy Leonard, owners of the popular Reel Inn, attended the recent public meeting and said their primary interest is preserving their restaurant and Oasis Imports. They also suggested building a park structure, which received jeers from a table of ecologists and surfers. Conversely, when a conservation ecologist suggested shuttering all of the businesses and restoring the lagoon to its original state, gasps erupted from a table of business owners.
Where Is the Funding?
Even with a plan, State Parks will still need to obtain funding for the project. Proposition 12 funding no longer exists, but the California Coastal Conservancy has agreed to fund Phase 1 of the Topanga Lagoon Rehabilitation. The source of other ongoing funding is not clear, but Tim Pershing, from Assemblymember Richard Bloom’s office, says there is one real possibility.
In May 2019, Sunshine Enterprises, developer of the Shore Hotel in Santa Monica, was slapped with a $2-million fine. As part of the approval to develop the high-end hotel, the Coastal Commission required Sunshine to build a certain amount of affordable overnight accommodations. Despite agreeing to do so, Sunshine never built those units, resulting in the fine, according to Pershing. The Coastal Commission is considering allocating that money towards the rehabilitation of the Topanga Ranch Motel, which could mitigate the affordable overnight accommodation deficit in the area.
Given the varying interests and degree of complexity to the issues, the plan for the property is still very much in the air. For now, State Parks is most interested in gauging public sentiments on the restoration efforts. If that becomes clear and a plan can be agreed upon, the team at State Parks hopes to break ground on the project in 2027. With a two- to three-year construction timeline, the Gateway to Topanga State Park could be open by 2030.
The next public workshop is scheduled for February 2021. Interested members of the public can sign up for notification of upcoming events related to the Topanga Lagoon Restoration on the RCD website: (https://www.rcdsmm.org/resources/topanga-lagoon-restoration/).