Hermosa Beach Development Director Ken Robertson presided over three decades of 'organic' growth – Easy Reader

by Kevin Cody
Ken Robertson oversaw Hermosa Beach development for three decades, from 1989, when he joined the city as a contract planner, until last month, when he retired as Community Development Director.
Shortly after he joined the city, plans were made to transform the moribound downtown Pier Avenue from a retail district to a vibrant, though still controversial restaurant and bar destination. The plan was proposed in 1992 by a visiting Regional Urban Design Assistance Team from the American Institute of Architects. The plan was implemented in 1997, in what one councilman called a temporary “social experiment.” Lower Pier Avenue, with its two-way traffic circling a center divider, was closed to cars. The street closure led to sales tax revenue reaching a new high, and what became known as Pier Plaza was never reopened to cars.
Ken Robertson, wearing a T-shirt from Hermosa’s legendary Either/Or bookstore. Joining him at his retirement party at the Hermosa Historical Museum are assistant to the city manager Ann Yang, Rabbi Gila Katz, and architect Dean Nota, who was instrumental in bringing to Hermosa Beach the AIA R/UDAT, which helped design Pier Plaza in the late 1990s. Photo by Kevin Cody
Robertson’s retirement coincides with the pandemic receding, leaving behind another controversial social experiment meant to be temporary, but also certain to endure.
“Most of the community wants outdoor dining to stay,” Robertson said during an interview at Java Man, shortly before his retirement.
Outdoor dining was conceived as a way to help restaurants prohibited during the pandemic from serving diners indoors.
The city allowed restaurants to serve diners in their parking lots. Restaurants without onsite parking were allowed to serve diners on decks built in the streets, despite the loss of parking meter revenue.
For safety reasons, the street dining led to the narrowing of car lanes downtown, making way for bike lanes, which became increasingly practical because parking became nearly impossible.
Both Pier Plaza and the outdoor dining reflect what Robertson called, in a 2011 essay in Easy Reader, Hermosa’s “organic” development. 
The essay was titled “The accidental city of the future.” 
“Because our long history precedes most regulatory codes,” he wrote, “the city’s development pattern has been organic rather than planned, and has resulted in an eclectic mix of architecture, without exhibiting any specific identity or type. This has resulted in a charming and uniquely livable community…” 
“Without intending to, compact villages like ours, have become examples of these new visions and a model for others to emulate.”
A nearby example is the new Playa Vista development. Its densely packed homes, with alley access to the garages, and front doors that open to carfree, pedestrian walkways mimic Hermosa’s 1920’s era walk street homes.
The upside, and the downside of Hermosa’s largely market-driven, organic growth is change comes slowly, Roberts pointed out, leaving city planners in a never ending struggle to satisfy  residents, who resist change, and business owners, who want growth.
Hermosa Beach Community Development Director with a gift presented during his retirement party at the Hermosa Beach Historical Museum last month. Photo by Rick Koenig
Robertson envisioned Hermosa’s downtown anchored by Pier Plaza on the beach end, and the Civic Center on the east, Pacific Coast Highway end.
“But we are not seeing much happen at these key sites,” he said.
On the beach end, developer Bolour and Associates began acquiring Strand and Pier Avenue property in 2013, in hopes of building a 100 room, beachfront hotel. But in 2019, the developer notified Robertson by letter that the hotel was “no longer financially viable.”
The three Strand properties Bolour had acquired, whose tenants had been on month-to-month leases, recently received lease extensions sufficient to justify improvements. The former Mermaid restaurant has reopened as the high end Vista restaurant. The former Poop Deck, a self described dive bar, is becoming an upscale Urban Corner Market. And Good Stuff restaurant is undergoing its first improvements since a facelift in the ‘80s. Though, in keeping with the downtown character, Good Stuff’s changes will be modest.
“Our customers like it beachy,” said owner Cris Bennett, who bought the former Spencer’s Beach Burgers in 1980. 
On the Pacific Coast Highway end of Robertson’s downtown dumbbell, the Community Theater is being upgraded; and Los Angeles County, which took over the city’s fire department, recently made improvements to the fire station.
But the police continue to work out of a cramped basement in the Civic Center building, which Robertson described as functionally outdated.
“The Civic Center should be something the city is proud of. The city needs to decide what to do with it,” Robertson said.
Improvements underway on The Strand are characteristic of what departing Hermosa Beach Community Development Director Ken Robertson calls “organic” development. Good Stuff is being renovated for the first time since the mid-’80s, the Poop Deck is becoming an upscale Urban Country Market, and the former Mermaid is now the high-end Vista restaurant. Photo by Kevin Cody
A planning commissioner once said you can summarize the planning issues in Hermosa Beach in three words: ‘parking, parking and parking,’ Robertson wrote in his 2011 Easy Reader essay.” “In our recent history, we have addressed ‘progress’ by building public parking lots, requiring more parking for new projects, and adopting parking codes more appropriate for suburbia than a dense beach city in an urban setting.”
Robertson explained in his essay why he thought the emphasis on parking was misguided. And proposed alternatives.
“We should start looking at lost opportunities that reside in the dedication of so much of our public and private space. Our walk streets, The Strand and the Plaza are great examples that can be the catalyst for other visions. 
“We need to adopt better ways of getting around, to look at models of complete streets, road diets, traffic calming (traffic circles anyone?) and other ways to shift the emphasis, at least as reflected in our policies and codes, away from cars and parking toward alternatives such as bicycles, walking, neighborhood electric vehicles, and even  transit.” 
It took a pandemic for the city to adopt Robertson’s decade old proposals.
Car lanes with sharrows have become dedicated bike lanes, which have spurred the popularity of electric bikes. Sidewalks have been widened and curb extensions added to make the city more pedestrian friendly.
Less visible, but more impactful, the city recently relaxed parking requirements, which were determined to “hamstring” businesses, Robertson said.
Previously, the parking requirement for restaurants was nearly triple the parking requirement for offices. In lieu parking fees were allowed, but were costly. 
A bed and breakfast proposed for 10th Street and Hermosa Avenue was required to pay Hermosa Beach a $57,000 in lieu fee for two parking spots in 2020.
Bolour and Associates, in its 2019 letter to Robertson, blamed “outdated and excessive parking requirements from the city” as one of the reasons the hotel was “no longer financially viable.” Under the new parking code, a business change of use no longer triggers a requirement for more onsite parking or in lieu parking fees.
The relaxed parking requirements paved the way for rooftop dining at Sharkeez, and Palmilla on Pier Plaza, and for Comedy and Magic Club to reopen, by allowing the businesses to increase their seating without having to increase their parking.
A planning issue the city has yet to address, Robertson said, is the balance between retail and office space in the downtown. Robertson said planners like street level floor space filled with retail, which generates pedestrian traffic, an atmosphere of vitality, and sales tax revenue. Ground floor offices are thought to create pedestrian “dead zones.” Some cities, including Manhattan Beach and Seal Beach, bans new street level offices. 
Hermosa’s downtown, in recent years, has seen blocks of retail converted to office use.
Marlin Equity, a locally owned international investment firm, has, alone, leased or acquired nearly two blocks downtown. On Pier Avenue, they have moved into buildings formerly occupied by a mortuary and a printing company. On Manhattan Avenue they are remodeling the former Abigaile restaurant building, which included Mike’s Guitar Parlor, and Massage Envy. 
Real estate, medical, and professional offices are also rapidly displacing downtown retailers. On the positive side, offices bring daytime customers for the remaining retailers, which is why planners look for a balance, Robertson said.
Among the most contentious issues facing the city, as Robertson departs, is Hermosa Beach’s Regional Housing Need Allocation. For decades, Hermosa and neighboring cities have used residential zoning to reduce population density, in hopes of reducing traffic, and parking problems, and not overtaxing sewers, and streets. 
Hermosa’s population has decreased 2.25 percent since the 2010 census. But with 19,068 residents packed into 1.3 square miles, its population density is 13th, out of 1,517 California cities. (Redondo Beach is 48th and Manhattan Beach 71st.)
In an effort to create more affordable housing, the state is mandating cities increase their density. In January, Hermosa was ordered to build 566 new housing units. (Redondo is required to add 2,591 new units and Manhattan Beach 791.)
In an effort to comply with the state mandate, Robertson’s department identified 50 “Candidate Sites for Rezoning,” in its General Plan Housing Element. The sites include the Community Center (158 potential units), the Big Lots shopping center (90 potential units) and single family properties throughout the city, including 15 owned by St. Cross Episcopal Church on Monterey and Loma drives.
The housing element notwithstanding, in a January 2020 report to the city council, Robertson cited challenges the city faces in meeting the new housing mandate.
“Exceptionally high land cost and the lack of appropriately-sized vacant properties make affordable housing development difficult, even if large financial subsidies were available,” he wrote.
During his Java Man interview Robertson said he’s leaving the city happy with the “organic” planning he oversaw. 
He said city planners from bigger cities often asked if he wouldn’t prefer to work on big infill projects, and big new developments. He said he told them no. He said he found small-scale “organic” planning very rewarding. ER
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