Ballona Wetlands PART THREE: Annenberg Foundation's Leonard Aube Explains Annenberg's Proposal for Area C

Area C, a 64-acre portion of the Uplands area of Ballona Creek Wetlands, is a pretty piece of open, Culver City-adjacent land owned by State of California – and a battleground between the esteemed Annenberg Foundation and local environmental groups. The foundation has put a $50 million proposal on the table that offers to make extensive improvements to the land but also includes a controversial interpretive center and domestic animal adoption component. Some time in 2014 – after the issuance of a draft Environmental Impact Report, a period of public comment, and the completion of a final Environmental Impact Report – the California Department of Fish and Wildlife will decide whether to accept this proposal.

This is the third part of a multi-segment story on the past, present and uncertain future of this piece of land – meant to help readers decide for themselves whether they should urge the Department of Fish and Wildlife to reject or accept the Annenberg Proposal. This segment is devoted to detailing exactly what is being proposed by the Annenberg Foundation – as described by Annenberg Foundation Executive Director Leonard Aube during a recent interview.

Read the first part HERE.

Read the second part HERE

As the Annenberg Foundation’s Executive Director Leonard Aube explained during a recent meeting at the foundation’s Century City offices, the foundation proposes the installation of public access and visitor amenities consistent with establishing Area C as a gateway to the rest of the 600 acres of Ballona. While Aube emphasizes that the project is still in its design phase and could change along the way to fruition, he says that at this point their proposal includes the creation of a system of walkways with interpretive stations and pedestrian bridges (within Area C itself, not across any streets or anything like that), a reconfiguration of the baseball fields and their parking lot, a visitors center, as well as on-going maintenance and the installation of 24-hour on-site personnel. The foundation will not own the land, but will have an operating permit.



The Annenberg proposal includes plans to remove all the non-native landscape (that’s the majority of what is currently growing there) and to replace it with native species. It also proposes contouring the land. “Today, Area C is relatively flat,” says Aube, “but the Annenberg proposal includes the creation of small hills and berms as well as lower areas. Adding a variety of terrains such as arroyos, meadows, native grass areas, and seasonal streams will encourage biological diversity that will help advance the health of the wetlands.”

For the cycling community, the Annenberg proposal would offer several openings along the creek and invite bicycle access along a new trail on the south edge of the site.



There is little will at a community level or at a political level to invite the Culver Marina Little League off the property. So the Annenberg Foundation proposes minimizing the league’s impact on the land. “The Little League only plays on the site several months out of the year,” says Aube. “We propose that the green space in the outfields become like a park when the league is not in season, transforming it into a year-round asset where baseball also happens to be played.”

The foundation’s plan is to also use natural-looking topography to minimize the impact of the outbuildings and other necessary Little League facilities. “Beyond the outfield fences of the Little League fields, there would be berms where spectators could sit and watch the games,” says Aube. “Then inside the berms, you could put the concessions, storage, and dugouts that today are just plopped down on the habitat.”



The proposal is to retain the same amount of parking currently on-site, but divide it so some services the baseball diamonds and some services the new visitor center. Annenberg also proposes an environmentally productive solution to the current situation where anything that leaks from a car seeps directly into the soil – while also avoiding pavement. Says Aube, “The idea is to use a membrane under the surface of the parking areas that will capture runoff and sheet it over to something like a bioswale [designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water].”



The Annenberg’s proposal also includes a horseshoe-shaped, 46,000-square-foot visitors center, on the southeast corner of the property, up against the 90 freeway onramp. The foundation’s architects have conceived what’s called an open-post-and-beam design to try to minimize the impact of such a building. “In some areas, it will literally be stilt-supported, so the landscape can grow underneath the building,” explains Aube. “In the parts of the building that are not on stilts, there will be a one-for-one trade on landscape to hardscape, meaning that if we’re taking up a piece of the land, we will plant that much of the roof – landscaping where we believe birds and butterflies and land animals will hang out. In the current plan, the roof would be essentially a buckwheat forest, the native habitat for endangered blue butterflies. So, looked at that way, we’re not taking away a single foot of land from what is available for green space.”

Aube says the programming within the visitor’s center – as conceived by Annenberg – pivots around the idea of Urban Ecology. “We asked ourselves: What is Ballona?” he explains. “What is our place and role in it? And how do we go about educating people about responsible stewardship of it? Ballona is an incredible native habitat that is surrounded by 16 million people on three sides. So in Ballona we have the confluence of nature adapted to an urban environment – including us and the things that live with us. So we thought about presenting a thoughtful look at this environment, with a 360-degree view of ourselves and the world around us. That led to the evolution of this visitors center as an urban ecology-centric destination.”



In the common space in the center of the center, the walls will open up like giant barn doors to provide natural ventilation and avoid a highly conditioned space. This space will be home to a large topographical display of the Los Angeles basin. “As you know,” says Aube, “Ballona sits at the end of the watershed, so part of the Ballona conversation is about water. We’ll use the map to help people to understand how the mountains catch the water, the water comes down the mountains and winds up coming into our city, where it gets channeled and then goes out into the ocean.”

This theme of water might also be picked up in the design of the visitor’s center itself. Says Aube, “the proposal has some interesting indoor/outdoor elements, including water within the facility and a curtain wall of water that will flow outside and could actually be a seasonal stream – to represent what was once known as the Fiji Ditch, which once carried water [laterally across Area C] but is now basically gone in Area C South.“



In the Annenberg’s proposed visitor center, the south wing will house diorama-like environments representing each part of Ballona Wetlands, from marine ecology at the western edge to the uplands ecology on the east. “So as you walk through the wing, you’ll get a microcosm experience of all 640 acres of Ballona,” says Aube.

These stations will also house living animals, says Aube. “We know how compelling living things are as teachable elements and part of the educational experience. So within that wing a couple of dozen species of native animals will be on display, including everything from sea bass to stingrays and garibaldi all the way up to rabbits, birds, voles and lizards.”

Aube explains that the building’s northern wing will address how people live in the context of a reserve. “The other wing is devoted to both an indoor and outdoor urban LA – so in effect we will present a metaphorical recreation of a backyard and interiors, including worms, rats, butterflies, squirrel and other animals that are indigenous to urban Los Angeles. This is where companion animals such as dogs and cats show up as well, as part of the urban animal conversation.”

Associated with this area is the center’s pet adoption facility, “where you can actually take part of the programming home with you,” says Aube. “So those animals would not only be there to serve as interpretation but also would be there to respond to another compelling public service, which would be the adoption part of it.

Aube says there are some people who “are talking about this visitors center as being little more than an animal shelter that will provide veterinarian services.” But he insists, “That’s not true. If you have live animals in your care, rigorous regulations demand that you provide a certain level of husbandry and care, including back-of-the-house areas related to intake, quarantine, food preparation, as well as veterinarian services. The veterinarian on staff would only service the animals that live within the confines of the center. There will be no publically accessible services.”

Aube insists that the animal adoption component is central to the foundation’s conception of the center. “We want the wetlands to thrive as a wetlands. The reality is – and this is clear from the last 100 years in Ballona – we are part of the story,” he says. “So the question is, how do we make people responsible stewards of this land? There is a lot of research about the power of living things as a transferrable element in an educational process, especially for young people. It feels very different when you bring taxidermy into a setting like this as opposed to live critters. So if you’re going to have a rabbit and a vole, and a stingray, then the cat and the dog and the squirrel and the raccoon make sense in our minds because they become part of that compelling interpretive story. What happens in the dispensation of them…that’s the double bottom line where we say, ‘We can also fulfill another compelling social dilemma.’ We’ve been accused of having an obsession about the animal adoption element, but it’s really an obsession with the world around us.


The foundation is also proposing the establishment of a fund for the on-going maintenance of the property. Says Aube, “We will create an endowment that will pay for half of the state’s maintenance expectations for all of Ballona. And we also will provide, through a charitable grant, the funding for a permanent, full-time staff person on the premises. Today, so many of the site’s problems come from the lack of a presence. Security fences and security cameras and police drive-bys – these alone won’t solve problems of mis-use.”


Aube is well aware of that not everyone will support the Annenberg Foundation’s proposal, but he insists that the organization is fulfilling the state’s vision. “The state is very committed to wanting public access to thrive at Ballona. That’s not a debate. We’re saying we can help make this project better with a level of investment that the state can probably not match. If you just have a gate that you throw open each morning, you’ll just get more of what you have there now, including a lot of behavior that you don’t necessarily want to promote.”

“So how do you do it in a responsible and managed way?” he continues. “And what is the right scale? These are all very subjective ideas.  Should there be a 2,000-square-foot facility? Should it be like the California Science Center, which is a 400,000-square-foot facility? Or somewhere in between? Where we are today is a facility with a 46,000-square-foot space and about a 30,000-square-foot footprint [parts of the facility being two-story]. That means something less than an acre to programmatically support the 640 acres of Ballona. We are proposing something that we believe balances public access – and the quest for more use – with scale. And that is at the heart of what is being publically debated.”

“Whenever we are involved in a project that exists in a public/private universe,” continues Aube, “we find that there will be constituents who oppose any proposal and who just want to maintain the status quo. There will be people who just want to put up a shack, hand out walking trail maps and call it a day. They are concerned that a project like this will attract Disneyland-like crowds. It’s important to listen to all of those voices, but much of what they are saying are simply based on fears and anxieties of the unknown. But by now I have worked on a great many of these public/private projects – the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica being prime example – and those anxieties about over-demand turn out to be unfounded.”

In the end, Aube is frank about the Annenberg’s ambition for this project. “You may say, ‘It’s a earthworks; it’s a building; it’s a trail; it’s a Little League field.’ But there’s something above that. We’re supposed to inspire kids to leave this venue and feel different about themselves and the world around them. If you cannot come to the Annenberg Foundation and our peer community for a little hope and inspiration, then we’re failing. It’s not our job to protect the status quo. It’s really to make investments in human potential – in the possibilities of things. We think about that a lot.”

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