April 3, 2020 - From the April, 2020 issue

Redondo Beach Mayor Brand: City Impacts of COVID-19 & AES Power Plant Closure

With over one million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide and state social distancing measures closing the beaches of Coastal California, TPR spoke with Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand on how his densely populated city & tourist-dependent economy is impacted by the pandemic. The Mayor also addresses the recent purchase and planned closure this year of the natural gas-fired AES power plant in Redondo Beach—a decision that now rests with the State Water Resources Control Board, and not in either the fine print of a real estate transaction nor with the CPUC.


“…(W)e shut down our beaches, waterfronts, bike paths, piers, parking lots, all the usual stuff most people are very familiar with. So far, we’re getting great compliance from the community, and we’re hoping to flatten the infection curve…”—Bill Brand

Mayor, we appreciate your taking time to be interviewed by TPR while also addressing the priority challenges of the current coronavirus pandemic. How's your beach city responding to the health and economic challenges growing daily?

Bill Brand: Well, we kicked into it into high gear about a month ago. In concert with the county and the neighboring beach cities, we shut down our beaches, waterfronts, bike paths, piers, parking lots, all the usual stuff most people are very familiar with. So far, we're getting great compliance from the community, and we're hoping to flatten the infection curve—based on all these actions we've taken and the way people are responding to it.

Tell us a little bit about the deliberations of the council, both in your city and the beach cities, as this has progressed from January through today. What's been the nature of the conversations and the challenges that you've confronted?

Each city has spun up on their own gradually. I convened a conference call a couple of weeks ago with the other beach city mayors here in the South Bay—Torrance, Redondo, Hermosa, and El Segundo—along with County Supervisor Janice Hahn. It was after the weekend of March 21—which was an absolute disaster—when we got together to do something.

Given that we're trying to maintain social distancing, we informed everybody on how important it was, but the beaches and the waterfront had just become too much of an attraction. It wasn't easy and we didn’t get there quickly, but we got there. Through a lot of deliberation, we decided we just had to shut everything down; any piecemealing was just going to invite people to find ways around it.

If we didn’t just shut everything down, it was going to be an attraction and there were going to be more people not practicing social distancing, so in the interest of public health w shut down our waterfront. Everybody was moving along in concert, but when it came down to shut down our beaches we had to do what we did.

Mayor, you’re elected by your residents, but your city and the beach cities are magnets for tourists and visitors partaking in your restaurants and your hotels. How has that been reflected in what you've been hearing and what you've been having to contend with as mayor?

We're hearing financial concerns from all avenues, there’s no question about it—very few people are insulated from this. Whether it's restaurants or other businesses, our pier and waterfront have a lot of leaseholders.

We can't even project what our City’s revenue streams are going to be yet; so yes, we have been relying on tourism to some degree but our largest revenue streams remain property tax and sales tax. A lot of our other revenue streams like transit occupancy tax (hotel bed tax) are also very dependent on business activity. Last I checked, hotels all throughout town are at very low capacity.

Right now, we're trying to keep people safe and institute changes to prevent from having high growth in this first spread. That's what we're focused on right now from a financial standpoint.

In no way minimizing the health challenges that you just referenced, but because you’ve been—as mayor of Redondo Beach—quite active in state legislation and state actions for such a long time, talk about what cities need and what they expect from the $2 trillion federal action to keep them going, both in the near and distant term.

The distant term is hard to determine, because we don't know what that looks like. In the short term, we need a bottom-up approach from the federal and state government—extension of unemployment or careful allocation of resources to certain businesses based on their willingness to pay things like salaries. A lot of people are out of work, and people's rents are coming. We have a moratorium on eviction, but it’s not rent relief.

We need help from the state and the federal government from a bottoms-up approach, as well as from a medical need. Right now, we're okay but we're bracing ourselves for needing what every other community needs: basic medical supplies and medical workers. We’re in critical time, it's impossible to project what we're going to need, but in the near future, we need some financial assistance that gets money into people's hands. Most people have it, but for people who live paycheck to paycheck, unfortunately, they're in big trouble right now.

Redondo Beach is one of the densest cities in the state, by square mile. Density has been acquainted to some of the challenges related to the spread of the virus. Talk about how density and the spread of this respiratory virus may affect or is affecting your thoughts about planning and development and growth going forward--if you've had time to do that.

We really haven't had time to do that. Our density problems really remain that our schools are full and our roads are choked. We're in a fiscal deficit situation primarily because we have too much residential development that doesn't pay. In terms of effective state housing and planning policy right now, it's not even on our radar screen. We’re just dealing with this pandemic crisis.

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The fact that we're densely populated—more so than Long Beach—scares us. That's why we're being so strict about encouraging people to keep their social distance and closing attractions, but there's only so much we can do though. We're really counting on the community to understand what's going on here, pull together, and do what we can to sacrifice to help other people, and stay away from each other unless you're living with them. Short term, we’re focused on flattening this curve.

Pivoting to the closure and sale of Redondo Beach’s waterfront AES gas power plant, brief our readers on the latest developments with respect to when that plant will close?

We're not positive about what happened this week. AES and the potential new buyer say they've closed on the transaction, so we will take them at their word even though we haven't been able to confirm that.   It is monumental that it’s changing ownership, but there's a big misconception out there that somehow the plant is now due to retire at the end of 2023.

That decision has to be made by the California State Water Resources Control Board sometime in July. It’s now open for public comment and the city and neighboring residents are against any extension at all of the December 31, 2020 retirement date set 10 years ago.

It pollutes our community and we don't think the power is needed, because they now have extended three large plants in our area unexpectedly—which is a lot of capacity they weren't expecting to have. There have been a lot articles written to make it sound like it’s been extended and others that make it sound like the developers are committing 50 percent open space, which is highly conditioned.

The power plant property is already zoned for 100 percent open space and conditional uses for public utility; it's not zoned for mixed use, residential, or commercial. Any zoning change will require a public vote and that's required by our City Charter. Right now, any development on that site will have to work closely with the residents to get something approved at a ballot box. We'll be looking forward to any plans that come forward for consideration by the public—not the City Council or the Mayor—and what they vote for is what entitlements the new buyer will get.

We're hoping that it retires at the end of year, as it was scheduled 10 years ago, and that decision will be made in July by the State Water Resources Control Board, not by the PUC. The latest recommendation by the PUC was to extend Redondo Beach for one year. Myself, Supervisor Janice Hahn, State Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, and State Senator Ben Allen are all opposed to any extension in Redondo Beach.

Mayor, many have suggested that—as bad as the pandemic is—the ramifications of not addressing climate change and the issues related to the operation of the AES gas plant -  are equally important for Redondo Beach. Do you have any thoughts about the nexus between climate change and this pandemic, in terms of your challenges?

It's a hard nexus for me to formulate, I haven't given it that much thought. This pandemic is so bizarre, unplanned, and surreal, and we’re just trying to deal with the crisis we're in to save lives. Drawing connections between either global warming or hydrocarbon emissions is not something that we've been talking about.

As far as these fossil fuel power plants on the coast, we decided a long time ago to phase these out unless they convert to technology that did not use ocean water for cooling. Of the 19 power plants on the coast of California, some are revamping to closed-cycle cooling, others are permanently retiring.  This particular plant is permanently retiring.  The only discussion is when. The date, December 31, 2020, was decided 10 years ago, and I’m hoping they stick to it.

Let's close with a question related to the personal challenges of being a Mayor in this time of the pandemic, mandates re social distancing, and shelter at home that affect the vitality and health of your city. What are you having to balance to deal with to meet all of your  responsibilities?

My personal challenges are that I was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer last year, I'm undergoing chemotherapy treatment, and I recently had an infection in my knee. So, I'm one of those immunocompromised people everybody worries about, particularly my wife. Like many other people, I'm dealing with particular personal challenges, health-wise. Other people have obviously much worse challenges than I do and they don't have somebody with them.

A lot of people are alone and we want to help them with basic necessities like delivering food—particularly seniors who can’t get out. We've been working closely with the Beach Cities Health District on various services and with the YMCA to deliver meals. We've all got our personal challenges but some are worse than others. The city is trying to help those that are alone, don't have resources, and have nowhere to turn.

 

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.