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Manhattan Beach City Council Reaffirms No Special Event Permits for Bruce's Beach Park

Mar 16, 2022 09:55AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

A scene from the "Blacckkity Festival" party at Bruce's Beach in Manhattan Beach on February 27. Photo credit: Diana Skaar.

The Manhattan Beach City Council on Tuesday reaffirmed its policy disallowing special event permits at Bruce's Beach Park, going against a recommendation of the city's Parks and Rec Commission.

Councilmembers voted 4-1 to uphold the current special events policy that excludes Bruce's Beach as well as Larsson Parkette and 8th Street Parkette from the permitting process. Manhattan Beach Mayor Hildy Stern was the lone dissenting vote.

Under current policy, Bruce's Beach Park, Larsson Street Parkette, and Eighth Street Parquette are considered "not eligible for special event permits." This means that a person would not be able to apply for a permit to hold a special event at Bruce's Beach Park or the parkettes.

The City Council's vote goes against the Parks and Recreation Commission recommendation of two weeks ago. In making that recommendation, the commission voted unanimously to recommend adding Bruce's Beach Park and the two parkettes in policies for special event permits.

The rationale given by the Parks and Rec Commission was that by including Bruce's Beach Park and the two parkettes in the special events permitting policy, the city would have greater control over the size, frequency, and planning for any gatherings that people would plan for those areas.

But councilmembers rejected that idea on Tuesday, saying that it would simply open the doors to events that would exceed the limit they are given - at the expense of neighbors' quiet and privacy. 

"There’s not a lot of control [of such events] these days, given social media," said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Napolitano. "We can stomp our feet, and say what we will, but if someone's really intent on having an event there and they put it on social media, and we say, 'You can only limit it to 50 people, or 100 people;' the reality is, given social media, droves could show up. And the neighborhood residents’ questions have been, 'What are you going to do next?'"

Many neighbors of the parks had also expressed in public comments that the parks are ill-equipped for special events without adequate parking or restroom facilities (although in the case of Bruce's Beach Park, public restrooms are about a block down at the county lifeguard headquarters).

Changes Since 2018?

The four councilmembers who voted together agreed that the policy voted on in 2018 - to specifically exclude Bruce's Beach Park and the parkettes from the special event permitting process - should stay in place.

Yet Stern argued that a change in attitudes toward Bruce's Beach Park since 2018 should necessitate a change in the way the city manages public gatherings there.

"We have seen a great change in the way we see Bruce's Beach Park. We’ve seen that it has cultural significance and symbolic significance," said Stern. "At that time [2018], we didn't have requests to use Bruce's Beach Park. Now we do."

Stern continued, "The proposed update was to allow the city to consider how to plan and how to impose limits...The permitting is actually a tool that gives us an opportunity to address impacts and work with the organizer... It’s been kind of exaggerated to say that we want large mega events. No one wants large mega events."

Yet Napolitano said that his decision not to change the current policy was based on practical and logistical matters.

"It’s easy to read in some ominous racial undertones of tonight’s decision, given the raised profile of Bruce's Beach and the reason for it, but the issues that we’re talking about here are universal issues of noise, of trash, of parking, of crowds, and congestion," he said.

However, Napolitano added that he would be willing to consider city-sponsored (as opposed to private) events at Bruce's Beach Park.

Gatherings Stir Emotions Around Bruce's Beach

A series of gatherings at Bruce's Beach Park in the past year - including a Juneteenth celebration, a sound bath, and a party last month promoted on social media as the "Blacckkity Beach Festival" - has touched a nerve with many residents.

The issue about parties at Bruces' Beach Park prompted multitudes of residents to weigh in on the matter over the past two weeks. Notably, the Parks and Rec Commission received a nearly unheard of 95 emails on the matter before its meeting last week.

Since 2020, the city has engaged in an emotional debate over how - or how much - to recognize Willa and Charles Bruce, pioneering Black business owners who created a thriving resort for Black beach-goers in Manhattan Beach in the 1920s.

By the end of the 1920s, with pressure from community members who did not want Black beachgoers in town, Manhattan Beach's Board of Trustees (a precursor to the modern city council) claimed the land under eminent domain and displaced the Bruce family as well as other families who had settled in the area. The land was acquired by the state of California in 1948, and was transferred to L.A. County in 1995. The beachfront property the Bruce family once owned is now the site of the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Training Headquarters.

However, it was not until 2006 that the city of Manhattan Beach publicly acknowledged this chapter of its history by naming the area east of the beachfront property Bruce's Beach Park and establishing a plaque in that location. In the summer of 2020, a movement began growing for the city to take further action to recognize the Bruces.

City-wide, there has been tension between two factions. One has called for "telling the whole story" by demonstrating that the city had racist motivations in displacing the Bruces and other Black families at the time. The other side has argued that the Bruces were fairly compensated for their land, and has resisted what they see as efforts to portray the city as racist.

The Manhattan Beach City Council in 2020 created a Bruce's Beach Task Force (since disbanded) and adopted a history report created by the task force's History Advisory Committee. After several rounds of disagreements, the council last week finally approved language for a new plaque to be placed at Bruce's Beach Park.

Meanwhile, an effort led by Los Angeles County leaders to return the land to the Bruce family culminated in September 2021 when California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 796, a bill to return the county-owned beachfront property to the Bruce family, into law.

While there are many legal hurdles remaining, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has approved a plan that they say will iron out those challenges. One potential outcome would be for the Bruce family to lease back the land to the county so that it could maintain current lifeguard operations on the site.

L.A. County official said last week that county officials plan to install a plaque honoring the Bruce family at the lifeguard headquarters, facing the Strand.

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