County Supervisor Janice Hann held an early morning press conference, April 8 to announce land seized by the city of Manhattan Beach will be returned to the descendents of former owners Willa and Charles Bruce. Senate Bill 796 is authored by Sen. Steve Bradford and was introduced in the state legislature in February.
Hahn was joined by Bradford, Supervisor Holly Mitchell, and Asm. Al Muratsuchi, which will right wrongs when the city council seized the beachfront land nearly 100 years ago.
“Hahn has recognized the opportunity the county has to begin to right the wrongs of the past and bring some justice to Charles and Willa Bruce’s descendants,” according to a statement from Hahn’s office Thursday. “She has been meeting with the family and has stated her intention to work to return the land to them.”
County legal advisers told Hahn that three options were available. One would simply be to return the land to the Bruce family. Another would be to transfer ownership of the land back to the Bruces and then establish a ground lease in which LA County pays rent to the family and keep the lifeguard headquarters. The third option would be to determine the value of the property — estimates range from $40 million to $70 million — and pay the Bruces.
The solution the County is moving towards is transferring the land to the Bruce’s in a way that does not immediately saddle the family with an enormous property tax bill.
The bill restricts commercial development on the land and if the County breaches the agreement, the state will terminate the County’s interest.
“I’ve definitely listened to Anthony Bruce on what he thought would benefit the family and not be a burden on the family,” Hahn said. “So I think we’re really going to land on transferring the property and then entering into a lease with the Bruce family. The County will pay to continue to operate the lifeguard administration building for however long, but it’s their property after that. They can do what they want.”
SB 796 contains conditions that the State of California will grant their interest to the County of Los Angeles who shall continue to use, operate, and maintain the land for public recreation, and beach purposes in perpetuity.
The bill is clear that the Bruce family will never be able to develop the property for commercial use.
SB 796 prohibits new or expanded commercial development of the land and a project for new or expanded noncommercial development shall not exceed an estimated cost of $750,000.
The Manhattan Beach City Council adopted a resolution acknowledging and condemning the city’s actions of nearly a century ago involving Bruce’s Beach, but the resolution did not include an apology to the family. The council did agree to install new historical markers at the site.
Willa and Charles Bruce purchased the beachfront property in 1912 and used it to build a resort for Black residents. In 1929, the Manhattan Beach City Council seized the property under eminent domain, stating they needed the land for a park, with the land remaining vacant for decades.
Failure to develop the property, for its intended use, under eminent domain, would have allowed legal action by the family. The property was then turned into a park, and the property transferred to the state, then to L.A. County and is now used as the L.A. County Lifeguard Training Centre.
In 2006, the city council renamed the park Bruce’s Beach, to honor the memory of the Bruce family.
The city council met April 6 to weigh in on four versions of recommendations made by a task force and multiple versions by three council members: Steve Napolitano, Hildy Stern and Joe Franklin.
Napolitano and Stern’s version incorporated the word “apology” while Franklin’s version did not. Franklin’s resolution was adopted by the council, 4-1, but stopped short of including a formal apology.
“The Manhattan Beach of today is not the Manhattan Beach of one hundred years ago,” said Franklin. “The community and population of the City of Manhattan Beach are loving, tolerant and welcoming to all. We reject racism, hate, intolerance and exclusion.”
Those closely following the story believe the city should not only return the land to the descendants of the Bruce’s, but also compensate them fully for their loss of wealth.
“I hope they get the land back and all the money they’ve lost from 1929 until now,” said Candi Arnold. “The property is worth way more now but hopefully the family will keep it and build on it like a timeshare or something.”