The Annenberg Foundation has suspended its involvement in a wetland restoration project, following a backlash over its plan for an interpretive center-pet adoption center combo on the site. It’s the second time such a plan has gone off the rails. What gives?
Annenberg announced last week in a joint statement with the agencies involved that it is suspending its involvement in the Ballona Wetlands Reserve, one of L.A. County’s last natural wetlands. The statement cited the foundation’s “re-prioritization of resources and focus,” but it’s hard to imagine the move being unrelated to the tension that had rising between Annenberg, the state, and environmental activists. (Annenberg's leadership could not be reached for comment beyond the statement.)
The disagreement has been a heated battle for the past couple of years, full of protest, private meetings, and harsh public attacks. But basically it boils down to this:
A group of environmental activists fought in the early 2000s to protect the wetlands from developers, and won. Restoration plans for the degraded land have been inching along since then. But it came to light that, along with a $50 million donation to the project, the foundation had built in a plan for a 46,000-square-foot interpretive center on the property. Activists opposed building on the land, but it was the plan to include a pet rescue and care facility in the center that drew the most criticism from the public and press. Not only that, local conservation groups were angry that the plans were drawn up in secret and without their involvement.
While local battles will no doubt continue over plans for the site, and it's unclear what's going to happen next, the center appears to be dunzo, and its opponents are “elated.”
But what is up with Annenberg and these plans for pet centers on public land? The Ballona project is almost identical to an earlier plan to build an interpretive/adoption building on Rancho Palos Verdes coastal city property. That plan, too, was ditched after a backlash. Wallis Annenberg, heiress to the Pennsylvania-based Annenberg media fortune, had told Vanity Fair in 2009 of that project that she wanted it to be the “Mayo Clinic” for companion animals, and that it would tie in reverence for animals with ecology.
The Annenberg Foundation is a really eclectic funder with a broad mission that shows up all over greater Los Angeles. Much of its giving seems to be reflective of Wallis Annenberg’s many interests. For example, she is very passionate about domestic pets, but also the arts, historic preservation, wildlife, and public placemaking. The foundation is also really into brick-and-mortar projects, many of which bear the family name around town. Some of them are kind of quirky too, like the public tree house in Torrance. There’s also a 2014 grant for an orangutan rehabilitation center in Borneo to be called “Wally’s World.”
The L.A. pet center projects are case studies of what can happen when a funder's vision doesn't click with the community it's trying to benefit. Annenberg does a lot of work with domestic animals, and people no doubt appreciate it, and definitely don't oppose the idea of animal shelters. But it’s clear after two tries that the public just doesn’t see pet adoption merged with land protection as making much sense. Nor did a large construction project, as people are appropriately defensive about building on the site.
The backlash also shows what can happen when the public and key stakeholders aren't on board with a project. Planning happened without the conservation groups that are heavily invested in the fate of the wetlands. A highly involved and vocal band of activists was the wrong group to leave out.
The whole situation actually has a lot of parallels with another big public space project we’ve been writing about, the proposed island park in Manhattan. Both are cases in which the funder has had a lot of influence on a plan for public land that seemd to come out of nowhere. The Ballona controversy is an example of how such a plan can fail if a community is not invested, regardless of how much money is being donated.