LA County prepares for Bruce’s Beach land transfer

Los Angeles County officials took another step toward returning two parcels of beachfront land to the family of the original Black owners.

The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday, Oct. 5, to begin the process of transferring the land to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce, the former owners of what’s now Bruce’s Beach. Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law the bill that gives the county authority to do so.

The motion, introduced last week by Supervisors Janice Hahn and Holly Mitchell, directs the  Anti-Racism, Diversity, and Inclusion Initiative — under the County CEO’s Office — and County Counsel to get ready to accept the amended deed from the state and determine the Bruces legal heirs.

“It was a pivotal moment for us to return the land (at the bill signing), but to be clear, that bill did not actually transfer the land,” Hahn said Tuesday. “That step is now up to the county.”

Bruce’s Beach Lodge — two parcels totaling nearly 7,000 square feet at 2600 The Strand, in Manhattan Beach — was an early 20th century seaside resort for African Americans at a time when Black people had limited access to the coast.

Willa and Charles Bruce, who were Black, bought the two parcels in 1912 for $1,225 and turned the land into the flourishing resort.

But city leaders in 1929 successfully used eminent domain to take over the land for reasons that were racially motivated. The lodge’s owners received $14,500 for the parcels, which now are worth millions of dollars.

The city eventually gave the land to the state. The state, in 1995, handed the parcels over to the county — but on the condition the county couldn’t sell or transfer the parcels.

The bill Newsom signed last week, Senate Bill 796, allows the county to do just that.

“This is the first time any local government has returned land that was unjustly taken from African Americans,” Hahn said Tuesday. “We’re forging a way for others who may want to look at their own history and follow our example.”

But the process of returning the land is complex.

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The State Department of Parks and Recreation, for example, has until year’s end to amend the county’s property deed for the parcels by removing the 1995 restrictions that prohibit selling or transferring the land. Once that happens, the county will finally have the legal authority to return the property.

The County CEO’s Office and County Counsel can now prepare to accept that amended deed. Tuesday’s vote also fast tracks the process of determining Willa and Charles Bruce’s direct descendants and figuring out how to screen potential distant family members who might lay claim to the property.

Once the county legally confirms the heirs, Hahn said, official discussions with them can begin.

Among the questions to be answered,  Hahn spokeswoman Liz Odendahl said last week, are:

Do the Bruce heirs want the exact parcels on which the lifeguard training center sits, or would they accept two equivalent parcels in the same block (currently a parking lot)?
If the former, do the heirs want the county to vacate the training center or would they prefer to become the county’s landlords?
If the Bruces become landlords, how much rent would the county pay?
Determining rent would require answering perhaps the biggest question of all: What is the current fair market value of the oceanfront property?

An appraisal — the first on the oceanfront property since Willa and Charles purchased it in 1912 — is nearly complete, Odendahl said.

“We’ll make history and return the land that was stolen to their great (great) grandchildren,” Hahn said. “This nation has a lot of work to do; Bruce’s Beach for us is just the beginning.”

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