Valeria Velasco grew up immersed in beach culture and would head every weekend from Whittier to the coastline with her family to enjoy the water, watch her brothers surf and do a little skateboarding. So it’s no surprise that when it came time to purchase a home, she and her husband, Frank, fell in love with the sleepy little beach town of Playa del Rey and moved here in 1988. While living in Playa del Rey was a dream, the sound of waves crashing was quickly being overtaken by the constant barrage of airplane noise, to the point she couldn’t even have a conversation in her backyard.
As an attorney who had read LAX’s Environmental Impact Report before she moved to Playa, she was eager to get answers from the airport on the cause of the increased noise in the neighborhood. She was surprised at how quickly she got a meeting with airport staff, and when they rolled out hundreds of pages of blueprints detailing plans to expand the airport into the Westchester/Playa community, she was shocked. After being asked for her help in getting the community on board with the proposal, she walked out the door and got to work doing the opposite.
No stranger to advocating for what she believes in, she started calling everyone she knew and knocking on doors to make sure another airport expansion was stopped. Joining forces with other community activists, she co-founded ARSAC (Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion), became a member of the Westchester Rotary and volunteered her time as a founding member of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester/Playa.
When Antonio Villaraigosa ran for mayor of Los Angeles in 2005, Velasco asked him to sign ARSAC’s pledge to not allow the airport to expand its footprint into the neighborhood. When he was elected, she was quick to email a list of qualified people she recommended to serve on LAX’s Board of Airport Commissioners (BOAC) who could represent local residents. Seeing her passion for advocating on behalf of her neighbors and her knowledge of airport issues, he appointed Velasco instead.
This September will mark her 17th year serving as Vice President of BOAC, which makes her the longest-serving airport commissioner in LAX history.
“When I reflect back, what I am most proud of is our community for standing up to the airport and keeping it from expanding its footprint into Playa del Rey and Westchester,” said Velasco. “The airport was a different organization back then than it is now. It is now a more open organization, that is open to good communication and input from the community. As a commissioner, I’m really proud of our modernization efforts, creating a better passenger experience, the beautiful facilities and the transportation system we are putting in place.”
After decades of service to the community and fighting airport expansion, Velasco will be honored at the Airport Marina Counseling Service’s Spring Gala on May 19 (read more on page 28). During the event at LMU’s new outdoor Drollinger Stage, she will be presented with the Community Builder Award. Thanks in part to her efforts, when she accepts the award and gives her speech, the audience will only hear her voice, not airport noise.
We recently chatted with her and asked her to share her thoughts on the community, so here is “5 Questions With…Valeria!”
If you’re looking for the perfect evening out, where are you going?
I really love dining al fresco at restaurants in Playa del Rey. One of the few silver linings of the pandemic was that all of our local restaurants opened up outdoor dining. Frank and I loved going to Moe’s, Cantalini’s and Caffe Pinguini, sitting outside, enjoying the local fare and the people-watching while supporting our PDR small businesses. It’s really special being able to sit outside in the evening at the beach.
What’s something the neighborhood needs more of and something it needs less of?
We need more of preserving the seaside culture and small-town atmosphere of Playa del Rey. And because of the times we are living in, we need more mental health services and job placement services. We also need truly affordable housing that would be part of the community and blend with the community where people could live with pride and be a part of this wonderful place. On the flip side, what we don’t need more of is gentrification/mansionization of houses.
What is your favorite neighborhood tip or trick?
My favorite neighborhood tip: support our local businesses! One of the best secrets is the Ocean Cafe & Grill at Dockweiler Beach. The owners, Kirk and DJ, are so welcoming, and cook and serve the food themselves. The restaurant is right on the beach with unobstructed ocean views. The other tip I always share is that you can find great gifts and flowers at Felicia’s on Culver Blvd. in “downtown” Playa del Rey.
What’s one local spot you couldn’t live without?
I love the beach here in Playa del Rey and know we are so fortunate to live here. Mild weather winters—okay, 56 degrees is cold for us native Californians–and heavenly summers. The wetlands are another one of our environmental gems right here in our own backyard. The wetlands north of Culver Blvd. and west of Jefferson are fantastic for walking tours and learning about the ecological environment. The wetlands along Jefferson right now are not great for the public, but I have faith and hope for the future that the unhoused people staying there will find a more permanent solution for a better place to live.
What do you tell people that are new to the area about Playa del Rey?
Welcome to Playa del Rey–a truly wonderful community to live in! There are lots of great local restaurants and businesses. Residents are great neighbors; we look out for each other and know each other. The population is diverse economically, ethnically, architecturally and socially, making it a really interesting place to live. It’s one of the last small beach towns in L.A., and we have a rich history and surf culture starting as far back to about 1921. Enjoy the beach!
Posted April 2022. Photos by Zsuzsi Steiner.