Playa Vista 's Road to Reality Is Full of
Twists and Turns;
Development: Part of the huge project near Marina del Rey is underway,
but legal and other hurdles remain.
by Jim Newton; Monte Morin
Los Angeles Times
10/03/1999, p. A-1
It is a vision of urban living for the 21st
century clouded by the hotly competing priorities of the 20th:
jobs, environment, affordable housing, traffic, technology.
It promises 13,000 new homes and apartments
to one of the nation's most starved housing markets, and it threatens
to dump thousands of cars onto some of the nation's most crowded
roadways. It is the struggling home of invasive grasses and seabirds,
and it sits atop a shifting pool of methane and the weathered
remains of an aircraft factory.
Playa Vista , a 1,087-acre slice of Los Angeles
just south of Marina del Rey, is bustling with bulldozers clearing
land for the project's first 3,200 residences and a business "campus,"
which once was to be home to DreamWorks SKG but now is in search
of a tenant. In 10 years, proponents imagine nearly 30,000 people
living on the land where Howard Hughes once flew jets and built
the Spruce Goose.
As they contemplate the Playa Vista of 2010,
builders and their backers see electric buses shuttling residents
to nearby jobs and shops, wealthy and middle-income residents
living side by side, dumping their recyclables into handy chutes,
and checking on the local transportation network by consulting
the computer monitors built into their modern homes.
Before any of that can happen, Playa Vista
has a lot of hurdles to overcome. Standing between today's scrub
and 2010's coastal community are lawsuits, a never-ending environmental
debate and the prospect of City Hall turnover that could rob the
project of some of its supporters.
No backer is more important than Councilwoman
Ruth Galanter, whose political career in many ways has been defined
by the dispute over the project. She won reelection this year,
so she will be around for nearly four more, but if the project
stalls again, its backers might have to face a new council member
with an uncertain agenda.
Mayor Richard Riordan also supports the development,
and in recent months the City Council has turned from eyeing it
skeptically to approving requests with little debate.
But state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) has
dogged Playa Vista for years, and he is joined by a small but
sturdy pack of opponents, some of whom live nearby; others, including
rock star Don Henley, hail from as far away as Texas. DreamWorks'
withdrawal from the project has created complications, depriving
the development of some of its star quality and fueling a move
by some Metropolitan Transportation Authority board members to
take back money that had been pledged for transportation improvements.
All of those, combined with the ever-present
community and environmental concerns, make Playa Vista 's path
to completion a meandering one--the prospects at every turn uncertain.
Not Pristine, Yet a Home to Wildlife
Any examination of Playa Vista 's environmental
import has to take into account that it's not exactly Yosemite
Wedged between the developed bluffs of Westchester,
the man-made channel for Ballona Creek and the harbor/housing
area of Marina del Rey, there is not a lot of wildlife running
free. Part of the area has served as farmland, and a major portion
of it was an aircraft factory--hardly a wilderness.
Yet, looks can be deceiving. The site includes
a struggling wetland, one of a shrinking number that provide crucial
pit stops for migratory birds. According to opponents, loss of
the land will adversely affect such endangered birds as the California
least tern and the Southwestern willow flycatcher. They also claim
that the development will harm the environment for humans by adding
traffic and smog.
A determined group of activists has fought
the project at every turn--politically, with little success; in
court, where it has won some and lost some; and in the public
relations arena, where it has been most successful.
The main critic of the project is the Wetlands
Action Network, headed by its director, Malibu resident Marcia
Hanscom. Just a few years ago, environmental activism was far
from Hanscom's mind, but her outlook changed drastically after
reading Vice President Al Gore's book "Earth in the Balance,"
a work that so disturbed her that she quit her job and began working
for the Sierra Club.
Since then, she has been the main thorn in
Playa Vista 's side. Her goal is to purchase the property and
protect it as a nature preserve, an idea that developers say is
"A wholesale purchase for a park is not
going to happen," said Playa Vista President Peter Denniston.
Recently, project opponents were buoyed by
the inclusion of $25 million in a state parks bill. The money
would be earmarked for the possible public acquisition of the
Despite the doggedness of the Wetlands Action
Network, local and national environmental groups are not unanimous
in their opposition. Three environmental groups--Heal the Bay,
the Audubon Society and the Friends of Ballona Wetlands--have
taken a much less militant stand. These groups, while stopping
short of outright endorsements, have not called for all work to
end. In return, they have been granted a voice in the planning
Ruth Lansford, president of Friends of Ballona
Wetlands, accuses opponents of being late to the fight and of
staking out a position that is more rhetorical than realistic.
One effect of the challenges has been to delay
restoration of the wetland. Under pressure from Galanter, Playa
Vista agreed to pay $13.5 million to restore the deteriorating
saltwater marsh and to build a freshwater one.
Those and other improvements would expand the
wetland from 185 acres to 249. Much of that project is on hold
because of the lawsuit that the wetland's defenders have brought.
Wetland aside, the environmental fallout from
Playa Vista may be most acutely felt on the streets and freeways
that lead to the site. Developers downplay the significance of
the additional traffic, arguing that by combining jobs and housing
on one site, people will work close to home.
But there are no guarantees that the residents
of Playa Vista will work there.
And the MTA, which had offered to kick in about
$30 million for transportation improvements, is losing interest
as Steven Spielberg and his partners have dropped their plans
for a studio in the project.
Still, the development might not have an overall
bad effect on traffic. More housing on the Westside, where housing
is in short supply but where jobs are plentiful, presumably would
cut down on the number of people commuting to the area. Trading
those commutes for shorter trips would help reduce air pollution
and might be a wash in terms of congestion.
Will all of that come to pass?
"All you really can do is guess,"
Some Enthusiasts Have Second Thoughts
If opponents have a tendency to romanticize
Playa Vista 's environmental resources, the developers are equally
likely to exaggerate the uniqueness of its design. They boast
of striking architectural diversity, new concepts in urban living
and high-tech amenities.
There was a time when designers gushed over
Playa Vista . Even critics saw developer Rob Maguire and his partners
as visionaries who transformed the project from its initial design
into an innovative blend of housing, offices and open space.
Now, some of those early enthusiasts are wary.
Although he asked not to be named, one designer who participated
in Playa Vista said he sees it lurching back from cutting edge
to copycat. Others fear that the community could end up looking
like a miniaturized version of Irvine or Mission Viejo.
Galanter, who steered the project's first phase
through council approvals, is among those who acknowledge concerns
about how it will look.
"With this group, I'm not sure,"
she said of the design. "They seem to admire Irvine. . .
. I'm having trouble convincing them that their model should not
be suburban Irvine."
Playa Vista executives insist that they are
convinced. They point out that their community has largely eliminated
the two-car garage in favor of below-grade parking. They note
that the mixture of apartments, condominiums and houses is more
eclectic than those of Irvine or Mission Viejo, and they insist
that their ambition is to construct something altogether new.
"I can't show you an example of Playa
Vista anywhere in the United States today," said Denniston,
Playa Vista 's CEO.
For those who worry about Playa Vista looking
like Irvine, there are troubling signs. Several of Playa Vista
's top executives, including Denniston, worked at one time for
the Irvine Co.
2nd Phase Has Vulnerabilities
There is little in the way of Playa Vista 's
first phase at this point. The City Council has approved it, land
is being graded, and even though the office park lost a prized
tenant when DreamWorks pulled out, developers say they are talking
with possible replacements and proceeding on schedule.
The second and far larger phase is another
story--vulnerable both to politics and lawsuits.
The most significant of three cases is before
the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and revolves around whether
the Army Corps of Engineers failed to do its homework before granting
developers permission to fill 16 acres of wetland. Construction
has been halted in this zone, which is intended to handle the
development's storm-water runoff.
"This case is the big enchilada,"
said development opponent Bruce Robertson. "If they lose
this, it will set them back a year or two."
The developers say that's ridiculous and that
even if they were to lose, it would only affect those 16 acres.
Also, contingency plans have been drawn up for another storm-water
As fate would have it, one of the three judges
who will decide the case is Kim Wardlaw. The judge and her husband,
lawyer Bill Wardlaw, are close friends of Riordan. Although some
opponents at first believed this posed a conflict of interest,
Robertson and Hanscom said they were not concerned.
"I think she'll be fair," Robertson
said. "During the hearing she asked some pretty tough questions
of the developers."
Playa Vista 's problems are not only legal.
Politics still could intervene.
Ever since Galanter won her council seat by
campaigning against an earlier version of the project, the issue
has been one of two dominant ones in her district.
Pilloried first by advocates of the development
and more recently by opponents, Galanter has stayed the course.
Because of her, Playa Vista will include low- and moderate-income
housing requirements--though no genuinely poor people will be
able to afford the development--and it will have much more protected
green space than was planned.
That has done little to satisfy the most ardent
of her opponents. She has been called a sellout and worse, and
her environmental credentials have been challenged. Every time
she has run for reelection, Galanter has faced a Playa Vista critic.
"Ruth Galanter is pro-environment,"
the councilwoman said of herself. "She's not anti-development.
. . . If you can't build urban development on non-habitat urban
areas, where can you build it?"
The developers at first distrusted Galanter.
But they have worked out an accommodation, and now Playa Vista
executives credit Galanter with improving the project. What's
more, they worry about what it would be like to start over with
another elected official harboring his or her own idiosyncrasies
about how Playa Vista should look.
In theory, Playa Vista intends to have its
project approved and built long before Galanter moves on in 2003.
Developers say they will complete their environmental impact analysis
next September, and hope to win city and county approvals the
So far, however, nothing has gone as planned
for Playa Vista .
"The critical question is whether the
Playa Vista people can keep to their own timetable," Galanter
said. "It's in their interest to move this project along.
The question is whether they can."