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 Valley.

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 absurd.

"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 wetland site.

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 process.

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," Galanter admitted.

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 retention area.

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 next year.

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."