Development at Playa Vista, the controversial project on Los Angeles's West Side, is proceeding even though the project is getting smaller.
During the same week in September that Playa Vista hosted an official grand opening, Gov. Gray Davis said he would sign a bill to spend $25 million of state bond money to partially purchase 193 acres at Playa Vista for habitat restoration and open space. The grand opening attracted potential buyers and renters to the new housing units, which are rising rapidly and already are home to about 1,000 people. The purchase is part of a larger deal brokered by the Trust for Public Land that would result in permanent protection for about 550 acres, much of which is degraded marshland.
But even though both developers and environmentalists appear that they can claim victory in the longstanding feud over Playa Vista, the fight continues. The next battleground will apparently be Phase 2, a 111-acre mixed-use proposal in the heart of the development that the City of Los Angeles is reviewing.
"We're going to hit them with everything we have," vowed Tom Francis, executive director of the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, which continues to oppose any development at Playa Vista. "We're not going away."
The 25-year history of the Playa Vista project is as long and tortured as any in California. As the project has proceeded through the regulatory, political and legal arenas, leaders of the New Urbanist movement applauded the project before some members partially retreated, and environmental groups have divided sharply over the merits of the project's mitigations. The original project developer, Howard Hughes's Summa Corp., gave way to Maguire Thomas Partners, which gave way to Playa Capital LLC. One of the project's most vociferous and well-connected backers, DreamWorks SKG movie studio, bailed out of Playa Vista entirely (see CP&DR Deals
, August 1999, June 1999). Renowned architect Frank Gehry announced he was moving his office from nearby Santa Monica to Playa Vista, only to change his mind a year later after extensive public outcry. And the top man at master developer Playa Capital LLC, Peter Denniston, departed in 2001 so that real estate broker Steve Soboroff, a confidant of former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan who lost an election to succeed Riordan, could oversee the project.
For some New Urbanists and planners, Playa Vista offers the ideal infill site. The 1,087 acres between the San Diego Freeway and the coast that had been home to Hughes's aircraft manufacturing plant had largely sat idle since the 1970s. Playa Vista held the promise of providing homes for the job-rich West Side and of offering sites for new, high-paying employment. But for environmentalists, Playa Vista offered the best chance to restore a large, coastal wetlands in Los Angeles County, where about 97% of historic wetlands are gone. The site had been heavily degraded by aircraft manufacturing, farming and dumping of fill from development of Marina del Rey, but the site was still essentially a swamp that provided wildlife habitat.
Summa started planning for Playa Vista development in 1978, and during the 1980s and early 1990s, the size of the project grew until the master plan topped out at 13,000 housing units, 5.2 million square feet of office space, 600,000 square feet of retail development and 750 hotel rooms. At the same time the proposed development grew, the amount of protected wetlands and open space also increased from about 175 acres to 340 acres. During the 1990s, the city approved roughly 3 million square feet of office space and 3,200 residential units.
Under plans advancing now, Playa Vista development would be limited to about 330 acres. The project would have 5,800 residential units, 3.4 million square feet of office and industrial space and 185,000 square feet of retail. The other 70% of the 1,087-acre site would be wildlife habitat, open space and parks.
"It truly is the smaller, greener Playa Vista," said Doug Moreland, senior vice president of development for Playa Capital.
Most of the office and industrial space lies at the eastern end of the project and was entitled during the 1990s. With a proposed 47-acre studio, DreamWorks was supposed to anchor this employment center. But DreamWorks' pullout in 1999 was followed by the crash of the dot-com industry, which hit the West Side hard. By the time developer Maguire Partners and investor Equity Office completed the 250,000-square-foot Water's Edge office complex in mid-2002, a glut of space dominated the market. The gleaming office buildings sat vacant.
Fortunes turned in August when video game giant Electronic Arts (EA), announced it would lease the Water's Edge complex. The company plans to move in during 2004 and employ up to 1,000 people at the location. Soboroff called EA's decision "a milestone in our development's history."
Indeed Playa Vista — advertised as a self-contained community where people live, work, shop and play — has been almost exclusively residential since people began moving into apartments in April 2002. A dozen builders continue to erect apartments, condominiums and single-family houses, with for-sale models ranging in price from about $280,000 to nearly $1 million. Buyers have had to win lotteries to get some new homes.
Now, attention is turning to Phase 2, also called "The Village," on a 111-acre site between the developing residential areas, and the office and industrial zone. The Village is proposed to have 2,600 housing units, 175,000 square feet of office space and 150,000 square feet of retail stores focused around a mixed-use town center. Moreland called The Village "the missing puzzle piece" that connects the east and west ends of the project. The Village is proposed to have the grocery store, restaurants, small shops and professional offices that will serve Playa Vista residents.
"With EA, we now have a major employer," Moreland said. "So we now have housing and employment. What we need is to have places for people to shop here."
The city released a draft environmental impact report on The Village in August and has set a 120-day public comment period — twice as long as normal "because of the complex nature of the document," city planner Sue Chang said. The EIR lists as unmitigated significant effects cumulative air pollution, traffic congestion at one intersection and loss of visual qualities. Loss of wildlife habitat is also a concern.
Traffic has long been a central issue because Playa Vista lies just off the usually jammed San Diego Freeway, and the thoroughfares that split the site can be equally congested. Playa Vista backers point to extensive improvements required to surface streets and to the development's transit amenities, including an internal shuttle system. Playa Vista backers also argue that the 5,800 residences help the jobs-housing balance in what has been a job-heavy area.
Moreland said he would like to get The Village — which involves a general plan amendment, specific plan amendment, zoning changes and tract maps — before city decision-makers by early 2004. City planner Marc Woersching, however, said it would be at least August or September of 2004 before the City Council sees the project.
The timeline appears to be much shorter for the state's acquisition of land at Playa Vista. Under the deal that was advancing in September, the state would pay $139 million for 193 acres. In addition, Playa Capital would donate about 300 acres and would waive its right to develop 68 acres that has been held in trust for the state since the 1980s. The Trust for Public Land, which acquired an option to purchase the 193 acres two years ago, helped put together the deal.
"It is the remnant of the last remaining, recoverable wetlands in Los Angeles County," TPL spokeswoman Mary Menees said. The TPL is committed to maintaining the territory for five years, but a restoration plan and ultimate site management would be up to the Department of Fish and Game.
The proposed deal "resolves 20 years of battles," Menees said. "If this doesn't work, chances are it will never be protected."
But, demonstrating that environmentalists still do not speak with one voice, the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust's Francis said the deal was misguided because it focused on land in the coastal zone that is pockmarked with wetlands. That land is the most difficult to develop from regulatory, political and economic standpoints, he said. Instead, the state should be acquiring the most threatened parts of the project site, Francis argued. The site of Phase 2, he said, should become a wildlife refuge and public park, he said.
Doug Moreland, Playa Capital, (310) 448-4614.
Mary Menees, Trust for Public Land, (415) 495-5660.
Tom Francis, Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, (310) 264-9468.
Sue Chang, City of Los Angeles, (213) 978-1397.
Playa Vista EIR: www.lacity.org/PLN/
Playa Vista website: www.playavista.com