Playa Vista – “the first new community to be established on the Westside of Los Angeles in more than 50 years” – hosted the Southern California Development Forum on Tuesday, July 11, and Ruth Galanter came back to the site that most famously defined her years on the Los Angeles City Council. In introducing her, Playa Vista president Steve Soboroff invited the breakfast gathering to “look west [across Lincoln Blvd.] – were it not for Ruth Galanter what you’d be seeing is Century City.”
Instead, that view today is open wetlands, and Soboroff and other members of the developer’s management team presented a program on “Lessons Learned and What’s Ahead” for what Soboroff stressed was a “public policy project” and not a real estate project.
Not everyone would agree with that morning’s assessment. Rex Frankel, director of the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project, maintains that the deals that preserved the open land west of Lincoln gave up too much, and would not be allowed today with more vigorous enforcement of wetland protection laws.
The development that now has become Playa Vista, with more than 4,000 current residents in a community that will grow to 7,000 homes (and other uses), was originally proposed by Howard Hughes’ Summa Corporation, then taken up by the Maguire Thomas firm, and finally made real by the current developer. Galanter said that it was a process of many compromises, alluding to the years of conflict involving developers, neighbors, wetlands conservationists, government officials and others. But she seemed to take some pleasure in the fact that the residential building at Lincoln and Jefferson (“that looks remarkably like a jail, but with happier inhabitants”) was a far cry from the “giant shopping center” that had once been slated for the site.
Galanter had said in an August 1999 statement calling for public acquisition of the land west of Lincoln, that the map of “historic Ballona Wetlands (including what is now Marina del Rey) shows that all the historic wetlands occur coastward of Lincoln,” and everyone on the morning program took pride in the preservation of those wetlands.
Frankel argues that the historic wetlands extended east of Lincoln, and that Playa Vista’s agreement to support the freshwater marsh on the oceanward side was a trade-off for building on that land east of Lincoln, as well as a device for treating polluted runoff waters from the development at an otherwise prohibited off-site location: the freshwater marsh itself.
The panel of Playa Vista management that detailed the lessons learned were Tom Jones, vice president for planning, Bob Turbin, vice president for residential land development, and Patti Sinclair, senior vice president and general counsel, in addition to Soboroff.
Their theme seemed to be two-fold: first, the challenge of mixing the many elements in the development project which includes diverse pricing in condominiums and apartments, mixed uses within the same structure (residences over restaurants and attendant noises and smells), and 23 park sites (“a park within a 90 second walk of any unit”); and second, the public-private coordination necessary to make the project work in its financing as well as its design.
Panel moderator David Abel put the key question: Can Playa Vista serve as a model for other developments? Can it be replicated? Soboroff said that the project had produced $600 million in losses to three companies and taken 20 years, all because people thought of it as a real estate project instead of a public policy project. “Take 15 years off of that, and yes, it can,” he said. “Real estate people are funny,” he added – they think neighbors are a nuisance, environmentalists are crazy, politicians are on the take, the press is biased, and so I’ll just duke it out. “They’ve got it upside down,” he concluded.