Residents, Council Seek to Curb Massive Playa Vista Project
By Susan Reines
August 4 -- For two decades, debate has swirled around the development of a master-planned community now under construction on Lincoln Boulevard at Jefferson Boulevard beneath the Westchester Bluffs, which goes by the uncontroversial moniker "Playa Vista."
The project, one of the largest in the nation, has become a lightening-rod for conservationists who want the huge area of more than a thousand acres of wetland and wetland-adjacent property preserved.
Playa Capital, the developer, has deflected lawsuits, struck deals with local environmentalists, downsized the project, and, most recently, gained unanimous support from the Los Angeles Planning Commission for the second phase of its development, called The Village at Playa Vista.
Only a fall hearing before the Los Angeles City Council stands between the developers and their goal of completing Playa Vista, and many Santa Monicans -- including members of the City Council -- are readying themselves for the final battle.
Despite the fact that Playa Vista is several miles south of Santa Monica’s borders, some Santa Monicans have been leading the battle against the development, hoping to stave off the project until the entire acreage can be preserved.
Activist Kathy Knight said she will continue to work to stop Playa Vista. "Of course we need housing," Knight said. "But the last two percent of your coastal wetlands is not a good place to put housing."
A chartered busload of Santa Monica residents attended a July 8 Los Angeles Planning Commission meeting, hoping to sway the commission with a large turnout at the weekday morning hearing.
Opponents of Playa Vista have organized along three main lines - residents who oppose adding more traffic to the already gridlocked Lincoln and Centinela Boulevards, environmentalists who say the land is rightfully part of the Ballona Wetlands, and Native Americans whose ancestors are buried on a portion of the land.
"This is virtually a gated community in the middle of the last remaining wetlands, not near any public transit, in the middle of the two busiest corridors in L.A.," said Paul Herzog, Community Organizing Director of the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, which is seeking to purchase the entire property for public parkland.
Proponents laud Playa Vista as "smart growth," saying that combining housing, retail, and office space into one mega-project will reduce traffic because people would be able to work, shop, and live within the community, without driving long distances.
"We're building a fantastic community, meeting a huge housing demand," said Playa Vista spokesman Steve Sugerman.
Sugerman said there was "no credibility" to the environmentalists’ and Native Americans’ arguments, noting that Playa Vista has defeated every one of the 18 lawsuits Playa Vista's opponents have filed against it.
"These allegations [of environmental degredation] have been tried in court after court after court and have been struck down as having no merit," he said.
The fight over Playa Vista began in 1984 when a newly-formed environmental organization called Friends of Ballona Wetlands filed suit against the heirs of aerospace titan Howard Hughes, who owned more than 1,000 acres on and around the Ballona Wetlands.
In one early proposal, developers planned to drain the marshes and construct a massive planned community – including a golf course -- spanning both sides of Lincoln Boulevard.
Since then, the land has changed hands several times, and the proposals have also been significantly altered.
Environmentalists were delighted when more than half of the acreage – the wetlands area west of Lincoln Boulevard -- went into the hands of the state when then-Governor Gray Davis orchestrated the acquisition of some 540 acres just before he was recalled in the fall of 2003.
Those 540 acres are now being protected and restored by Friends of Ballona Wetlands.
Playa Capital still owns 462 acres east of Lincoln Boulevard, on which 3,000 people already live in the still-uncompleted Phase I project.
Phase II, The Village at Playa Vista, would sit east of Phase I and bring the total number of Playa Vista residents to more than 6,000, in addition to office and retail space.
While Phase II was significantly scaled back from its earlier proposal, Santa Monica city officials still believe it will take a toll on traffic and air quality.
In December 2003, the Santa Monica City Council responded to traffic and pollution concerns by taking a formal position against Phase II.
The council had entered a settlement agreement with Playa Vista in 1993, when the developer agreed to pay $1.5 million to the city to mitigate the traffic impacts of Phase I.
But a decade later, faced with yet another traffic influx from Phase II, the council voted 4-1 to draft a letter to the City of Los Angeles stating its opposition to Phase II on the grounds of inadequate study of potential traffic impacts on Santa Monica.
Council member Michael Feinstein attended the Los Angeles Planning Commission hearing earlier this month to argue to the commissioners that Playa Vista was not a well-planned community.
"It's not that I'm against urban infill when its done right," Feinstein said after the hearing. "To justify infill at the expense of open space isn't smart growth."
Resident Linda Piera-Avila said she urged the commissioners to halt the development in light of the fact that almost 350 Native American remains – some dating back thousands of years -- have been unearthed on the site.
"Everyone's ancestors need to be protected, no matter how long ago they passed on," she said, calling the developers’ actions "an example of predatory racist greed."
Sugerman counters that Playa Vista long ago struck "detailed agreements with Native American leaders," which require the remains to be carefully reburied in nearby ground with Native American supervision.
Piera-Avila said the planning commissioners were “tripping over each other with enthusiasm for the project."
"I think they had the rubber stamp inked before any of us even opened our mouth," she said.
The Planning Commission unanimously denied three appeals -- two from environmental groups and one from the Tongva/Gabrielino tribe -- of a subcommittee's approval of Playa Vista. They then amended the city’s zoning code to accommodate the development.
The commission's denials of the appeals are final, but the zoning code amendment can be appealed. The Mar Vista Community Council, representing a community northeast of Playa Vista, has filed an appeal of the zoning amendment, saying they hope at least get more money for traffic mitigation.
Santa Monica's City Council did not file an appeal of the Planning Commission decision, but is monitoring the case.
Meanwhile, Herzog said the Ballona Land Trust is embarking on a public outreach program to rally people against Playa Vista before the final vote.
He and his colleagues will be circulating at farmer's markets and meeting with Los Angeles City Council members.
But the opponents' lobbying effort has a long way to go to stop the development in its tracks.Of 15 Los Angeles City Council members, Herzog said, three "have a record we can bank on."
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