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40-Year-Old Community on Verge of Unprecedented Commercial Development : Once-Sleepy Westchester Awakes to the Din of Growth

May 15, 1986|DAVID FERRELL | Times Staff Writer

Kendra Meader had just struck a deal on a new, bluff-top home in Westchester when she learned that the vacant land below it was set aside for an ambitious high-rise commercial center.

She didn't let it change her mind.

"People kept telling me, 'That land's been vacant for 30 years,' " she recalled two years later. "They said, 'Who knows if (the center) will really go through?' "

But today, like most of her neighbors, Meader no longer wonders whether the community will change. The first phase of the massive Howard Hughes Center--a 16-story office tower--dominates the view from her backyard. Soon there will be at least four other high-rises in a project one-third the size of Century City.

It is only the beginning for Westchester. The 40-year-old bedroom community, wedged between Marina del Rey and Los Angeles International Airport, is at the onset of a transformation. Plans for unprecedented commercial development have given rise to a bitter political fight over the small town, placing it squarely at the forefront of Los Angeles' continuing growth controversies.

'A Really Tough Decision'

Each new tower in the Howard Hughes Center will block Meader's view of distant city lights. But she said she is not sure whether she regrets her purchase.

"We wanted the house," she said. "It would have been a really tough decision if we knew what was going to happen."

Vast patches of vacant Westchester land--much of it held since the 1940s by the late billionaire Howard Hughes and his estate--are about to give way to new corporate cities. Howard Hughes Center will be followed by an even larger neighbor, Playa Vista, which is expected to bring in 20,000 new residents and a forest of hotels and office buildings. At least two other large projects are also in the works.

The growth could nearly double the area's current population, about 28,000. And even if anti-growth activists win last-ditch battles to scale down some of the projects, the likely implications for the community are enormous. Residents expect thousands of new jobs, escalating traffic, road construction, housing speculation and urban flight.

Developers say Westchester in 10 years will join Century City and Westwood among the city's major urban centers.

"We are definitely creating a center where one does not exist now," said Christine Henry, a spokesman for the Summa Corp., the giant firm that is developing the Howard Hughes Center and Playa Vista. "Los Angeles is different than most cities; there's no real downtown, just a series of regional centers. This will be one. The character of the community is changing."

The growth is the result of available land and "all those things that make Southern California great," said Bill McGregor, project manager for the Howard Hughes Center. "A superior climate . . . the large professional labor force of the Westside . . . the airport and the increasing importance of the Pacific basin . . . (and the city's) multifaceted economy."

Opponents say the intensive development threatens to destroy the small-town way of life that characterizes Westchester. They argue that high-rise office buildings will block the views of many bluff-top homeowners, and that new traffic will create chronic gridlock at many intersections, despite new transportation programs designed to ease the load.

They also say that huge numbers of commercial offices will worsen an imbalance of jobs and housing in the West Los Angeles region, where planning studies have shown an acute shortage of new homes.

Homeowners Selling Out

"It's shocking," said Patrick McCartney, president of the Coalition of Concerned Communities, an organization representing 14 neighborhood groups in Westchester. "A lot of people are selling their homes right now. Interest rates are low and people see the handwriting on the wall: Their neighborhoods won't be worth living in in 15 years."

Four projects are expected to account for most of Westchester's new growth. They include:

- The Howard Hughes Center: Designed to contain 2.7 million square feet of office space and a 500-room luxury hotel. Located on 69 acres at Sepulveda Boulevard and the San Diego Freeway.

- Playa Vista: A planned community designed to contain nearly 10 million square feet of office space, enough homes and apartments for 20,000 residents, and 700 to 900 new boat slips as part of an expansion of Marina del Rey. Located on 957 acres just south of Ballona Creek and Marina del Rey.

- The northside development of Los Angeles International Airport: Designed to contain up to 4 million square feet of office space and at least two 500-room hotels. Located on 350 acres between the airport and Manchester Avenue.

- Continental City: Designed to contain about 2 million square feet of office space and two 600-room hotels. Located on 29 acres at Imperial Highway and Aviation Boulevard.

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