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ARCHITECTURE : Wide-Open Spaces of Playa Vista Soon Will Take on the L.A. Look

February 27, 1992|AARON BETSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER and Aaron Betsky teaches and writes about architecture and urban design

There aren't many open spaces on the west side of Los Angeles. Playa Vista is one of the few. But soon it will be just another part of the continuous carpet of condos, houses and apartment buildings interspersed with office buildings and restaurants that fills our landscape. It will be a giant development, a multibillion-dollar construction project that will take 30 years to transform these wetlands into a productive community.

Right now it is open space, sand and heather and an occasional rabbit, an area intersected only by the Ballona Creek and a few roads hurrying to more developed areas. Until 10 years ago, it was the center of Howard Hughes' empire, the site of his wartime factories and the place where the Spruce Goose made its only flight. Before that, it was a site for oil wells, truck farms and car races. And before that, before even the ranchos, it was just wetlands, a flat expanse flooded periodically by the runoff from the San Gabriel Mountains.

Nothing remains static in Los Angeles. Its landscape is always changing. Yet this particular area has remained remarkably stable. It was agricultural land until after World War II, and even when it became the site of defense plants Hughes maintained farming there so that he could pay a lower, agricultural tax rate on the property.

The first farmers were Mexicans who were members of several related families. They kept subdividing their original land grant and selling it to Anglos until the area was a patchwork of different holdings. Abbott Kinney cast his eyes on this property but instead developed Venice. The beach became a resort destination in the 1920s, but somehow the area around Ballona Creek always escaped development.

Japanese-American truck farmers took over in the middle of this century, and then Hughes amassed his holdings, unifying the area but leaving much of it as empty land around his hangars, airstrips and factory buildings. Then Hughes Corp. moved into the Westchester bluffs, and Playa Vista returned to silence.

If you stand on the site now, you will see gently rising fields of brush, moss, heather and a few bushes. The area is marked by what isn't there: hills, meadows or any variation in the spread of plants. The tones of the vegetation are fairly close together, a delicate gradation of browns, grays, greens and ochers. Now and then a few flowers, a colorful bird or a rabbit will catch your eye. What really overwhelms is the emptiness, the vast plane stretching as far as the ramparts of Marina del Rey's condominiums to the north and the bluffs to the south.

Much of that opportunity will soon disappear with Maguire/Thomas' massive Playa Vista project, which calls for 13,000 residential units, 5 million square feet of office space and a lot of dispersed retail outlets. Luckily, the design for this community, by Miami architects Andreas Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, together with local architects Stefanos Polyzoides, Elizabeth Moule and Buzz Yudell, is a highly intelligent alternative to most such developments. It mixes the various uses in low-rise buildings that pick up on the best courtyard housing traditions of Los Angeles. Even better, 40% of the land will remain open, a wetlands preserve that will administrated by the developer-financed Ballona Wetlands Committee.

It is easy to get nostalgic about Playa Vista and wish it were still an undisturbed wetlands or to want to preserve it. That does not appear to be a possibility, and at least what is going to be built probably will be better than almost any other development on the Westside. It does make you think, though: What if this county had a well-thought-out, long-range plan for developing its open spaces? What if we realized that only 4% of our city is parkland, as opposed to 13% in most large cities? What if we dedicated some of our resources to developing a strong series of parks that would follow the lines of the original creeks and rivers that watered the Los Angeles Basin? Playa Vista could have been the jewel in the crown of such a park system. Instead, it will soon be only a memory. Its emptiness, subtle lushness and sheer unused quality will be buried beneath our desire to convert the world into a denser, more habitable place.

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