A curse hangs over this land" is the accurate analysis of Vera Rocha, chief of the Shoshone-Gabrielino Nation. She was referring to the single largest development ever proposed in the history of Los Angeles on the 1,000 acres of tidal marsh and flood plain between Marina del Rey and the airport known as the Ballona Wetlands.
Vera Rocha is one of the players, since her tribe originally held the wetlands and still lays claim to it as a sacred site and burial ground. Others include the mighty Maguire Thomas development firm and the millionaires and billionaires mustered in DreamWorks SKG who want to locate Steven Spielberg's film studios as the anchor tenant in Playa Vista, to comprise 5 million square feet of shops and offices, 13,000 condominium units, two hotels, a marina and the film and recording studios. In all, a fair sized city, with 30,000 new residents, 20,000 workers shuttling to and from their jobs, adding 10 tons of smog a day to the city's already lethal toxic soup.
The whole mad scheme exemplifies practically everything wrong with such development projects today.
Start with the environment. Notoriously, Playa Vista will wipe out the last remaining large wetland complex in Los Angeles County, along with hundreds of species of migratory birds and plants; 1,000 more acres of California's rapidly disappearing wetlands will vanish under concrete.
To listen to the developers and their apologists, Playa Vista will actually enhance nature. The National Audubon Society is currently giving eco-tours of the project site and has plans for the society's own interpretive center. The developers exhibited their loyalty to the natural kingdom by giving National Audubon a grant of $50,000.
Despite the chirpings of the apologists, who replicate the traditional double-talk put forth when wetlands vanish and species die, Playa Vista is based on the entirely discredited premise that you can save a wetland by destroying it. No amount of reimagineering alters this stark fact.
From environmental chicanery, go to corporate welfare. "This is a welfare program for billionaires," Councilman Nate Holden of South-Central Los Angeles said last fall. "It's taking money out of the city's poorest communities and giving it to the most affluent." The L.A. City Council and Mayor Richard Riordan rushed to lavish $70 million in subsidies on the project, and Gov. Pete Wilson vowed that the state of California would kick in another $40 million. The city is also underwriting Mello-Roos bonds totaling $35 million.
All this public money is to help a development backed by five of the richest men in the world, starting with DreamWorks partners Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and moving on to David Geffen, Speilberg and the relative pauper, Jeff Katzenberg, whose net worth is put at only $250 million. Katzenberg recently called for Playa Vista to be backed by union pension funds.
Meanwhile, Holden couldn't get the City Council to approve a thousand or so $500 grants to jump-start small businesses after the L.A. riots. He pointed out last September that Playa Vista will get a 50% reduction in sewer fees at the same time the poorest areas of L.A. were being hit with an $11 per household increase.
How did the public spigot squirt such largess into these well-lined pockets? This brings us to another unlovely aspect of big development schemes: political contributions. Spielberg, long considered one of Hollywood's liberal luminaries, last year kicked in $50,000 for Pete Wilson's political war chest, and the entertainment mogul is also listed as one of the leading contributors to Mayor Riordan's reelection campaign against Ballona foe Tom Hayden.
Such disbursements to Republicans pale in contrast to the tsunami of contributions extended to Democrats by the partners of DreamWorks. One account estimates that as of last April, Speilberg and Geffen, through fund-raising parties and contributions, had been responsible for one-sixth of the cash in the Clinton-Gore campaign chest. Vice president Al Gore has been an enthusiastic supporter of Playa Vista.
The fate of America's wetlands lies within the lethal purview of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which routinely approves 98% percent of all wetland destruction projects submitted. The Playa Vista scheme got an expedited green light from the corps, which now faces a well-deserved lawsuit backed by 70 local groups under the banner of Citizens United to Save All of Ballona.
If "jobs" is the ultimate rationale, there are plenty of places in Los Angeles to make creative investments. As things stand, the Playa Vista scheme is the ultimate symbol of development lunacy that is burying Southern California in concrete.