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Traffic Work Gets Green Light in Setback for Playa Vista Opponents

Development: Coastal Commission OKs road projects after hearing two days of contentious debate.

November 17, 2001|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Developers of one of the largest-ever housing and commercial projects in Los Angeles won a significant victory Friday when the state coastal panel approved key traffic improvements required before the project can be occupied.

After hours of often contentious debate stretching over two days, the California Coastal Commission voted 10 to 1 to permit the Playa Vista developers to make $2.1 million in street improvements around the proposed project on 1,000 acres near Marina del Rey.

The approval was a blow to Playa Vista opponents, some of whom had hoped to derail the huge development by stalling the traffic improvements that police, fire and city officials say are needed to ensure emergency vehicle access and traffic flow.

But the tactics of the opponents appeared to backfire with several coastal commissioners, who accused Playa Vista foes of trying to turn the discussion into a forum on the overall merits of the long-delayed project.

"This took on an aspect that I find, as an individual, very disturbing," said a frustrated Commissioner Shirley Dettloff. She complained that some of the testimony was rife with "innuendoes and half-truths."

The panel had been scheduled to decide on the improvements Wednesday, when it met at a downtown hotel conference room packed with more than 300 opponents and supporters of the project.

But the panel postponed a vote when opponents announced what they said was a surprise discovery--a sensitive wetland plant in the middle of a proposed traffic loop. Opponents argued that the plant--called the seaside heliotrope--signified the presence of a sensitive wetlands area that could not be harmed.

The commission postponed the final decision until Friday to allow staff experts to examine the area. On Friday, a commission biologist said that, indeed, there are heliotrope plants in the area. But he described the area as a roadside dirt fill--not a wetland.

Marcia Hanscom, executive director of the Wetlands Action Network, complained that her group did not get a chance to have its own expert examine the area. She suggested that the group may sue.

Playa Vista President Steve Soboroff, a former mayoral candidate, said he was happy with the panel's decision but expected opponents to continue to try to derail the project.

"There will always be some opposition," he said after the meeting. "But my contention is that this is a balanced project."

The battle was the latest chapter in a decades-long saga over a project that could eventually house as many as 30,000 people and create office space for thousands more.

Much of the opposition to Playa Vista has centered on the contention that the project will destroy the Ballona Wetlands, a habitat for herons, terns and various migratory birds.

But the developers and supporters say the 240 acres of wetlands to be set aside for preservation and restoration are the most sensitive.

Construction has already begun on the first phase of the project, which is to include 3,246 residential units and 3 million square feet of commercial development, including 35,000 square feet of retail space. The project won initial approval from the city of Los Angeles in 1993.

The three road improvements at issue Friday must be completed before people can move into the project. The work was ordered by the city to reduce the impact of the 39,490 daily car trips that will be generated by the first phase of the project.

The developers have yet to complete plans for the second phase of the project.

The traffic projects on the table Friday were: reconstruction of the Y-shaped intersection of Culver and Jefferson boulevards to improve safety and ease gridlock; replacement of a one-way traffic ramp between Culver and Lincoln boulevards with a two-way ramp; and addition of an eastbound lane on Culver between Lincoln and the Marina Freeway.

The work had to be approved by the Coastal Commission because it falls within the state's coastal zone.

"These roads have not been improved in any way since 1945," said Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents the area and has supported much of the first phase of the project.

Sixty-one traffic accidents, including two fatalities, have occurred at the Y-shaped intersection in the last five years.

Police and fire officials testified that the street improvements will speed emergency vehicles through the area.

But project opponents argued that the improvements would add to traffic, generating more exhaust, noise and lighting that could disrupt wildlife breeding conditions.

"The last thing we need at Ballona is more asphalt cutting up the land," Hanscom said.

Several critics of the project said they opposed the improvements simply because they would pave the way for more massive development.

"There is no present need for these projects except for Phase 1 of Playa Vista," said Rebecca Goldfarb, a spokeswoman for the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust.

Several opponents argued that the street improvements would simply lure more traffic to the coast.

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