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Playa Vista Plans Sharply Curtailed

The downsizing is part of the expected sale of 193 acres as a nature preserve.

November 14, 2002|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Playa Vista developers have dramatically reduced the project's number of proposed housing units and amount of retail and office space in anticipation of selling 193 acres of their holdings west of Lincoln Boulevard for a nature preserve.

Instead of the 13,000 housing units envisioned in the project's original master plan, Playa Vista at completion would have 5,846 units, according to a "notice of preparation" for the project's second and final phase that city planners will begin distributing today. The overall space for retail would be slashed by nearly 70%, to 185,000 square feet.

Although a formal deal to sell land to the state is still weeks or months away and opposition to the overall project remains strong, Playa Vista President Steve Soboroff said Wednesday that he is confident the developers and the Trust for Public Land will reach an accord. That would stave off construction on 193 acres that are part of the Ballona Wetlands ecosystem.

"Failure is not an option with the TPL deal," Soboroff said in a telephone interview. "This is something that needs to happen."

The nonprofit trust, which has been negotiating with Playa Vista since August 2001, serves as the state government's broker in such matters. For the purchase, it plans to tap voter-approved funds set aside by the just-passed Proposition 50 and other initiatives geared at preserving coastal land and other parcels.

"If we're going to conclude this transaction, it's going to take money from a number of different sources," said Reed Holderman, the Trust for Public Land's California director. "Had Proposition 50 not passed, we were wondering if we could do this."

With rumors swirling that the price could top $100 million, wetlands supporters cautioned that the state risks paying too dearly for the two swaths of scrub brush and wetlands. The deal would include all of a section designated Area A and part of a section designated Area B.

Such a move, they said, could threaten any future purchases of preserves along California's coast by setting too high a benchmark price. Particularly vulnerable to escalating preservation costs, they said, would be the Los Cerritos Wetlands in Long Beach and the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach.

In its analysis, the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, an environmental group, put the value of the Playa Vista parcels at closer to $22 million, a figure that reflects the group's view that public officials will not approve further development on the land between Marina del Rey and the Westchester bluffs. Soboroff strongly disputed that notion.

Tom Francis, executive director of the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, said his group wrote its analysis to guide officials in Sacramento, who will be making the decision about the land's value.

Playa Vista opponents contend that an inflated sale price would provide the developers, in effect, with a subsidy that would fund construction of the rest of the project. They also noted that Playa Vista contributed more than $830,000 to help pass Proposition 50.

Activists indicated that they plan to fiercely oppose Playa Vista's next stage, just as they have the first phase of development over the last two decades. Although judges and state and local agencies have primarily ruled in Playa Vista's favor, legal challenges have succeeded in slowing the project.

Some activists reiterated their long-held view that all of Playa Vista's 1,087 acres should have remained undeveloped, including the land east of Lincoln where hundreds of apartments and condominiums have already altered the landscape.

"Our position is that no development belongs on this sensitive, critical ecosystem," said Kathy Knight, wetlands coordinator for the Spirit of the Sage Council, a conservation group that is part of a loose coalition dedicated to preserving the Ballona Wetlands. "Los Angeles County has destroyed 95% of its wetlands system, way more than any other county. This last ecosystem is like gold."

Steve Fleischli, executive director of Santa Monica Baykeeper, charged that the project already has "enormous problems with traffic, water quality and environmental impact from Phase 1," adding: "How in the world are they going to be able to justify more development?"

For the project's second stage, Soboroff said he envisions a "smaller, greener" development. Plans call for 2,600 new homes as well as retail shops and restaurants in a 162-acre area that would be called the Village.

When added to the 3,246 residential units approved for the project's first phase, most of which are still being built, the new housing would bring the total number of units at completion to 5,846. That would be 55% below what was laid out in the original master plan a decade ago, but still enough to house a projected 13,500 residents.

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