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L.A.'s Urban Model

After years of setbacks and controversy, Playa Vista is officially open. Planners are studying it as an experiment in high-density housing.

October 18, 2003|Roger Vincent and Martha Groves | Times Staff Writers

After World War II, Levittown on Long Island heralded the future of suburban America.

In the 1960s and '70s, Irvine Ranch, with its teeming business parks built on the edges of immaculate neighborhoods, was seen as the cutting edge of the master-planned community.

Today, their successor in urban planning is Playa Vista, a densely packed housing development between Marina del Rey and Westchester, within Los Angeles city limits.

The project officially opened last month, but scholars and housing industry executives from as far away as Japan have been studying Playa Vista for years.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 22, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Playa Vista -- An article in Saturday's Section A about the Playa Vista development incorrectly stated that a library scheduled to open at Playa Vista in the spring would be part of the Los Angeles County Public Library. In fact, the branch will be part of the city of Los Angeles' library system.

The experiments come in many forms -- from the built-in cabinets that can smooth the wrinkles out of clothes to an unconventional marketing campaign orchestrated by a woman who used to work for Coca-Cola Co.

But above all, what draws students of urban planning is the layout. With an average 24 housing units to an acre -- compared with suburbia's typical four to 12 -- and more public space than private, Playa Vista is designed to look more like Old Europe than sprawling Southern California.

People will "look back in 20 to 25 years and say, 'Playa Vista really began this trend toward more dense Los Angeles,' " said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

No building is taller than four stories. The streets are narrow. Most residences have no backyards. Townhouses, in a variety of architectural styles, including Spanish and Art Deco, are stacked up over underground garages. In fact, 90% of all the parking at Playa Vista will be underground.

"We're very curious about how it works out when you have that many people living" so packed together, said Greg Vilkin, president of Forest City Residential West Inc., which is developing a massive residential and commercial project at the former Stapleton Airport in Denver. Vilkin made his pilgrimage to Playa Vista this year to see firsthand what was unfolding.

In the end, the project will be much smaller than the 1,087 acres the planners originally plotted out, a change born of the environmental controversy that has long surrounded Playa Vista. Late last month, the state approved $140 million to purchase nearly 200 acres of the property, which will be restored and preserved as the Ballona Wetlands. Playa Vista has agreed to donate or give up its right to develop an additional 415 acres.

Planned for about 13,000 residents, Playa Vista is home to only about 1,000 people now, most of them paying $1,650 to $3,000 a month to live in the Fountain Park Apartments north of Jefferson Boulevard. Of the 489 housing units released for sale, priced from the low $200,000s to more than $1 million, 28 remain up for grabs.

A community center with two swimming pools just opened, and a branch of the Los Angeles County Public Library is under construction and set to start serving patrons in 2004.

It will be seven years before the development is totally finished.

To Jocelyn Balaban-Lutzky, her new townhome in the Tapestry section of Playa Vista is reminiscent "of brownstones from Boston, New York or Chicago," with a concert park and a kiddie park a short walk away. It is, in other words, a look and feel that's very un-L.A. "It's a neighborhood, and everybody says hello," Balaban-Lutzky said.

Not everyone is impressed with what they've seen so far.

"The buildings in Playa Vista are too big, too loud, too town-unfriendly," said architect Stefanos Polyzoides, who worked on early plans for the project. "We wanted Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Pasadena. We've been completely betrayed. They're not doing this magnificent site to its ultimate potential."

But USC real estate law professor George Lefcoe, among others, sees Playa Vista as "probably the largest and best example" of smart growth in Los Angeles. He expects the project to merge well with its Westside surroundings. "Once the project is completed," he said, "it will be impossible for people to imagine it being any other way."

The Playa Vista project began in 1978, when property owner Summa Corp. proposed a master-planned city within a city, replete with high-rise office buildings and 7,000 housing units. There would be 600 new boat slips at neighboring Marina del Rey and 72 acres set aside for a nature preserve.

By the time the California Coastal Commission approved the project in 1984, the scale had grown to more than 8,800 homes, 840 boat slips and a protected, 175-acre marshland in the Ballona Wetlands.

Opposition had grown, too. Environmentalists and area residents worried about traffic gridlock, overtaxed sewers and more pollution streaming into Santa Monica Bay. In lawsuit after lawsuit, they took on the project's new developer, Maguire Thomas Partners.

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