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Completion of Playa Vista OKd

After decades of debate, L.A. green-lights the final part of the huge project south of Marina del Rey. Critics predict traffic gridlock.

September 23, 2004|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

After more than two decades of debate and delays, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday gave its blessing to the final piece of the massive Playa Vista development despite protests that the project would worsen Westside traffic gridlock and harm the environment.

On a 10-1 vote, the council allowed the developer to push forward with the second half of Playa Vista, which will include a mix of 2,600 housing units, 175,000 square feet of office space and 150,000 square feet of retail.

The battle over Playa Vista has caught the attention of urban planners in part because the development's relatively high density -- with condos, apartments, townhomes and underground parking -- is seen by some as a model for future growth in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

"This is a nationally significant project," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, who has observed the development's progress from his perch atop the Westchester Bluffs. "When we look back in 20 years on the increasing density in Los Angeles, we'll say it started here in West Los Angeles."

Critics contend that Playa Vista, rising from one of the last stretches of open space on the Westside, is too big and that more of the land should be preserved. But the City Council rejected those arguments, saying Los Angeles desperately needs the housing and jobs that Playa Vista would provide.

At an emotional meeting Monday night, an estimated 1,200 nearby residents and opponents of the project told City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, whose district includes Playa Vista, that the additional development would exacerbate the area's already nasty traffic congestion and eliminate views of the Westchester Bluffs.

But Miscikowski has said Phase 2 "needs to happen" to complete the vision of Playa Vista as a relatively self-contained urban community where residents could live, work, play and buy groceries.

Miscikowski told her council colleagues Wednesday that Playa Vista was an example of "smart growth and reasonable growth" that deserved support.

She also pointed out that 70% of the land once slated for development at Playa Vista was being preserved as open space. The state last year agreed to spend $140 million to buy nearly 200 acres of Playa Vista to be restored and preserved as the Ballona Wetlands. As part of the pact, Playa Vista agreed to donate an additional 300 acres and waive rights to buy and develop 64 other acres.

The wetlands deal handed environmentalists a significant victory after years of efforts to salvage one of California's largest remaining coastal wetland ecosystems. It also cut the size of the development by more than half, to 460 acres. Planners originally had plotted out 1,087 acres, including 10,000 residential units and a 750-room hotel.

Many Playa Vista critics had held out hope that they could persuade the council to preserve even more of the Phase 2 property as open space or parkland.

Playa Vista's plans call for creating parks on about 10% of Phase 2's 111 acres. The Phase 2 portion, known as the Village, is sandwiched between existing residential neighborhoods and a planned commercial campus, approved in 1993 as part of the first phase, that has yet to attract any tenants. Nearly 12 additional acres in Phase 2 are to be restored as stream and bluff habitat.

Activists are expected to go to court to block Phase 2, even though their legal wranglings over Phase 1 met with little success. At the meeting Monday night at Venice High School, they passed around envelopes soliciting donations to aid their fight.

Playa Vista officials have said they expect to begin building Phase 2 in 2006.

In the end, only Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa opposed Phase 2, urging other council members to hold off until the negative environmental effects of the still-incomplete first phase could be fully measured. "The Westside is choking on traffic," he said before voting "no." (Councilmen Jack Weiss, Dennis P. Zine, Tom LaBonge and Tony Cardenas were absent.)

Planned for about 13,000 residents, Playa Vista is now home to about 4,000 people. Most live in condos, townhomes and single-family houses south of Jefferson Boulevard and east of Lincoln Boulevard. More than 700 tenants occupy Fountain Park Apartments north of Jefferson.

Of the 821 housing units released for sale so far in Phase 1, priced from the low $200,000s to more than $1 million, only 16 have not yet sold. Phase 2 housing would bring the total number of residential units to 5,846.

Many Playa Vista residents were among the standing-room-only crowd in the council chambers. Steve Donell, a resident who has launched a Friends of the Village committee, said he saw Phase 2 as "a natural extension of Playa Vista" that would provide an added sense of community.

Several project opponents, and Villaraigosa, brought up the issue of the nearly 400 sets of Native American remains that have been discovered at Playa Vista.

Indian representatives were split, with some criticizing Playa Vista's handling of the remains and others saying Playa Vista had handled them with dignity and respect.

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