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Westsiders Don't Shrink From Growth Fight

A spurt of development has community leaders and residents worrying that the area has reached saturation. They're ready for some fierce battles.

September 22, 2005|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

The Westside is in the midst of one of its biggest building spurts in decades, heightening concerns of residents and community leaders that the area has reached saturation and that its clogged roads cannot tolerate further intense development.

A number of large projects are underway or in the works, stretching from Century City -- a nonstop construction zone where one high-rise tower is being built and four more are being planned -- to Santa Monica, where the owner of aging Santa Monica Place seeks to replace it with residential towers, parks and retail shops.

Meanwhile, the hotly contested Playa Vista community continues to expand while a new crop of high- and low-rise residential buildings goes up in Marina del Rey.

The fiercest battle over growth is raging in Westwood, where residents are expected to turn out by the hundreds today to protest the federal government's proposals to redevelop the sprawling Veterans Affairs campus just west of the San Diego Freeway.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 24, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
University High School -- An article in Thursday's California section about proposals to develop the Veterans Affairs campus on Wilshire Boulevard said University High School was in Westwood. It is in West Los Angeles.

The federal government had been vague about its preferences for the site, the last large parcel of open space along Wilshire Boulevard. But a 129-page document prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the VA indicates that the government contemplates selling or leasing large portions of the land to developers who could use it for hotels, medical research and/or mixed-use residential projects.

"The intersection of San Vicente and Wilshire is a premier location and would likely command significant interest from developers," the report reads. "With nearly 400 acres of low density development surrounded by the most valuable high density development in the Los Angeles area, the campus offers an unparalleled reuse/redevelopment opportunity."

The report mentions by name two biotech companies -- Amgen, based in Thousand Oaks, and Genentech -- that might be interested in having facilities at the site. The report noted, though, that such development would almost certainly generate controversy.

Community leaders and residents have vowed to protest any commercial development of the VA land, which they maintain should be devoted exclusively and directly to the needs of veterans. The land was deeded to the government in 1888 for an old soldiers home, and residents consider it an oasis along congested Wilshire Boulevard.

Westside residents are no strangers to battles over development. L.A.'s slow-growth movement got its start in the early 1980s in the Westwood area, as residents rose to oppose the canyon of high-rise condos along Wilshire Boulevard.

But growth opponents may have their hands full in the coming months. In addition to the condo towers planned for Century City, several new office spires have been erected, including the MGM Tower, and a mixed-use office building is going up on the site of the former ABC Entertainment complex, which included the Shubert Theatre.

Activists and elected officials have also criticized the federal government's plan to build a new FBI headquarters with nearly 1 million square feet next door to the Federal Building at Wilshire and Veteran Avenue, just east of the VA property.

Macerich Co., the owner of Santa Monica Place, has gone back to the drawing board after encountering strong community resistance to its proposal to build a mix of residential units, shops and open space that would have effectively extended the Third Street Promenade. Residents of the area worried that the original proposal, which included plans for three 21-story condo towers, would ruin the beach city's generally low-rise ambience.

But the company still hopes to redevelop the property.

"It's a lot of development," Mott Smith, president of the Westside Urban Forum, said of the many projects being considered for the Westside. "The projects on the table, if approved, would mean a major growth spurt."

Smith and other observers say the land-use battles point up yet again how Southern California has failed to develop a cohesive regional approach to planning.

"The battles over development are really less an issue of growth vs. no growth," Smith added. "They're an issue of: Have we engaged in meaningful local and regional planning? The answer to that is no. Every one of these fights we're seeing over specific projects is indicative of the breakdown in the broader planning process."

For years, the Westside has suffered from this lack of planning as workers commute great distances to jobs in Century City, Westwood and Santa Monica. The San Diego Freeway is among the nation's busiest, many Westside surface streets suffer from daylong gridlock, and several key intersections warrant a grade of F, the worst possible.

"It's well beyond the saturation point," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the VA property. "When you have to wait eight, nine, 10 signal phases at Barrington and Sunset ... there is no level of service that describes that."

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