November 30, 1990 - From the November, 1990 issue

Maguire Thomas on Playa Vista: Biggest Hurdle is Approvals Process

In the Westside of Los Angeles County are 957 acres of undeveloped property. Howard Hughes, the City of Los Angeles, Maguire Thomas Partners, and Councilwoman Ruth Galanter are involved in the proposed mixed-use community of Playa Vista. Douglas Gardner, Vice-President of Maguire Thomas Partners and Project Manager for the Playa Vista project, outlines the recent progress of converting 957 acres into a neighborhood. 

Playa Vista is a proposed mixed-use community located on approximately 957 acres adjacent to the communities of Westchester, Playa del Rey, Venice, Marina del Rey and Mar Vista. The land was acquired by Howard Hughes in the early 1940s to serve as the site for aircraft testing and manufacturing facilities. Since the mid-1970s a variety of master plans have been proposed for the property and ultimately one became the basis of a General and Specific Plan approved by the City of Los Angeles for the property.

Increasing community concern with this development contributed to the 1987 election of Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who strongly opposed the Summa Corporation’s proposed development plan for Playa Vista. Galanter’s upset defeat of City Council President Pat Russell underscored the critical importance of growth issues, and made apparent the latent power of local communities.

Maguire Thomas Takes Over

Maguire Thomas Partners became General Managing Partner for the Playa Vista project in February 1989. Early discussions with Councilwoman Galanter made clear the project would have no support unless the Master Plan were dramatically to address community concerns, and that this replanning effort should involve significant public participation.

As a first step, Maguire Thomas Partners met directly with the wide variety of community groups and individuals who had expressed opposition to the existing zoning.

While the concerns raised in these discussions were numerous, and often contradictory between various community groups, three fundamental issues emerged as common: 1) traffic; 2) restoration and expansion of the Ballona Wetlands; and 3) building heights. The Council Office also insisted that the project address the impact of the proposed development on existing infrastructure with particular emphasis on water, waste water and solid waste management.

Maguire Thomas Partners then assembled a master planning team consisting of architects, landscape architects, urban planners, engineers, and other specialists. Those selected for this team had to demonstrate new and creative thinking regarding urban planning and a willingness to work with the community.

The Playa Vista development is enormously complex, involving overlapping City, County, State, and Federal jurisdictions, and subject to the changing dynamics of environmental regulation. A development of this size and scope must also inevitably confront the crucial issues of growth in the Los Angeles basin, and the public policy issues which accompany growth.

With these complexities in mind, a planning strategy was established based on a multi-disciplinary workshop approach. These workshops were intended to bring together in one place, over a concentrated period of time, the wide array of interests which had a stake in the project. Representatives from the community, local government, engineering and technical disciplines, and environmental groups met during an initial ten-day workshop.

By the end of this workshop, fundamentally different planning concepts had emerged and were presented to the public for review, comment, and questions. A series of subsequent workshops conducted over a six-month period resulted in revisions and refinements which addressed the community concerns, and credited the developer with a forthright and open approach to the planning process.

In a separate but parallel series of workshops on ecological issues, representatives from technical professions, utility companies, City and County agencies and Maguire Thomas comprehensively addressed transportation, energy, water management, waste management and resource preservation.

As a result, a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the ecology of the project emerged, a program that included solid waste and waste water treatment facilities, storm water purification, the restoration of the Ballona Wetlands, and a comprehensive approach to alternative transportation systems.

Why Community Participation?

The strategy of engaging communities in major planning projects is perceived by many developers as a risky course of action. Risks do exist: it is impossible, for example, to control what is said at public meetings, and the concessions sought by members of the community may be physically or economically infeasible.

Community groups often have conflicting goals and aspirations, frustrating attempts at consensus. And even a high level of community support ensures neither an expedited approvals process, nor project approval.

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Despite these legitimate concerns, it is increasingly evident that community participation is not merely an option to the developer, but a mandatory part of the planning process. A well-organized community has far more staying power than the developer, and the developer who insists on fighting this fact may not remain in business.

The public process should therefore be accepted, and perhaps considered as beneficial, for very real benefits do exist. For example, concerns expressed early in the planning process can often be accommodated by the developer at little or no cost. Public comment can also result in genuine improvements, as occurred with a variety of refinements to Playa Vista, such as the incorporation of neighborhood Litt1e League fields.

Discussions can also educate the community about the development process itself and contribute to an understanding of constraints, thereby encouraging realistic compromise. The simple act of dialogue may begin to establish trust.

Finally, the developer may as well be candid about this proposal up front, since full disclosure of the project and its impact underlie the entire environmental review process. Inadequate or misleading EIRs are easy targets for lawsuits, and since the best deterrent to a successful lawsuit is a complete statement of facts, it makes sense that the developer put them forward early in the process.

The Approvals Obstacle

Though we discovered at Playa Vista that community participation need not be terrifying, nor confrontational, the approvals process itself may arguably induce far more anxiety than the most outspoken community group.

Even relatively simple projects face a vast array of agency approvals prior to construction; complex projects may be hopelessly bogged down amidst lengthy and complicated regulatory processes. Many developers might readily alter proposed projects in direct response to community concern if such compromise resulted in a speedier approvals process.

Unfortunately, this process, not activism per se, has become the more effective deterrent to growth. While some may see benefit in this result, it is clearly not the intended function of regulating agencies. Furthermore, as we sensed at Playa Vista, most citizens recognize that growth is both necessary and important, but that it must be managed with care.

The community also understands that government is hard-pressed to perform ongoing maintenance of, not to mention improvements to, the infrastructure of the city, and that great pressure is therefore put upon the development community to assist in this role.

Viewed in this light, development is not necessarily considered by the community as evil, and can in fact greatly enhance existing conditions.

The Playa Vista development still faces a challenging approvals process. We anticipate that the community will remain active in the project, and that the interests of both the developer and the community can be accommodated as the project moves forward.

The public process can contribute substantially to this outcome, and consequently should be viewed not as a risky option, but as a reality of considerable potential benefit.

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© 2022 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.