October 30, 1997 - From the October, 1997 issue

Doug Gardner: Leaving Playa Vista for Opportunities at Catellus

For almost a decade, Doug Gardner has been project manager of MaguirePartners massive Playa Vista Project. If on-going talks to restructure the project’s ownership resolve successfully and ground can break soon near Marina Del Rey, Gardner will have played an integral role in what is likely to be the last development of its size ever in the City of LA. 

The Planning Report is pleased to present the following discussion with Gardner about the direction the project is taking, the role played by neo-traditional planning, and the impact of the CEQA process on the development. 


Doug Gardner

“I think the City has come a long way in the past eight years in recognizing that it has to promote more efficient land use, pedestrian vitality, and better mix of uses if it has any hope of accommodating what we are told is inevitable growth.”

Your departure announcement from Playa Vista and your position with Catellus offers an opportunity to review Playa Vista as well as discuss your future plans. Playa Vista is often held up as a model of neo-traditionalist development, but over the years various pressures from economic forces to environmental lawsuits have forced changes in the project's mix. In the end, what factors have determined the mix of uses and how true to the original vision is the project's plan now?

Despite all that has happened since our first involvement with this project in 1989, the current Master Plan remains very consistent in terms of entitlements and land-use with the concept which emerged from our initial planning charrettes. The litigation which followed our First Phase approvals was decided in the project’s favor, with changes to the plan.

Interestingly, the changing economic climate over the years has supported our initial strategy, which emphasized residential development over the commercial approach which preceded our plan. The most significant adjustment to our original plan—the creation of an Entertainment, Media and Technology District incorporating the existing Hughes Aircraft facilities—was an elaboration of the low-rise office campus planned for the east end of the site. So all in all, the original vision has withstood the test of time.

 What is the likely significance of new owners taking control of  Playa Vista? What will new ownership mean for the design, and what impact will your leaving have on the plan’s execution?

The new ownership, which will consist primarily of the investment firms of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, has the wherewithal and motivation to implement this project. They understand that public expectations are high, particularly for the approved First Phase, which carries with it very specific commitments. And they understand that the balance of the Master Plan and the accompanying approvals will be the subject of intensive public review.

People may wonder why I’m leaving when construction can finally go forward, but I think after eight years, the time is right. I’m pleased with what we’ve accomplished to date, but I never intended to make the project my life’s work.

Is Playa Vista, as was announced in 1996, still thinking of building 13,000 housing units in seven neighborhoods, employing 50,000 people, offering 5 million s.f. of campus office space, 600,000 s.f. of retail, a 14-acre village center, public buildings (such as post offices and schools) and a broad public square—and not be gated?

Your summary remains a pretty accurate description of the Master Plan. However, as we well know, the balance of entitlements will be subject to a public process which could result in modifications to the plan. I suspect that Council Member Galanter will be every bit as rigorous in her review as she was during the First Phase action—as will the local community.

What is unique about this plan’s particular mix of proposed uses?

The notion of creating mixed-use communities is hardly a new one; we have seen several examples of “greenfield” community planning based on the idea of providing both jobs and housing. Some of these have been reasonably successful, and some less so.

What distinguishes Playa Vista, however, is the unique circumstances of the site which makes it one of the few examples of a major mixed-use community proposed within an existing urban setting. It is not a greenfield, or even a suburban site, but one which readily lends itself to the more urban concept we have pursued: high quality attached housing, neighborhood/ground floor retail, neighborhood parks, shuttle systems, accommodation of the pedestrian, etc.

We need to build more efficiently in this city, and I am absolutely convinced that Los Angeles is ready for this type of development. It is more difficult to pursue this concept on suburban sites, which are based on low-density planning and a history of automobile dependency. 

With new owners, will the development team change much? What should be the characteristics of the people that come in to replace you and lead this effort considering this being an infill site? What in the way of leadership is required here?

The Morgan/Goldman group has wisely decided to keep the entire Playa Vista team in place—that dedicated group of people who work long hours in that little building on the corner of Lincoln and Jefferson. I calculated that the team has something like 80 years of accumulated experience on Playa Vista since our involvement in 1989. If you add that to our core consultants, who will also remain heavily involved in the project, the years of experience would probably triple. So, the knowledge base, commitment, and vision are intact. 

The Morgan/Goldman team is also in the process of assessing Playa Vista's senior management needs, and whoever occupies these positions should be prepared to deal with the vigorous and educated local community which has watched this project evolve for almost 20 years. 

Let me push the envelope a little bit. Don't you agree that the leadership of the development team makes a world of difference as to how that team functions? Can anybody come in here with experience limited to Orange County or north County part of L.A. and accomplish this plan's objectives, or is there a special developer profile that is required to deal with, to build on the work that has already been done? 

I can't speak with authority as to how the new ownership will staff the management of the project. If they choose to bring on new senior individuals, it matters less where they come from, or their background. What is important is that whoever is perceived as the project leader will be accountable not only to investors, but to a broad range of constituencies who will expect to have access to whoever is in charge—not a project spokesman or a public relations firm. This is true for many high-profile projects, but particularly for Playa Vista. 

If you were writing a job description for your replacement, what traits/experiences would you be looking for? 

My role at Playa Vista has been an unusual one. I spent most of my professional life as an architect prior to joining Maguire Thomas, and my responsibilities at Playa Vista initially encompassed issues of planning, land use and design. 

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Under Nelson Rising's leadership, I learned how these disciplines are informed by an array of complex and often competing forces—economic, political, environmental, and social. My job emerged as an interesting combination of policy and planning. However, I am not a financial person (my colleagues can attest to that) nor am I much at marketing or leasing. 

A successful development team must reflect all these disciplines, but the leadership's big challenge is the overall orchestration of these components, rather than specific areas of expertise. The leadership must convey credibility—trust is a big part of the equation. I'm not saying that I played this role at Playa Vista—the project has a way of making one acutely aware of one's shortcomings—but the role is critical. 

As part of the announcement of the partnership between Dream Works and MaguirePartners, Rob Maguire said ''Playa Vista brings together here in the City of Los Angeles the leading industry for exponential growth worldwide. In a real estate development that's the largest of any in the works in any major city in the world, I believe, and I think you agree this is a global event…” Some of that is promotion, a great event and a partnership. Talk about what that really means at the level of master planning, this new relationship with a studio campus. How has that worked out in the two years since this was articulated? 

Again, we have not made as much progress as we might have hoped, but these initiatives are poised to move forward as soon as project financing is complete. These ideas are powerful ones, ranging from telecommunications infrastructure to the role of technology in education, and I know the project wants to establish partnerships in many new areas not conventionally considered part of the development process. 

In this aspect alone Playa Vista is cutting edge; we don't think of development as only sticks and bricks, but also communications, power, education, health care, etc.—all aspects of the community of the 21st century. It's exciting stuff and will play a critical role in the development of Playa Vista with or without the entertainment business. 

Let's talk again of lessons learned in this process. As someone who has worked for almost a decade on a project that has yet to break ground, what is your take on the CEQA process? Does CEQA, as currently enforced, incentivize building better projects? 

I have mixed feelings about the CEQA process, and I think I've expressed them in The Planning Report in the past. There is no question that environmental review of a project of this scale is necessary, and that this scrutiny led to some important changes. I have the predictable and often cited complaints about CEQA—it takes too long, it's too expensive, and it permits litigation with ridiculous ease. 

However, my deeper concern lies with the fact that CEQA is primarily a legal tool, rather than one which truly informs the public of likely impacts and therefore sets the stage for meaningful mitigation. Because CEQA invites litigation, EIRs are often prepared as worst-case nightmares to withstand any court challenge to their thoroughness. For starters, this frustrates any progressive planning, since impacts are judged on a worst-case basis, with no credit given to innovation. Moreover, the EIR is then often used as the sole basis for planning decisions. Infrastructure, for example, can be designed according to worst case methodology rather than likely outcome. I leave Playa Vista convinced that the CEQA process is necessary, but in bad need of reform. 

That's a great segue into what you are leaving Playa Vista for. I wonder if you can elaborate on a challenge that attracts you and what you hope to be a part of while working with Catellus. 

I'm leaving Playa Vista primarily because of the opportunity extended to me by Nelson Rising at the Catellus Company. As you know, Nelson was formerly Partner-in-Charge for the Playa Vista project for Maguire Thomas Partners, and I have enormous personal and professional respect for him—as I do for Ira Yellin, with whom I will be working closely. Your readers are very familiar with Ira's credentials and sense of commitment to L.A. 

Both Nelson and Ira are firm believers in California's future, in general, and that of Los Angeles in specific. I'll remain in Southern California, where I'll be working with Ira on an array of development opportunities, with initial focus on the Union Station area. While I'll miss the corner of Lincoln and Jefferson, I'm very excited to be moving Downtown. 

Let's close with some philosophical discussion about urbanism. Since you're staying in Los Angeles and since you've bad extensive experiences negotiating with the City of Los Angeles and all of its attendant agencies and departments, what needs to happen in the way of development reform for there to be an improvement in the quality of urban life throughout Los Angeles? Developers certainly have a unique perspective because they're typically thinking of the future, that's their business. Considering the demographic pressures for growth in the Southland, what governmental incentives, what cultural incentives need to be in place to encourage developers to pursue building a better urban environment? 

I leave Playa Vista convinced that the type of development model we have pursued over the years is the right one, but also convinced that it is very hard to do things the right way. The City has come a long way in the past eight years in recognizing that it must promote more efficient land-use, pedestrian vitality, and a better mix of uses if it has any hope of accommodating what we are told is inevitable growth. I used to criticize the City departments, all of which seem to have their own agendas—and often conflicting ones, at that. I've probably mellowed a bit and realize that the departments are generally functioning according to their legal requirements. 

That said, we'd all like to see a more cohesive and coherent process which identifies goals for sound growth policies and provides proper incentives for implementation. The City needs a vision, and the leadership to pursue it. In the end it all comes down to what others have repeatedly concluded we need—strong leadership. 

There are lots of incentives for better development that I can think of, based on my experience at Playa Vista: accelerated review for progressive projects; meaningful mitigation credits; tax incentives; CEQA reform; construction defect litigation reform; priority processing; etc. Developers aren't a complicated breed. Like most businesspeople, they generally seek the simplest route to profits. Make this route simpler, and they will gravitate to it. If the route is onerous, it becomes an additional burden and developers will retreat even further to the formulas they have relied on in the past which have led to so much bad development in this City, and throughout the country. 

A year from now, how will our readers assess whether Playa Vista is on or off course? What are the indices that we should be watching? 

Look for the bulldozers. We all know that we are currently in an upcycle, and if Playa Vista is not breaking ground within the next year, that could mean that it is facing further problems. Beyond that, we simply must wait until enough is built to determine if the quality of execution is there, and the concept works. I think it will.

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