November 19, 2003 - From the November, 2003 issue

Steve Soboroff's Enthusiasm For Playa Vista Is Contagious

Nobody said it would be easy. After 18 years, Playa Vista is finally developing as a vibrant residential and commercial community on Los Angeles' west side. In fact, Playa Vista is emerging as a model development that effectively balances the need for environmental preservation with the demand for housing in the LA basin. The Planning Report is pleased to present this interview with Playa Vista President, Steve Soboroff, in which he elaborates on the challenges of developing a master planned community in an urban environment and the promise and potential of Playa Vista.


Steve Soboroff

Steve, when last interviewed, you had just assumed leadership of Playa Vista. We asked you to respond to a quote from an LA Times article by the director of a group called Wetlands Action Network, which said, "it's a big mistake for Mr. Soboroff to take this position. Many prominent people went down with the Titanic, and that's what's happening with Playa Vista." It's two years later, how is life at Playa Vista?

Playa Vista is soaring, not sinking. Thanks to the sale of the 500 acres to the state and other progress made during the last couple of years, the controversy surrounding Playa Vista is finally over. All of the land west of Lincoln Blvd, known as the Ballona Wetlands, is now going into the public's hands forever. Instead of the original proposed plan, only 30% of the project will have buildings on it, and all of those buildings will be on former industrial land that had once been Howard Hughes' airport.

The opening of Playa Vista has enabled some really wonderful things to happen in Los Angeles. It has enabled environmental cleanup of an old airport. It has enabled over one-hundred West LA traffic bottlenecks to be identified and to begin the mitigation process. And, going forward, Playa Vista will enable the restoration of wetlands and acres of new parks and open space.

The Playa Vista project is obviously much smaller than the 1087 acres the owners had originally sought to develop. The number of housing units is down and the amount of open space is correspondingly up. How do you now describe the project?

Playa Vista is a model for the new urban lifestyle-a mix of homes, parks, open space, neighborhood retail and office space. It balances the charm and spirit of a small town woven into the heart of the big city, and at the same time, offers residents the conveniences of the digital world with a down-home lifestyle.

Once you come "home" to your residence at Playa Vista – you are really home. You will be able to walk to the market; visit a number of parks in your neighborhood; engage in planned cultural and recreational activities. The residential parking is underground – so you are not as motivated to get back in your car again. This is the first place in Los Angeles in 70 years that doesn't celebrate the use of the automobile, in fact we discourage it by making a large GEM neighborhood electric vehicle program available to residents, as well as a large number of rollerblading, jogging and bike pathways.

Playa is a true village and reminds me of the Larchmont retail area-the way life was 30, 40, or 50 years ago-with very modern conveniences. You can connect WiFi to the internet while you are relaxing in one of the parks, and you can do your dry cleaning in your very own closet (thanks to a new appliance by Whirlpool). What is really boils down to – is that Playa Vista is a great lifestyle for people living in Los Angeles, at a very reasonable price.

What is the timeline for completion of Playa Vista? How many phases? And in what stage is the project presently?

There really are only two phases for Playa Vista. The first phase, currently under construction, is residential with small amounts of retail mixed in. This initial phase also includes the "Campus," the site of Howard Hugh's historic Spruce Goose hangar, which is already entitled for a substantial amount of office for campus-type space.

The balance of the project is called The Village, which will consist of 2,600 residential units and a quaint retail village that will support the neighborhood community. Playa is working very hard with Rick Caruso, The Grove owner/developer, to be the developer of the new retail space. Rick's company has set the standards for great neighborhood shopping in areas like Westlake Village and Calabasas. The Village will be a neighborhood-serving retail (as opposed to a regional shopping center), and will include a market (like Whole Foods), a bookstore, and other service-oriented shops. The Environmental Impact Report for The Village was released for public comment in September, and should be headed to the City Council later next year. We hope to begin construction of the much needed retail and residential space soon thereafter. Unfortunately, as with almost every development project, litigation can slow down these timelines.

The land sale of the property west of Lincoln Blvd. to the State was a very significant move for Playa Vista. We were able to eliminate an additional decade of building by revising the plan to exclude 6,000 additional residential units, a million square feet of office space, a hotel and other development scenarios. Playa Vista will now be a "smaller and greener" community-a wonderful place to live and a great neighbor for those who live, work, drive, and play in this region.

What is the value added of having Electronic Arts (EA) decide to headquarter in Playa Vista?

Playa used to be defined by Dreamworks' decision not to build. Now, it's being defined by the Electronic Arts' decision to move to Playa Vista. EA will be the first new studio to be built in Los Angeles since Paramount built their studio on Melrose in the 1930s. EA is building their campus of 1,000 people on the corner of Lincoln and Jefferson, along with all kinds of recreational amenities. Six hundred of the employees will be new hires. If you work at Electronic Arts at Playa-Vista, there's a very good chance you'll be able to live in the same Playa Vista community where you work, and create open space on the freeway, where we need it most!

Lessons learned: Many have watched the Playa development's 18-year process and come away concluding that investing in master-planned, large scale developments in urban settings is both too expensive and politically difficult. The alternative: working under the radar screen on smaller projects, even though that's not the best way to develop neighborhoods and communities. What, in your opinion, is the take-away lesson for people who visit Playa Vista hoping it's replicable?

Good things come to those who wait! The end result is phenomenal. The reason it took 18 years instead of four years is that this venture was perceived as just a real estate project, and really, it is so much more.

Real estate is the widget, the end result of a political project, an environmental project, a traffic mitigation project, a jobs project, and an educational project. This is a marketing project, it is a merchandising project, it is a consumer services project, and then, finally, it is a real estate project. The real estate side of the project is the end result. Because of Playa Vista, the region is becoming a better place – new jobs, helping local schools, the creation of a new community library and fires station, mitigation of traffic bottlenecks, and providing more community parks and public open space.

Earlier this month, a LA Times article chronicled the frustration civic leaders in the Central Valley of California are having with their public officials re the challenges of housing ten million more people in the next twenty years. The city of LA faces similar challenges. What is the real potential of public and private collaborations re housing production, and the building of livable neighborhoods?

The cities have to do what Los Angeles did with us. The City of Los Angeles worked with us at Playa in creating a master design ordinance. This master approval allowed us to administer the project internally within our organization, instead of having to go back dozens of times for every single development. Municipalities throughout the state need to be willing to set up guidelines and then let the builders go ahead and work efficiently within those guidelines. Many of these planners who live and work in California are very well trained. In our case, the powers that be let them do their jobs with a minimum of interference. It was very helpful to us and it would have been impossible to do what we have done in the last two years without that administrative framework and cooperation from the City.

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Earlier this year, law professor George Lefcoe noted in the Planning Report that cash strapped cities are all but incapable of doing good public planning. In the context of his assertion, how would you characterize the Playa city planning process?

In the very early stages, Playa Vista created a planning process that included not only the city, but also many of the stakeholders and community groups. This process was in place before I arrived at Playa Vista, when Nelson Rising and Peter Denniston were at the helm. And, it has worked well. A dialogue took place in which Playa Vista asked the stakeholders and the community here in West LA what type of development they wanted.

The response was that they wanted open space to be preserved with a dense, village-type development offered at different price points vs. the creation of a suburb with quarter acre lots throughout the entire 1,087 acres. In a large-scale project like this one, it is important to bring the stakeholders and the communities in early, do these kinds of focus groups, and then to stick with them. That is what happened here, and they did the right thing.

The added time it took for approvals, however, came at great cost to the owners and investors in Playa, which obviously put upward pressure on density and downward pressure on the project's design standards. Talk about the trade-offs you've had to make to get to where you are now and why some of the early contributors in the New Urbanist movement are critical of the result.

Recently, the LA Times referred to Playa Vista as "LA's Urban Model." This community is an outstanding example of how to balance the needs of the environment with the demand for housing. We are very proud of the community design and layout, and the individual properties are getting rave reviews from home buyers.

Because we are into the second and third owners of this property, and because they were able to push the financial "replay" button and start over-virtually from scratch, in effect there was no compromising the quality of the end result. When you buy from the government, whether it is a military base or a brownfield, you have got to be able to tie up the land and speed up the entitlement process. In the case of Playa Vista, the investors paid hard cash-hundreds of millions of dollars-for land that sat dormant for 18 years, making the end result a difficult financial investment. But the result is outstanding, and we are very proud of it.

When you became CEO two years ago, the issue of open space preservation and the wetlands was on the table but unresolved. What was the context? What did you confront? And what have you been able to accomplish over these two years re preservation?

When I came on board, an agreement had just been signed with the Trust for Public Land to buy 193-acres for preservation. As the new captain of the ship, it was assumed that I would simply ride the deal through to completion. I looked at the agreement and there were two blanks: there was no price, and there was no source for the money! That's a hard agreement to complete given that some people felt the price should be $6 million and some felt it should be $500 million. One thing everybody agreed on was that the state and federal government and the local government had no money.

At that time, Proposition 50, a $3-billion water bond, was about to go out for circulation to see if it could get on the ballot. As part of that measure, there was money set aside for open space preservation and, specifically, wetlands preservation (through purchase acquisition and restoration) in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. We saw Proposition 50 as a potential funding mechanism and we were very hopeful that the measure would pass. In fact, we donated money to help the measure pass. Once that measure did pass, we still needed to settle on a price. The state did a series of appraisals and the number came in at $139 million and all parties agreed to it. So we were able to fill in the two blanks and finish the deal.

Since Playa is essentially a new community, what's the emerging demographic profile of Playa Vista?

Many people, of all ages and backgrounds, are moving to Playa Vista to be closer to where they work. There are three people working in West Los Angeles for every one who lives here, so there is a massive influx and outflow of people and traffic during the work day. The mix moving to Playa Vista is dynamic: From "empty nesters" selling their homes at very high prices and moving to a condo or a townhouse, to those coming here to purchase their first home. Many singles, young professionals, young married couples, teachers, firefighters, police officers, and nurses are all very excited about getting into an area that is safe, new, diverse, and near the beach. Playa Vista is a microcosm of Los Angeles in architecture; it is a microcosm of Los Angeles in demographics; and, it is a microcosm in price points-ranging from $250,000 to $1.5 million.

Lastly, all of California and Los Angeles have experienced tremendous real estate appreciation, especially this past year. The Times indicates it may have been 20%. What's the expectation for price appreciation at Playa Vista?

I was a mediocre economics student, but I do remember one thing: when demand heavily outstrips supply, prices go up! We have 37,000 people on the interest list for 3,200 homes. If interest rates hold steady, and as people see Playa's charms and benefits, you are going to have a huge increase in demand.

I tell everybody who's moving into Playa Vista that we are not only working to make where they live a great place, but also to make this the best investment that they ever had.

You'd have to ask a fortuneteller for a specific forecast, but any economics professor would say the handwriting is on the wall for a substantial increase in prices at a wonderful place like Playa Vista.

What's important, however, is that Playa offers a wide range of moderately priced homes, especially for its prime location in West Los Angeles near the beach. Many people who could never afford to purchase a new home on the Westside now have real options because of the wide range of offerings at Playa Vista.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.