February 14, 2006 - From the February, 2006 issue

Playa Vista's Phase Two Clears Hurdles; Work Continues on Roads, Schools & Parks

Now in its third decade, Playa Vista, the massive infill development near Marina del Rey, is completing its first phase, and a recent court decision has cleared the way for Phase Two. Throughout the process of gaining approvals, fending off lawsuits, and building community support, Playa Vista has learned myriad lessons about how to do business in L.A. and how a development can do good for the city rather than create traffic. TPR was pleased to speak with Playa Vista President Steve Soboroff about Playa Vista's progress, and its prospects for the coming years.

Steve Soboroff

It's been almost two years since The Planning Report interviewed you and updated our readers on the status of Playa Vista. Please give us an update. What progress have you made?

Last time I talked about what was going to be, and today I can talk to about what is! Playa Vista is open and wonderful. Four-thousand people are living here, shopping here, going to parks and a public library here! Two-thousand homes – condos, townhouses, free-standing homes, or apartment homes – are complete. Another 1,200 homes are under construction, and there is an active, qualified, bona fide waiting list in excess of 34,000 people.

The appetite for affordable, workforce, average-priced homes in West Los Angeles is insatiable. The traffic is so bad coming to West L.A. because of one reason: three people work here for every one person who can afford to live here. What's happening at Playa is, on one hand, exciting, but on the other hand, it just shows the need – a real need – for thousands of more housing units near employment centers – now.

Before we turn to what's going to be happening in the next year, describe the infrastructure investments that have been made by Playa since the last interview.

Infrastructure investments in excess of a billion dollars include an incredible park system, which is one of my Playa Vista pride-and-joys. Five parks have been finished, and others including a sports park are coming up. The parks are all public, but being built without public money.

We have also done or caused to be done a substantial amount of work to mitigate traffic bottlenecks that have existed for decades. Some may call it "traffic mitigation," but to me it's "bottleneck annihilation." We've taken bottlenecks within five miles of Playa Vista – 104 in total – and we're about halfway finished in eliminating them. We're doing everything from adding left turn signals, widening streets, adding landscaping, coordinating signals, paying for bus lines and buses, freeway overpasses, on-ramps, etc. That's been a massive investment.

In addition, we are investing in public education. There will be a public school here. But, more than that, we have adopted 16 schools around Playa Vista. We do both physical and programmatic work at the schools. Some of us teach at the schools. Personally, I teach reading at Braddock Elementary once a week. Last year I taught second graders so I graduated along with them to the third grade.

Obviously part of the obligation, burden, and blessing of this project is the Ballona Wetlands. What has been done there?

A massive transformation. We've created wetlands, and are in the process of creating a riparian corridor that runs along the base of the Westchester bluffs all the way from the 405 freeway to Lincoln Boulevard. Since we last spoke, Playa conveyed all the land west of Lincoln Boulevard to the State of California for open space. Playa Vista gave 300-plus acres and sold 192 acres to the state of California for open space in perpetuity.

Playa Vista is building on land East of Lincoln that was an old airport used by Howard Hughes. So now, all of the Wetlands lie in the hands of the public. The freshwater marsh is complete, and through the good work of people like Mayor Villaraigosa, a lot of money is being allocated towards restoration of wetlands.

Let's now turn to your plans for 2006.

2006 is "the year of the park." We're building some incredible parks – off-leash dog parks, a competitive gardening park, a sports park with soccer fields, baseball fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, paddle tennis courts, putting greens, Frisbee golf, par courses. This is a park system for the public, built without public money. It's unlike anything I've ever seen, and I was the parks commissioner in the City of Los Angeles for five years. It will be a real asset for the entire city.

And how many housing units will be built this year at Playa Vista?

Twelve-hundred remain in the first phase, and probably 700 or 800 will be finished in the next year or year-and-a-half. And we've received our entitlements on our second phase, The Village. Just last month, the judge upheld the City Council's approval of The Village. We've begun construction of the infrastructure in The Village, and shortly thereafter we will begin 2,600 additional residential units, more parks, and a neighborhood oriented shopping center built by the incomparable Rick Caruso. The opponents probably will appeal the judge's ruling, but we're moving ahead anyway.

Legally, Playa Vista is divided into two phases; you've been working on Phase One, and you've just talked about Phase Two. But isn't there a third phase to the development?

No. The easterly 100 acres is part of Phase One; it's called "The Campus." It is entitled and zoned for office and production support uses. There's a lot of filming going on out there. The Los Angeles Clippers will soon start construction of their training facility. The Campus is where the Spruce Goose hangar is located, and soon we're going to start an office building there so people can work closer to where they live at Playa Vista. And we're actively talking to a couple of other really important potential users, including a major university.

This project has been in development for a long time-

Even longer than The Planning Report has been around! More than 20 years.

With the number years that have passed, are there reasons to reconsider the development's approved priorities? For example, while it may have been useful to address the need to balance jobs and housing 20 years ago, given your earlier answer describing three jobs on the Westside to every one housing unit, why is the "Campus" and its 100 acres still dedicated to commercial?


The short answer is that the property received commercial entitlements in 1993, and there is still considerable demand for office space on the Westside. As I said earlier, we're moving ahead with an office project now. Obviously, a lot of people are talking to us about the Campus area, and since we have a tendency to listen, we're listening. When Electronic Arts came here, they took all the office space here, and one of the reasons was that they wanted people to live really close to where they work. And that's how it should be.

If I had a magic wand and could say, "let's do the absolute greatest possible thing," I would in fact include some office space in that area. That's what it's zoned and entitled for, but that doesn't mean that your question isn't a good one.

With Mayor Villaraigosa's advocacy of elegant density in Los Angeles and a clear need for more Westside housing, and with Councilman Rosendahl (at a recent Westside Urban Forum event) calling for more housing along Jefferson Boulevard, what would it take for you to hold off on the developing the office space and look carefully at the option of providing more housing on these 100 acres?

We're moving ahead with several office projects, and we have a lot of interest from several other entities. If the leadership of the city is interested in residential, they need to call me, and there needs to be a straightforward process agreed upon before we would even consider modifying any existing entitlements.

Any community looking at urban infill in metro L.A. has to look at Playa Vista and its experience over the last two decades as a benchmark. What are the lessons for our efforts to increase density through urban infill?

The lesson is that in the midst of sprawl that Los Angeles is known for, there is a huge appetite for density among residents who want to live a more urban lifestyle, have a sense of community with their neighbors, and simplify their life. Another lesson is that residents welcome the idea of trading in their backyard for higher densities and public parks that are walking distance to their front door.

Another lesson is that the right urban infill plans attract the best and brightest architects, landscape designers and home builders who are sold on the urban concept. Finally, Playa Vista has proven that urban infill, when done right, has huge benefits beyond the specific borders of the project – benefits for the environment, for transportation, for schools, for wildlife, for neighbors.

There are obviously costs associated with complying with all the regulatory and entitlement processes for a property the size of Playa Vista. Give us a sense of those extra costs and how they affect the project costs and what gets developed.

Professional project opponents who make it their business to stop Playa Vista have filed more than 20 lawsuits against the project. That litigation costs money and delays, but despite their attempts to stop progress, we're still creating a wonderful community. It's a darn shame, because I am in this for the consumer, for the Angeleno.

We are working hard to deliver the best home that we can for people at the most reasonable price. And the idea of these lawsuits delaying us is, to me, a shame. If you look hard enough, you can always find somebody or some consultant against anything. Playa Vista is a great place, and we are very, very proud of it.

The Planning Report often reports on CEQA reform efforts, and repeatedly the interviewees note that CEQA is bit backwards in that it imposes more requirements on urban infill than on edge greenfield developments. What can be done to reform, rather than gut, CEQA?

I think reform is very simple, and I think it's on its way. I know that Mitch Menzer at O'Melveny & Myers is working on it, and even though it wouldn't affect Playa – we've already been wounded to the max – it can affect the rest of urban California. The current CEQA rules hurt the small and medium-size developer the most because they can't afford to carry the land for as long as the CEQA process takes.

At the end of the day, the uncertainties and long-term process mandated by CEQA keeps the smaller developers from being able to convert urban land to residential uses for tens of thousands of people who desperately want to live near where they work. The CEQA rules have been abused and exploited. This was not the intent, and it's a shame.

You've often said in public settings that Playa Vista is actually "not a real estate project, it is a . . .

. . . public policy project.

Playa Vista encompasses all of the public policy issues of Los Angeles. It's about education; we've adopted 16 schools. It's about workforce housing; our average home price sale here on the Westside is about 20 percent less than the median-priced home in the San Fernando Valley. Traffic is a huge issue; we have done and are doing large-scale traffic mitigation that has been ignored for decades. This isn't about traffic created by Playa Vista. This is about traffic since World War II – that no one has done anything about in 50 years. It's about at-risk adults. Ten percent of our construction workforce is at-risk adults; Thursday mornings we're recruiting people from the jailhouse steps to work with union laborers and learn the construction trade and learn about being good citizens.

All of these are the big issues of Los Angeles, and I believe as we deal with them at Playa Vista, the real estate is molded and created out of the respect for and implementation of great public policy. That's what is happening here, and it's fun, and I hope that everybody that's reading this will put their paper down and hop in their car, or, preferably, take mass transit, and visit us.


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