Sunday, December 16, 2007

November 1995,

SUBDIVIDING PARADISE

(The first major news article covering the Ballona battle from our perspective):

L.A. WEEKLY
NOVEMBER 24, 1995
BY J. WILLIAM GIBSON

When you're driving south down Lincoln Boulevard toward LAX, and hit that open stretch between Marina del Rey and the Westchester Bluffs, you don't exactly feel that you're looking at a saltwater marsh. There is no water visible from the road. You have to get out of your car and climb over the fence to see the channels,the mud flats and marsh plants. In the winter, rain collects in the low areas, attracting cranes and ducks as they fly south. Even in the summer, when there is much less water, the marsh is home to a number of bird species as well as to rabbits, foxes and other animals.

The tract, called Playa Vista, is considered "degraded" wetlands; wetlands are defined as areas regularly flushed with water from tides or a river, and Playa Vista no longer is. Construction of the Ballona Creek channel, the Marina, and the houses in Playa del Rey cut the area off from access to Santa Monica Bay. But in a state that has destroyed 91 percent of its wetlands, Playa Vista just happens to contain the last large piece of coastal marsh left in Los Angeles County. The 1,087-acre parcel is also the last open space in West Los Angeles, the only space remaining where you can feel,for a minute, that you're out of the city.

For at least the past five years, Playa Vista also has been the proposed site of a truly massive, multibillion-dollar mixed-use development of stores, office buildings, hotels, homes, apartments and condos. What developer Maguire Thomas Partners now calls the Entertainment-Media-Technology District - the likely new home of Dreamworks SKG's new studio complex- is but the initial segment of that development (the first component of "Phase I," as it's called). If the full Playa Vista development is constructed according to the developer's current plan, some 29,000 people will live there. and another 20,000 office workers will arrive each day. Thousands more will come to shop. According to an environmental-impact report done for the proposal, these people will generate an estimated192,000 new car trips each day, adding 20,000 pounds of pollutants into the air. As a source of traffic, it will be about the same as building another LAX. Lincoln Boulevard will be stretched to 10 lanes in places, and on-street parking will be banned, not just on Lincoln, but on Jefferson Boulevard and Centinela Avenue too.

Over the years, the plans for Playa Vista have generated tremendous controversy involving multiple developers, government agencies and environmental groups deeply split about the best approach to preserving what's left of the Ballona Wetlands. The area takes its name from Ballona Creek, which was once a natural waterway meandering through the Los Angeles basin. Until 1884it was called the Los Angeles River, but that year, in an effort to reduce flooding along its banks, a new channel was cut that took the L.A. River to San Pedro, leaving the old riverbed with the name Ballona Creek. In&he late 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers built a concrete channel for the creek, and the region became somewhat easier to drain, reducing the wetlands from what in 1868 had been delineated as 2,100 acres.The area took another hit in the early 1960s, when the county of Los Angeles built Marina del Rey and took a large chunk of the Ballona Wetlands. By the late1970s, Howard Hughes' Summa Corp. was gearing up to build a huge development next to the new fast-lane singles city of Marina del Rey. Summa wanted to cover virtually all its land with commercial and residential developments and a golf course. Under the plan, almost no wetlands would have been preserved.

But because of the newly created California Coastal Commission and a rising tide of ecological activism, the Summa Corp. could no longer unilaterally do what it wanted. Among the opponents to Summa's plan was a Playa del Rey resident named Ruth Lansford. Lansford had lived on the beach since 1959, and she and her family loved it there. She had grown up near Long Island wetlands that had been lost to a marina and a housing development, so to her, Playa del Rey was like reclaiming her childhood home. "My son used to go out in the wetlands all the time," says Lansford. "He'd bring back snakes and toads. I'd go out there with him."

Does the huge Playa Vista development represent a step forward in cooperation between environmentalists and builders, or is it just another blow to the state's dwindling wetlands?
When Summa made its big push for development in 1978, Lansford and six others formed Friends of Ballona Wetlands in an attempt to restrict the development and preserve as much of the wetlands as possible.

It was the beginning of a bitter struggle for Coastal Commission approval. To buttress its arguments, Summa brought in scientists from the-East Coast who, Lansford says, knew little about California wetlands. "[The area] doesn't look like an Eastern wet-land," she says. "In summer it's dry. That was a problem for us. A lot of the tests to determine if the area was really wetlands were performed at the wrong time of year." Summa won the first two rounds of the fight, getting a favorable ruling from the California Coastal Commission and then persuading the city of Los Angeles to annex Playa Vista land and rezone it from agricultural to high density mixed use. The Friends of Ballona Wetlands subsequently sued the Coastal Commission in California Superior Court, stopping Summa cold for five years.

In 1989, Hughes' heirs tried a radically different approach. Maguire Thomas Partners (MTP) was brought in to play "good cop," to create a new design for the property and negotiate a settlement with the Friends of Ballona Wetlands. (Summa didn't sell its land to MTP, but rather became a "silent" partner.)

Maguire Thomas quickly appointed ~ Nelson Rising- a charismatic man long active in higher circles of the Democratic Party - to head the Playa Vista development project. Rising and his associates at MTP took the Friends of Ballona Wetlands seriously, negotiating to come up with a project the group could accept.

In the fall of 1990, the Friends of Ballona Wetlands and MTP signed a settlement agreement to resolve the lawsuit. From the Friends' perspective, the deal's salient feature was a pledge to donate $10 million (later raised to $12.5 million) and approximately 226 acres of what used to be saltwater marsh to a trust, which would over-see restoration and maintenance of the wetlands. The salt water to flood these wetlands would not come directly from Santa Monica Bay - that was thought to be too expensive - but instead from a culvert dug to Ballona Creek, which contains salt water near its mouth at high tide. The plan also called for the creation of 59 acres of freshwater marsh connected to a restored creek bed.

In return for these concessions, Maguire Thomas extracted a price. The saltwater marsh, the freshwater marsh and the creek bed would cover 285 of PlayaVista's 1,087 acres - slightly more than one quarter of the company's total land. The Friends agreed that MTP could develop its remaining 802 acres as it saw fit. Moreover, the group relinquished its right to further protest the development save for continued negotiations on details of the marsh-restoration project. Finally, MTP made the restoration of both the salt- and the freshwater marshes contingent upon all local, state and federal regulatory agencies granting approval for the Revised Playa Vista Master Plan.

It's a well-known phenomenon that hostages often begin to identify with their captors. And the same phenomenon started to occur in West Los Angeles in the1990s. To Ruth Lansford, MTP was not just the lesser of two evils when compared to Summa Corp., but a morally superior force genuinely concerned about ecology. Everywhere she looked, it was others who stood in the way of restoring Ballona Wetlands - either the various government agencies that had to approve the environmental impact report or, later on, ecological organizations that did not approve of the settlement agreement.

In 1994, MTP demanded more. Friends of Ballona Wetlands were asked to sign a supplement to their 1990 settlement agreement. Under the new terms, MTP can require the Friends to appear before a public agency and disavow any statement (made by a group that has at least one current or former member of the Friends) that "criticizes the Wetlands Restoration Plan or states that the Revised Playa Vista Plan will have an adverse impact on the restoration of the Ballona Wetlands." After the Friends denounce the criticism, the supplement requires the group to say that its position is unequivocally to the contrary.

As the settlement agreement was being signed in1990, work was progressing on the massive Playa Vista Revised Master Plan Environmental Impact Report, a document that eventually totaled several thousand pages. The EIR presents an extraordinary vision of an urban village that is the antithesis of Los Angeles. Tired of driving everywhere? Not in Playa Vista. There'll be neighborhood stores every few blocks. And if you want to go to the community center or mall, there will be mass transit with environmentally sensitive vehicles.

Tired of the separation of work from home? Not in Playa Vista. There'll be a job-placement center to help residents find employment on site. Tired of class segregation? Not in Playa Vista. Besides upscale houses and condos, there will be two levels of low-cost housing for the working class. Worried about where your excrement goes? Playa Vista will have a wastewater reclamation facility and an organic-recycling facility. Don't worry about that telltale El Segundo smell, either -there's a mitigation plan for hydrogen sulfide gas.

Playa Vista sounded so wonderful that when MTP, as part of its public-relations program, conducted out-reach meetings with various community groups in the early 1990s, support for Playa Vista grew. Heal the Bay, while not formally supporting the Playa Vista project, was impressed when Maguire Thomas responded to its suggestion to install oil/water separators (of unspecified design) in the storm drains. After that, Heal the Bay representatives met regularly to work on the marsh-restoration plan outlined in the settlement agreement.

It was as if MTP was now a leading force of social responsibility. Doug Gardner, the current head of Playa Vista development, recently explained the project in terms of fulfilling the vision set forth by the Sierra Club in its Beyond Suburbia manifesto, a call for what is known as "urban-infill." Gardner explains: "Most of the open land that exists in this region is in the outlying areas, but the jobs are in the Los Angeles basin. We need to develop more efficient non-suburban patterns to help counterattack the trend evident since the end of World War I1 - the suburbanization of open land at increasing distance from our jobs."

But not all environmental groups agree. The Sierra Club itself disputes Gardner's interpretation of its thinking. Its "Sierra Club Policy - Urban Environment" document explicitly says that within urban areas, "parks, parklike lands, agricultural lands, and sensitive and hazardous areas" should be excluded from infill developments. Wetlands, says the Sierra Club, should be acquired by public and nonprofit agencies and landtrusts. Moreover, the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club has consistently opposed any development on the Playa Vista site west of Lincoln Boulevard since 1988.

In fact, everywhere you look, there are flaws in the MTP package. Several proposed mitigations, actions promised by the company to compensate for environmental damage, vanished when the city of Los Angeles accepted the plan for Phase I of Playa Vista in September 1993. For instance, the letter of acceptance waived requirements that MTP build separate Playa Vista facilities for reclaiming wastewater, treating sewage and recycling solid waste. Two years later, in the summer of1995, it became clear that most of the other mitigations listed in the EIR weren't exactly what they appeared to be, either. The environmentally sensitive mass-transit system; *the on-site job-referral service; the parks, open land and bike paths; the riparian corridor and freshwater marsh; and especially the saltwater marsh - the millions for the Ballona Wetlands restoration - all appear in the EIR as compensation for the damages Playa Vista will inflict, and the implication is that the developer will pay for them.

Instead, in 1994 Maguire Thomas Partners, in coordination with the city of Los Angeles, decided that virtually all of the projects that had been discussed as mitigations were actually community facilities described as"extraordinary public benefits beyond Playa Vista.This designation will allow MTP to avoid paying forost of the mitigation. A special Mello-Roos "Community Facilities" tax district was voted into existence August 7,1995, by two voters - the city of Los Angeles and MTP - and authorized to issue up to $410 million in tax-exempt bonds to be paid for by special property taxes ( up to double the normal 1 percent of purchase price per year) on whoever buys into Playa Vista for the next 50 years or so. True, it's not MTP's money that's up-front," says MTP's Gardner, but "it's not free money in that it influences the cost of units. It changes your marketing plan."

Despite MTP's highly skilled public relations, extensive political lobbying and the tacit threat of Summa Corp. bulldozers, not everyone has gone along with the Revised Playa Vista Master Plan. In1993, local activists who opposed the settlement agreement founded Save Ballona Wetlands. "This mitigation game is a scam," says Kathy Knight, one of the group's founders. "It sounds like they're going to take care of negative environmental impact, but you're really creating the ability for the developer to destroy the environment."

Members of Save Ballona Wetlands are outraged by the effects the Playa Vista development would have on L.A. Public financing makes the insult even worse. "The normal practice is for developers to give land to the public and form assessment districts for maintenance,"says Rex Frankel, the group's president."We the public shouldn't have to purchase that which is mitigation for a developer’s profit."

But as the name of the group suggests,S ave Ballona Wetlands also thinks that there are fundamental flaws with the restoration plan negotiated by the Friends and Maguire Thomas. According to Save Ballona Wetlands' calculations, 517 acres of Playa Vista are either potential saltwater wetlands or presently existing freshwater wetlands called "vernal pools." The group vehemently objects to the idea of retaining only 226 out of 1,087 acres as a saltwater marsh, with another 59 acres for urban storm-water runoff. Nor should the non-wetlands open space or "uplands habitat" be sacrificed, the group insists. In Frankel's words, "The developer is trying to get people to sacrifice uplands to save part of the wetlands. They're pitting habitats against each other."

There are also grave doubts about whether a functioning marine ecosystem could be established with the226 acre plan currently being prepared. Rimmon C. Fay, Ph.D., is a 65-year-old marine biologist who grew up in Venice and has spent his professional life as marine-specimen collector in Southern California waters, principally Santa Monica Bay. Fay contributed to the 1975 California Coastal Plan, and served for several years on the California Coastal Commission. After having been removed from the Coastal Commission because of his strong opposition to coastal development, Fay joined Ruth Lansford's group, the Friends of Ballona Wetlands. But as the group's restoration plan took shape, Fay quit.

The problem, he says, has to do with the design of the marshes. The freshwater marsh would be the drainage basin for all the storm drains of Playa Vista.This urban runoff would be filtered a bit with various marsh plants. But in an average year of participation, runoff from the freshwater marsh would spill over at least once into the saltwater marsh, and in a rainy season like the one Los Angeles had in the winter of 1995, there would be continual storm-water runoff into the saltwater marsh. Moreover, in the current design, the saltwater marsh is supposed to get its salt water from Ballona Creek. The problem isn't just that Ballona Creek is quite often highly polluted. When it rains in the Los Angeles basin, storm water runs through Ballona Creek with enough force to push the ocean tides back. That polluted storm water will then enter the marsh as well. If the marsh had full tidal exchange -meaning that at least 90 percent of its water would be exchanged with the ocean every day - occasional storm-water flooding might not pose an immediate threat to the marine life.

But in the current tidal design, it will take about a week to clear the marsh, far too long. Fay complains,"This is not my understanding of the natural circumstances of how saltwater marshes operate in Southern California. In the winter it will be too cold, with too much freshwater runoff creating too low salinity. In the summer it will be too shallow and too hot, with not enough oxygen for the fish. Flood control is what has been proposed for Playa Vista, not a functional wetland. You're gonna build a fish trap." By a fish trap, Fay means that the marsh will kill the fish and other marine life because of its extreme variations in salinity and temperature.
If flood control is the fundamental natural function for the proposed storm-water and saltwater marshes, what are their main social functions? Selling the idea of the two marshes was the primary sales technique MTP developed to stop opposition to the development. Since the social function of the saltwater marsh was conceived as public relations and sales, it didn't have to be designed as a real, functioning coastal ecosystem.Instead if just had to look like a marsh, to have some plants and birds. The current plan for a few acres of Playa Vista is a wetlands theme park.

The Playa Vista project is by no means a done deal; more public hearings are scheduled for next year, and groups in opposition to the project are still hopeful they can stop the development. But when Maguire Thomas Partners announced that the office buildings and hotels planned for Phase I were now to become an Entertainment, Media and Technology District, they brought a fitting symbolic closure to their plans. How nice it would be if Hollywood came home to Playa Vista, where it could gaze upon a Swampworld themepark whose basic principles come from the commercial film industry, advertising and marketing.

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