Monday, March 17, 2008

Backers of Playa Vista are Disappointed

A Glimpse of a More Vertical Los Angeles
Published: March 21, 2007

LOS ANGELES — Long before “the new urbanism” became a tired phrase, Playa Vista, the last remaining large tract of undeveloped land on this city’s traffic-choked West Side, was envisioned as a place where people could live, work, shop and play without leaving their neighborhood.
Now a community of 4,500 people, Playa Vista is situated between Westchester Bluffs and Marina del Rey, about a mile from the Pacific Ocean. It is dotted with small parks and made up of blocks of four-story buildings, mainly condominiums, in styles that include Spanish, Art Deco and contemporary, and will eventually contain nearly 6,000 units of housing.
With about 32 units to an acre, according to Steve Soboroff, the president of Playa Vista, it is one of the densest residential communities in Southern California and a harbinger, some say, of Los Angeles’s vertical future.
Though Playa Vista encourages its residents to travel around their new neighborhood in electric carts, it has yet to free them from their cars. Commercial development has been confined so far to a smattering of retail storefronts and a glassy complex at the intersection of Jefferson and Lincoln Boulevards that has been leased since 2003 by Electronic Arts, the video game manufacturer.
But a new stage in the community’s evolution is about to arrive. Two major developers are planning large Silicon Valley-style projects that they hope to lease to the type of new-media companies that have been flocking to the West Side.
In February, Tishman Speyer, the company that owns Rockefeller Center, and its financial partner, Walton Street Capital, acquired a 64-acre site near Jefferson and Centinela Avenue, on the eastern edge of Playa Vista, for $200 million. It is the same site where DreamWorks, the movie company, once intended to build a studio that would have been Playa Vista’s showpiece. But those plans were shelved in 1999. A couple of years later, the office market went into decline.
The timing is right for Tishman Speyer to begin developing a 1.1-million-square-foot campus of low-slung buildings, said John R. Miller, a senior managing director.“It’s only recently that this made economic sense,” Mr. Miller said. The complex will surround a nine-acre park with ball fields and tennis courts to be developed by Playa Vista.Symantec, the Internet security technology company, is building a campus on nine acres near Playa Vista in Fox Hills, and Yahoo took 256,000 square feet of space at the former Colorado Center in Santa Monica in 2005.
Though the vacancy rate on the West Side is less than 6 percent, new construction has been hindered by a scarcity of land and strong public resistance to development. Only 65,000 square feet of new space was added to the market in 2006, according to the CoStar Group, a real estate research company in Bethesda, Md.
Playa Vista sits on land once owned by Howard Hughes, the eccentric aviation pioneer and filmmaker. The Tishman site includes 16 structures that were built from 1941 to 1953 for the Hughes Aircraft Corporation, including the hangar where Mr. Hughes created the flying boat known as the Spruce Goose. Because of their role in the development of the aerospace industry in Southern California, most of these buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and must be preserved.
Mr. Miller acknowledged that it would have been easier to start with “a clean slate.” But he said his company was toying with the possibility of modernizing the Spruce Goose hangar, which has been used as a soundstage in recent years for movies, including “Titanic” and “World Trade Center.”
Near Tishman Speyer’s site, another national developer, the Lincoln Property Company of Dallas, has begun driving piles into the ground for the first phase of Horizon at Playa Vista, which will consist of two five-story buildings totaling about a million square feet of office space, also for prospective new-media tenants.Playa Vista has “a lot of things that are un-L.A. in a good way,” said David S. Binswanger, an executive vice president at Lincoln. “We looked at the Playa culture and we looked at the culture of the tenants, and we decided they matched awfully well.”
Another selling point, he said, was the Village at Playa Vista, the new town center that Rick J. Caruso, the developer of the Grove, the popular open-air retail-and-entertainment center near the Farmers Market on Third Street and Fairfax Avenue, plans to build on an 11-acre site near the office complexes.
Mr. Caruso said the new center would have a “beachier” atmosphere than the Grove and would be smaller and more locally focused, with an upscale supermarket, 175 luxury rental apartments and a movie theater. Construction has been delayed by a long-running environmental lawsuit concerning the cleanup of gases emitted at the former industrial site.
In 1978 a previous owner, the Summa Corporation, a company managed by the Hughes heirs, announced plans to develop Playa Vista, prompting one of the most protracted development battles in the history of Los Angeles. Opponents said the project would destroy the fragile Ballona Wetlands to the east of Lincoln Boulevard and would have devastating consequences involving traffic and air pollution.In the intervening years, the project has been vastly reduced in scale from the huge commercial development that Summa intended to build, and more than 600 acres of land have been preserved as open space.
In 1989, a new owner, Maguire Thomas, brought in a group of architects from the fledgling New Urbanist movement, including AndrĂ©s Duany and Stefanos Polyzoides, to design a mixed-use village inspired by pedestrian-friendly places like Santa Barbara. “Playa Vista was the beginning, of the recognition that planning standards from the post-World War II era were wrong and counterproductive,” said Nelson C. Rising, who managed the project for Maguire Thomas.
But litigation tied up the project for years, and Maguire Thomas lost control of it in 1997. The current owners, Playa Capital, a group led by Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, hired a management team from Orange County with a more suburban orientation than Mr. Rising, said Ruth Galanter, a former City Council member who was elected because of her opposition to Summa’s plans for Playa Vista. Land was sold to 15 separate builders and the design standards were sacrificed, she said.
Many design and planning specialists fault Playa Vista for its narrow sidewalks, the uniform height of its buildings and architecture they regard as uninspired. “It’s such a comedown from what Maguire Thomas initially proposed,” said Richard S. Weinstein, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s one of the biggest pieces of undeveloped land of any city in the U.S., and you build exactly what you would produce on any corner lot.”But Mr. Soboroff, a former president of the City Parks Commission, who joined Playa Vista in 2001 after the project was under way, dismissed such complaints as the grumbling of purists. “This is not a purebred, this is a Prius,” he said. “If we were doing pure, we’d still be an airport.”And Ms. Galanter, who was instrumental in forging a plan to save much of the wetlands from development, said there was still much to admire in Playa Vista, including a new fresh-water marsh, a first-rate water management system and housing discounts for police officers, firefighters, nurses and teachers.“Playa Vista fell short of what it could have been,” Ms. Galanter said. But, she said, it was “a lot better than any other development of the same size that I know of, certainly in Southern California

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