The years of polite, preliminary skirmishes have ended. Now the serious showdown is about to start over the vast Playa Vista project near Marina del Rey.
Two powerful elected officials--Los Angeles Councilwoman Ruth Galanter and state Sen. Tom Hayden--have served notice that they will challenge the first stage of the residential, office, retail and hotel project at a city Planning Commission hearing next week.
Galanter and Hayden both filed formal appeals of a city advisory agency's recent decision to approve the initial phase of Playa Vista. Their action sets the stage for a July 29 confrontation at City Hall with developer Maguire Thomas Partners, which is determined to press forward with the project after years of planning and environmental studies.
Although Playa Vista has won the backing of a broad array of civic, labor and business groups for its innovative design and economic benefits, the two outspoken elected officials have not climbed aboard the project's bandwagon.
In fact, Hayden (D-Santa Monica) remains staunchly opposed to the development on grounds that it will worsen traffic and air quality in an already congested coastal area. "I don't accept the notion that we have to accept the Playa Vista development and get whatever we can in the way of concessions," he said.
Galanter has taken a different approach, continuing to press for changes to ease the project's impact on the surrounding area. "If we are going to have this development, it's going to be the best development possible," she said in an interview.
But, after years of planning, Galanter said, "We aren't there yet."
The project's first stage--amounting to about a quarter of the entire development--would involve construction of 3,246 residential units, 1.25-million square feet of office space, 35,000-square feet of retail space and 300 hotel rooms. Ultimately, plans call for Playa Vista to become home to 28,625 residents and a workplace for 20,000 people.
The councilwoman said the city cannot turn down the Playa Vista project and deny Maguire Thomas use of its property without risking a lawsuit that could cost many millions of dollars in damages.
"In an era of fiscal limits, I am not enthusiastic about the prospect of resolving the Playa Vista controversy by wasting precious taxpayer dollars and ending up with a larger, more destructive project," she said.
Galanter's objections to Playa Vista have been narrowing in recent months as Maguire Thomas has altered the project to address some, though not all, of her concerns. In a lengthy letter to the Planning Commission, the councilwoman continues to raise questions about whether the project has too much office space and not enough affordable housing. She is also critical of numerous technical issues involving the subdivision itself.
She suggested that Hayden, if he is determined to stop the project, search for state or local park funds to buy all or part of the Playa Vista site.
Maguire Thomas senior partner Nelson Rising reacted negatively to the idea, saying the Playa Vista site is "not for sale." The prime property stretches nearly three miles from the San Diego Freeway almost to the ocean.
Rising said purchasing the site is not a good use of scarce public dollars--even if the money could be found--because plans for the complete Playa Vista project already call for preserving the Ballona Wetlands, which occupy about 260 acres of the almost 1,000-acre tract, as well as other open space. "Why should the public pay for it?," he asked.
Hayden nevertheless promised to do everything possible to search for the funds to buy the Ballona Wetlands. He said a proposed state parks and wildlife initiative already earmarks $8 million for the area, the largest remaining coastal wetland in Los Angeles County.
He expressed confidence that more funds could be raised from other state or local ballot measures over the next decade. "I strongly believe that money can be raised through (the initiative process) and that that's the way to go."
With the first stage of the project edging closer to final approval from the city, Galanter said she does not see purchasing the property as "an immediate option."
Such a purchase would be extremely costly. Playa Vista officials decline to say what the land is worth, but even the most conservative estimates place the value in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
In addition to Hayden and Galanter, the advisory agency's approval for Playa Vista's first stage was appealed by a homeowners association in the nearby Del Rey neighborhood and two businesses located on Jefferson Boulevard. They expressed concern about the loss of on-street parking as part of a package of measures to ease Playa Vista's impact on traffic.
The traffic issue also prompted Marina del Rey developer Jerry B. Epstein to challenge the project. A member of the California Transportation Commission and longtime critic of plans to build a new marina in later stages of Playa Vista, Epstein warned that the initial phase would have a "tremendous impact" on area streets and highways.
But Rising dismissed such suggestions, saying an unprecedented package of transportation improvements--widening streets and intersections, installing computer-controlled traffic signals, improving connections to the marina freeway, and encouraging alternatives to the automobile--would ease the project's traffic impact.
Rising said Maguire Thomas has "gone farther than any project has gone before" in trying to offset its environmental impacts.
Ironically, the developer also appealed the advisory agency's approval of the first phase of the project. In a 19-page letter to the Planning Commission, Maguire Thomas objected to some of the numerous conditions placed on the project.