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Playa Vista Plans Sharply Curtailed

Times Staff Writer

Playa Vista developers have dramatically reduced the project’s number of proposed housing units and amount of retail and office space in anticipation of selling 193 acres of their holdings west of Lincoln Boulevard for a nature preserve.

Instead of the 13,000 housing units envisioned in the project’s original master plan, Playa Vista at completion would have 5,846 units, according to a “notice of preparation” for the project’s second and final phase that city planners will begin distributing today. The overall space for retail would be slashed by nearly 70%, to 185,000 square feet.

Although a formal deal to sell land to the state is still weeks or months away and opposition to the overall project remains strong, Playa Vista President Steve Soboroff said Wednesday that he is confident the developers and the Trust for Public Land will reach an accord. That would stave off construction on 193 acres that are part of the Ballona Wetlands ecosystem.

“Failure is not an option with the TPL deal,” Soboroff said in a telephone interview. “This is something that needs to happen.”

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The nonprofit trust, which has been negotiating with Playa Vista since August 2001, serves as the state government’s broker in such matters. For the purchase, it plans to tap voter-approved funds set aside by the just-passed Proposition 50 and other initiatives geared at preserving coastal land and other parcels.

“If we’re going to conclude this transaction, it’s going to take money from a number of different sources,” said Reed Holderman, the Trust for Public Land’s California director. “Had Proposition 50 not passed, we were wondering if we could do this.”

With rumors swirling that the price could top $100 million, wetlands supporters cautioned that the state risks paying too dearly for the two swaths of scrub brush and wetlands. The deal would include all of a section designated Area A and part of a section designated Area B.

Such a move, they said, could threaten any future purchases of preserves along California’s coast by setting too high a benchmark price. Particularly vulnerable to escalating preservation costs, they said, would be the Los Cerritos Wetlands in Long Beach and the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach.

In its analysis, the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, an environmental group, put the value of the Playa Vista parcels at closer to $22 million, a figure that reflects the group’s view that public officials will not approve further development on the land between Marina del Rey and the Westchester bluffs. Soboroff strongly disputed that notion.

Tom Francis, executive director of the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, said his group wrote its analysis to guide officials in Sacramento, who will be making the decision about the land’s value.

Playa Vista opponents contend that an inflated sale price would provide the developers, in effect, with a subsidy that would fund construction of the rest of the project. They also noted that Playa Vista contributed more than $830,000 to help pass Proposition 50.

Activists indicated that they plan to fiercely oppose Playa Vista’s next stage, just as they have the first phase of development over the last two decades. Although judges and state and local agencies have primarily ruled in Playa Vista’s favor, legal challenges have succeeded in slowing the project.

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Some activists reiterated their long-held view that all of Playa Vista’s 1,087 acres should have remained undeveloped, including the land east of Lincoln where hundreds of apartments and condominiums have already altered the landscape.

“Our position is that no development belongs on this sensitive, critical ecosystem,” said Kathy Knight, wetlands coordinator for the Spirit of the Sage Council, a conservation group that is part of a loose coalition dedicated to preserving the Ballona Wetlands. “Los Angeles County has destroyed 95% of its wetlands system, way more than any other county. This last ecosystem is like gold.”

Steve Fleischli, executive director of Santa Monica Baykeeper, charged that the project already has “enormous problems with traffic, water quality and environmental impact from Phase 1,” adding: “How in the world are they going to be able to justify more development?”

For the project’s second stage, Soboroff said he envisions a “smaller, greener” development. Plans call for 2,600 new homes as well as retail shops and restaurants in a 162-acre area that would be called the Village.

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When added to the 3,246 residential units approved for the project’s first phase, most of which are still being built, the new housing would bring the total number of units at completion to 5,846. That would be 55% below what was laid out in the original master plan a decade ago, but still enough to house a projected 13,500 residents.

Retail space would be reduced by nearly 70% from original plans, to a total of about 185,000 square feet. Of that, 150,000 square feet would be in the Village, an amount roughly comparable to the retail space found along Larchmont Boulevard in Los Angeles, though configured more as a town square.

Office space would total 3.4 million square feet, about a third less than initially envisioned for the entire project.

Of Phase 2’s 162 acres, an estimated 70 are expected to be dedicated to habitat protection, bluff restoration and parks.

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The “town center” would feature dry-cleaning establishments, nail parlors and other businesses aimed at serving Playa Vista’s renters and homeowners. Plans for a 750-room hotel are now completely off the books, Playa Vista officials said.

The proposals were revealed in the “notice of preparation” that Playa Vista sent Friday to city planners. That filing is the first step in what the developers expect to be a yearlong process of public comment and environmental analysis that will culminate in the release of an environmental impact report. Building would probably begin in 2005, with completion by 2008, Soboroff said.

The Phase 2 portion described in the scaled-down plan lies along Jefferson Boulevard in the heart of the Playa Vista property. The Village would be built between apartments, condos and single-family homes already underway at the corner of Lincoln and Jefferson boulevards, and a commercial campus slated for the area farther east, near the San Diego Freeway. Runways constructed for industrialist Howard Hughes once ran across the property designated for Phase 2.

Hoping to gain support for the plans, Soboroff said Playa Vista officials are scheduling a whirlwind round of meetings with dozens of neighborhood groups, homeowner associations, environmental organizations and chambers of commerce. On Wednesday, he briefed Mayor James K. Hahn and Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski.

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Normally, Soboroff said, community meetings would not begin until after a draft environmental impact report is published. That preliminary report is expected to come out in the spring. The first public meeting on the plan will be Dec. 12.

Soboroff said he took pride in the scaled-back plans.

Thirteen months ago, he said, Playa Vista had ready an expensive, 28,000-page environmental impact report with plans for 13,000 housing units, a big hotel and a huge regional shopping center.

“One of my employment-contract conditions was that we rethink that,” he said. “Today is living proof that we did.”

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