After World War II, Levittown on Long Island heralded the future of suburban America.
In the 1960s and '70s, Irvine Ranch, with its teeming business parks built on the edges of immaculate neighborhoods, was seen as the cutting edge of the master-planned community.
Today, their successor in urban planning is Playa Vista, a densely packed housing development between Marina del Rey and Westchester, within Los Angeles city limits.
The project officially opened last month, but scholars and housing industry executives from as far away as Japan have been studying Playa Vista for years.
The experiments come in many forms -- from the built-in cabinets that can smooth the wrinkles out of clothes to an unconventional marketing campaign orchestrated by a woman who used to work for Coca-Cola Co.
But above all, what draws students of urban planning is the layout. With an average 24 housing units to an acre -- compared with suburbia's typical four to 12 -- and more public space than private, Playa Vista is designed to look more like Old Europe than sprawling Southern California.
People will "look back in 20 to 25 years and say, 'Playa Vista really began this trend toward more dense Los Angeles,' " said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.
No building is taller than four stories. The streets are narrow. Most residences have no backyards. Townhouses, in a variety of architectural styles, including Spanish and Art Deco, are stacked up over underground garages. In fact, 90% of all the parking at Playa Vista will be underground.
"We're very curious about how it works out when you have that many people living" so packed together, said Greg Vilkin, president of Forest City Residential West Inc., which is developing a massive residential and commercial project at the former Stapleton Airport in Denver. Vilkin made his pilgrimage to Playa Vista this year to see firsthand what was unfolding.
In the end, the project will be much smaller than the 1,087 acres the planners originally plotted out, a change born of the environmental controversy that has long surrounded Playa Vista. Late last month, the state approved $140 million to purchase nearly 200 acres of the property, which will be restored and preserved as the Ballona Wetlands. Playa Vista has agreed to donate or give up its right to develop an additional 415 acres.
Planned for about 13,000 residents, Playa Vista is home to only about 1,000 people now, most of them paying $1,650 to $3,000 a month to live in the Fountain Park Apartments north of Jefferson Boulevard. Of the 489 housing units released for sale, priced from the low $200,000s to more than $1 million, 28 remain up for grabs.
A community center with two swimming pools just opened, and a branch of the Los Angeles County Public Library is under construction and set to start serving patrons in 2004.
It will be seven years before the development is totally finished.
To Jocelyn Balaban-Lutzky, her new townhome in the Tapestry section of Playa Vista is reminiscent "of brownstones from Boston, New York or Chicago," with a concert park and a kiddie park a short walk away. It is, in other words, a look and feel that's very un-L.A. "It's a neighborhood, and everybody says hello," Balaban-Lutzky said.
Not everyone is impressed with what they've seen so far.
"The buildings in Playa Vista are too big, too loud, too town-unfriendly," said architect Stefanos Polyzoides, who worked on early plans for the project. "We wanted Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Pasadena. We've been completely betrayed. They're not doing this magnificent site to its ultimate potential."
But USC real estate law professor George Lefcoe, among others, sees Playa Vista as "probably the largest and best example" of smart growth in Los Angeles. He expects the project to merge well with its Westside surroundings. "Once the project is completed," he said, "it will be impossible for people to imagine it being any other way."
The Playa Vista project began in 1978, when property owner Summa Corp. proposed a master-planned city within a city, replete with high-rise office buildings and 7,000 housing units. There would be 600 new boat slips at neighboring Marina del Rey and 72 acres set aside for a nature preserve.
By the time the California Coastal Commission approved the project in 1984, the scale had grown to more than 8,800 homes, 840 boat slips and a protected, 175-acre marshland in the Ballona Wetlands.
Opposition had grown, too. Environmentalists and area residents worried about traffic gridlock, overtaxed sewers and more pollution streaming into Santa Monica Bay. In lawsuit after lawsuit, they took on the project's new developer, Maguire Thomas Partners.
The court battles cost Maguire Thomas Partners precious time. So did developer Robert Maguire's bitter feud with DreamWorks SKG, the entertainment company headed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. Starting in 1995, DreamWorks toyed for four years with building a studio complex that was to be Playa Vista's centerpiece, but a deal failed to materialize.
In 1997, Maguire Thomas Partners defaulted on payments to its lenders and lost control of almost all of its stake. A group including investment banks and a union pension fund paid the lenders about $120 million to buy the property. It was quite a deal: Maguire Thomas Partners, for its part, had already sunk some $250 million or more into the project, according to people familiar with the situation.
As planned today, much of Playa Vista remains largely Maguire Thomas' vision.
In June 1989, Nelson C. Rising, then a senior partner in the firm, held three unusual meetings that he called charrettes, a French word he loosely translated as "designing against a deadline." In attendance were urban planners and architects, many of them pioneers in a movement called New Urbanism, dedicated to restoring city centers, conserving natural environments and making rambling suburbs look and feel like old-fashioned neighborhoods.
At the charrettes, the experts put on slide shows for local residents, government leaders and environmental groups. They juxtaposed pictures of towns where people know their neighbors and can walk their children to school -- places such as Princeton, N.J., and Oak Park, Ill. -- and pictures of suburban sprawl. They talked about the benefits of the kinds of density and diversity that allow people to live within blocks of where they work and shop.
Indeed, as described in the charrettes, Playa Vista was to be a pedestrian-oriented community. A pocket park or two would be within a short walk of each dwelling, and a mix of services would be within strolling distance or a brief ride away on a clean-fuel shuttle.
Four years later, the Los Angeles City Council approved the project's first phase.
"What people didn't want is another suburb built in Los Angeles," said Steve Soboroff, a former Los Angeles mayoral candidate who serves as president of Playa Vista. "They said, 'Give me as much open space as possible and then have the rest be urban life. Create an urban life.' "
The effort to do just that has been a series of trials and errors.
For example, the Playa Vista team erected a fancy public restroom in the middle of Crescent Park, only to discover that it blocked views. It was torn down. A card room where builders thought residents might gather to play bridge was scotched in favor of a movie screening room.
Those who are moving into Playa Vista are finding the experience a mixed bag -- at least so far.
Frank Arredondo, a Los Angeles police officer, acknowledged that construction noise and dust were bothersome and that many of the promised amenities were years away from being built. He also finds the homeowners' fees -- from $356 to $773, depending on location -- somewhat steep.
Still, Arredondo said he and his wife, Kerry, and 17-year-old son were "excited to be a part" of a new community. The family bought a two-bedroom, two-bath condo in the high $300,000s. After 9 1/2 years of commuting from Santa Ana, Arredondo is pleased with his shorter drive. He also likes the parks, the recreation center and the prospect of a nearby library.
Playa Vista is hoping many others will be lured by such conveniences.
Rather than tout floor plans, as do most ads for new housing developments, Playa Vista's offbeat marketing campaign focuses on lifestyle and location. One radio spot features a woman chatting with her husband, who is speaking on his mobile phone while stuck in a traffic jam on the 405 Freeway. She tells him of a new home she has found for them to buy on the Westside.
He replies: "We said no fixer-uppers." She responds: "It's totally brand new." Skeptical, he asks: "What Westside are you smoking?"
"If Santa Barbara and Larchmont had a love child," she tells him, "this would be it."
Playa Vista's ad blitz is the brainchild of Kristin Ramsey, whom Soboroff lured away from Coca-Cola. "They needed branding of Playa Vista as a whole," said Ramsey, who points out that many people outside the immediate area know little about the development, often confusing it with Playa del Rey, the sleepy beach area just to the west.
To create its community, Playa Vista hired 15 different builders, most of whom had previously concentrated on single-family homes and had little experience putting up multiple-unit dwellings.
One of them is Walnut-based Shea Homes, which is building its first townhouses in an unusual configuration: two-story units stacked on top of each other, reaching a total of four stories.
Such dynamics have been of interest to the more than 100 Japanese home builders who have flocked to Playa Vista. Noriko Yamamoto, president of Global Link Inc., a Marina del Rey firm that supplies advice on home building to Japanese developers, said they were especially curious to see how the Americans met the challenge of building such a large project in the middle of a city.
Also on the minds of the Japanese: how Playa Vista handled the ecological aspects of the development amid protests from environmentalists who wanted the land to revert to its pre-industrial state.
Though green activists have wrested numerous concessions from the developers over the years, many still harbor deep concerns.
"The Playa Vista project is not urban infill, it is sprawl," said Tom Francis, executive director of the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust. "Urban infill means you already have roads and infrastructure. Playa Vista is covering open land [that had no] roads or infrastructure; therefore, it is sprawl."
Part of Playa Vista's response to protests against building near the Ballona Wetlands has been to emphasize conservation. It has recycled construction materials and is encouraging the use of nonpolluting cars. Some residents will be able to finance the purchase of small electric vehicles along with their home loans, and will get preferred parking at Playa Vista shopping areas. (At $6,000 to $9,000, however, the vehicles strike some as too expensive. Arredondo, the resident who moved from Orange County, said he is not inclined to buy one.)
Others have come to Playa Vista to learn different lessons.
Developer Jim Schulte of Boeing Realty, for instance, came looking for tips on how to build a community that is attractive to employers. Boeing plans to start work next year on a 3.3-million-square-foot commercial development on a former aircraft manufacturing site near the Long Beach Airport. It is slated to also include 2,500 residential units ranging from apartments to single-family homes.
Playa Vista's combination of housing, shopping and office space arranged on simple street grids with landscaped parkways "revisits the past," Schulte said, "doing density in a form that's quite palatable." He plans to plant the kinds of street-side trees found at Playa Vista -- magnolias, Mexican fan palms and camphor trees -- in Boeing's development.
Even executives from Irvine Ranch, itself long considered a model development, are looking at Playa Vista as a paradigm. Joseph D. Davis, president of Irvine Community Development Co., said that although the densities were less in suburban-minded Orange County, he thought that some Playa Vista-style housing might have merit for his company.
"Instead of just providing products for a particular price point," said Davis, Playa Vista "really satisfies a wide array of buyer opportunities. To me, that's terrific in one community, and particularly a community that is so starved for new housing."
Soboroff acknowledges that many of Playa Vista's features are throwbacks, including the reproductions of street lights from older Los Angeles neighborhoods such as Hancock Park and Pacific Palisades.
But Playa Vista also is experimenting with several new twists.
Among them are wireless Internet access beamed into neighborhood parks by AT&T; Corp. and the built-in valet cabinets produced by Whirlpool Corp. The manufacturers are among the 15 industry-exclusive sponsors that have purchased rights to be preferred providers at Playa Vista. CompUSA will help residents set up their computer systems for free -- in the hope of generating some new business. Dunn Edwards has introduced a "Playa Vista" line of paint.
Many of Playa Vista's experiments still lie ahead. The development's second and final phase, which is in the environmental review stage, is billed by the developers as the heart of the place. Plans call for a grocery store and other community-serving businesses that are the keys to Playa Vista's living up to the original vision of a total urban experience.
The second phase, which Playa Vista has dubbed "the Village," is years away at best. Doug Moreland, Playa Vista's senior vice president of development, said the company hoped to obtain city approvals next summer. His timeline also builds in 12 to 18 months for battling environmental lawsuits.
Moreland said opponents would face a tough time if they attempted to present a case that the area should be considered a wetland. "I think the biggest issue we have for Phase 2 is educating people that the Village is on an old airport site," Moreland said.
Soboroff added that his bosses -- the investment banks and the union pension fund -- are on "rock-solid" financial footing and are "totally committed to completing the project." On top of their initial investment, the owners have put in an additional $240 million, Soboroff noted. That outlay has been offset by payments from builders, who have bought the parcels that they are putting houses on.
"The money was being spent for all these years for litigation and planning," Soboroff said, "and now it's being spent on building a community."
As the building continues, students of urban design are sure to keep coming. Said Soboroff: "They can learn to shave on our beard."