Westsiders Don't Shrink From Growth Fight

Times Staff Writer

The Westside is in the midst of one of its biggest building spurts in decades, heightening concerns of residents and community leaders that the area has reached saturation and that its clogged roads cannot tolerate further intense development.

A number of large projects are underway or in the works, stretching from Century City -- a nonstop construction zone where one high-rise tower is being built and four more are being planned -- to Santa Monica, where the owner of aging Santa Monica Place seeks to replace it with residential towers, parks and retail shops.

Meanwhile, the hotly contested Playa Vista community continues to expand while a new crop of high- and low-rise residential buildings goes up in Marina del Rey.

The fiercest battle over growth is raging in Westwood, where residents are expected to turn out by the hundreds today to protest the federal government's proposals to redevelop the sprawling Veterans Affairs campus just west of the San Diego Freeway.

The federal government had been vague about its preferences for the site, the last large parcel of open space along Wilshire Boulevard. But a 129-page document prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the VA indicates that the government contemplates selling or leasing large portions of the land to developers who could use it for hotels, medical research and/or mixed-use residential projects.

"The intersection of San Vicente and Wilshire is a premier location and would likely command significant interest from developers," the report reads. "With nearly 400 acres of low density development surrounded by the most valuable high density development in the Los Angeles area, the campus offers an unparalleled reuse/redevelopment opportunity."

The report mentions by name two biotech companies -- Amgen, based in Thousand Oaks, and Genentech -- that might be interested in having facilities at the site. The report noted, though, that such development would almost certainly generate controversy.

Community leaders and residents have vowed to protest any commercial development of the VA land, which they maintain should be devoted exclusively and directly to the needs of veterans. The land was deeded to the government in 1888 for an old soldiers home, and residents consider it an oasis along congested Wilshire Boulevard.

Westside residents are no strangers to battles over development. L.A.'s slow-growth movement got its start in the early 1980s in the Westwood area, as residents rose to oppose the canyon of high-rise condos along Wilshire Boulevard.

But growth opponents may have their hands full in the coming months. In addition to the condo towers planned for Century City, several new office spires have been erected, including the MGM Tower, and a mixed-use office building is going up on the site of the former ABC Entertainment complex, which included the Shubert Theatre.

Activists and elected officials have also criticized the federal government's plan to build a new FBI headquarters with nearly 1 million square feet next door to the Federal Building at Wilshire and Veteran Avenue, just east of the VA property.

Macerich Co., the owner of Santa Monica Place, has gone back to the drawing board after encountering strong community resistance to its proposal to build a mix of residential units, shops and open space that would have effectively extended the Third Street Promenade. Residents of the area worried that the original proposal, which included plans for three 21-story condo towers, would ruin the beach city's generally low-rise ambience.

But the company still hopes to redevelop the property.

"It's a lot of development," Mott Smith, president of the Westside Urban Forum, said of the many projects being considered for the Westside. "The projects on the table, if approved, would mean a major growth spurt."

Smith and other observers say the land-use battles point up yet again how Southern California has failed to develop a cohesive regional approach to planning.

"The battles over development are really less an issue of growth vs. no growth," Smith added. "They're an issue of: Have we engaged in meaningful local and regional planning? The answer to that is no. Every one of these fights we're seeing over specific projects is indicative of the breakdown in the broader planning process."

For years, the Westside has suffered from this lack of planning as workers commute great distances to jobs in Century City, Westwood and Santa Monica. The San Diego Freeway is among the nation's busiest, many Westside surface streets suffer from daylong gridlock, and several key intersections warrant a grade of F, the worst possible.

"It's well beyond the saturation point," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the VA property. "When you have to wait eight, nine, 10 signal phases at Barrington and Sunset ... there is no level of service that describes that."

The situation is exacerbated, he said, because "there's not enough housing to go around on the Westside, and what housing there is is the most expensive in the county. The worker bees have to commute long distances, and that's what has created the change in traffic patterns."

Developers point out that many of the projects planned for the Westside are residential, which, in theory, could help ease congestion if people opted to -- and could afford to -- live nearer their work.

Of all the pending projects, the VA site is the most controversial.

Vowing to make a stand against private or overly intense development there are Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Valley Village), Yaroslavsky and Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver, who has proposed that three VA buildings be renovated as housing for chronically homeless veterans.

At a community forum last week, more than 700 residents and veterans converged on the University High School auditorium in Westwood to oppose any development of the VA site that would not directly benefit veterans. Speakers urged the crowd to turn out in force at today's meeting at the Wadsworth Theater on the VA campus.

The public meeting is scheduled to begin at noon. It will start with four hours of presentations about the eight options revealed last week by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the government's consultant. Those will be followed by three hours of public comment before a local advisory panel, which has been instructed to then spend two hours contemplating the options before issuing its recommendations to the VA.

That directive has angered some of the panel members, who say they feel pressured to make an important decision without time to consider all the facts. Two other public meetings, as yet unscheduled, are in the offing before the end of February.

"I absolutely feel this panel is being rushed," said Flora Gil Krisiloff, a panel member who has fought proposals for a football stadium and a 24-hour pharmaceutical delivery facility at the campus. "I feel very pressured that we have to prematurely make decisions ... prior to a thorough review."

Other members of the advisory board said the options assembled by PricewaterhouseCoopers were not surprising and helped them to focus on possibilities. They said that many of the proposed uses -- transitional housing and therapeutic care -- would benefit veterans.

"We have to balance veterans' uses against the VA's imperative, which is to maximize the property," said Steve Peck, a panel member and community development director of United States Veterans, which provides housing to veterans.

In a letter to VA officials, Los Angeles County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner Jr. raised another concern, saying that the VA's consultant had incorrectly asserted that there was no local government zoning on the property. Fortner noted that, in fact, the VA property is in the unincorporated county.

Years ago, the county zoned the VA land north of Wilshire as open space and the portion south of Wilshire for institutional uses.

"The types of development in both zones are severely limited," the letter said. "The VA should not disregard this important determination."

Fortner added that the county Board of Supervisors had authorized him "to take whatever legal action is necessary to oppose any development that is inconsistent with the county's zoning."

PricewaterhouseCoopers' 129-page report, titled "Stage I Summary Report Appendix," is posted on Waxman's website at www.waxman.house.gov.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday September 24, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction University High School -- An article in Thursday's California section about proposals to develop the Veterans Affairs campus on Wilshire Boulevard said University High School was in Westwood. It is in West Los Angeles.
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