It’s not the Playa Vista of developers’ dreams

When Playa Vista’s first apartments, condos and town homes opened in 2003, a radio spot pitched the master-planned community as a coastal haven with an urban edge. “If Santa Barbara and Larchmont had a love child,” it said, “this would be it.”

Much of the Mediterranean ambience of Santa Barbara and the bustle of Larchmont had to be imagined, however, what with the dust and noise of ongoing construction, the dearth of amenities and the starter landscaping.

Six years later, the development between the Westchester bluffs and Marina del Rey has progressed well beyond childhood into a full-fledged neighborhood boasting more than 6,000 residents, thriving mom-and-pop shops, the Los Angeles Clippers’ headquarters and training facility, plans for an elementary school and its own ZIP Code.

But a chasm remains between the Playa Vista that exists today and the one that developers have long envisioned.

After years of legal delays the proposed final phase, known as the Village, is again wending its way through the city approval process. The 111-acre Village would feature housing, office space and a shopping center to fulfill the promise of a walkable live-work-play community. The developers view it as the centerpiece that would knit together the nearly complete Phase 1 residential community to the west and the commercial campus to the east.

Even as tenacious opponents vow to continue fighting the proposal, Playa Vista chairman Steve Soboroff insists the time is right.

“Now more than ever, Phase 2 is good for Los Angeles,” he said. “It provides jobs when Los Angeles needs them, tax revenue when Los Angeles needs it and houses and services that will keep people from driving farther than they need to.”

Sense of community

In voting Dec. 10 to approve the second phase, which they originally supported in 2004, Los Angeles planning commissioners praised the development as smart, sustainable and “an example of the future of Los Angeles.”

Sarina and Amin Amersi consider themselves emblematic of that notion. The couple moved to a Playa Vista condo in 2004, got married, opened a dry-cleaning business in the retail district near the development’s Concert Park and had two children. Relatives have also moved to the community.

“We don’t use our cars,” Sarina Amersi said. “We walk to work. We utilize all the amenities of Playa Vista. Every aspect is what we want our lives to be like. It really feels like a sense of community, which I think is very hard to come by in Los Angeles these days.”

The family participates in frequent outings with the Playa Vista moms group, whose members eagerly await the opening, as early as September 2012, of a public elementary school on four acres donated by the development. The active stroller brigade was a twist that surprised developers, who figured Playa Vista would attract primarily working couples without children and empty-nesters.

Soraya Alizadeh, 12, a Crossroads School seventh-grader who lives in the Concerto Lofts area, says her friends from Pacific Palisades and Brentwood envy her lifestyle. She recently held her birthday party in a community clubhouse and looks forward to having a retail center “like the Grove” within walking distance in the Village.

Sherry Mohazab, Soraya’s mother, said she hopes the job of building the center will go to Grove developer Rick Caruso, whose previous purchase agreement for the Village shopping area was scotched two years ago after the state’s 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected the project’s environmental impact report.

Including the Village, the project would cover 460 acres, less than half the original size.

Three decades ago, property owner Summa Corp. and its affiliates (all related to the estate of Howard Hughes) envisioned an immense city within a city, replete with high-rise office buildings, thousands of residences, roadways through the wetlands, a golf course and a regional shopping center.

Six years ago, the state approved $140 million to buy nearly 200 acres of the property to be restored and preserved as the Ballona Wetlands. That process is still being debated by the state, wetlands activists and other interested parties, but Playa Vista has agreed to donate or give up its right to develop an additional 415 acres.

Playa Vista hired more than a dozen different builders, most of whom had previously concentrated on single-family homes and had to learn the ropes of erecting multiple-unit dwellings in various styles, including Spanish, Art Deco and contemporary.

No building is taller than four stories. The narrow streets are lined with a variety of trees -- Mexican fan palms, jacarandas, Canary Island pines, sycamores.

The community features a Los Angeles Public Library branch, swimming pools, a dog park, tennis and basketball courts, a putting green and a soccer field. The community parks, a freshwater marsh and the recently restored riparian corridor are open to the public, as is the weekly Saturday farmers market.

Years of opposition

Rex Frankel, who successfully challenged the initial environmental impact report and plans to continue his nearly 25-year battle against Playa Vista, says the Village calls for excessive development that effectively lets the owners reap a “windfall.” He advocates more affordable housing and recreational open space in Phase 2.

Sabrina Venskus, an attorney for the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust and the Surfrider Foundation, said the City Council should vote down the project. She cited a state-sponsored study about global warming and rising sea levels, arguing that the area could be underwater by the end of the century. If construction does proceed, she said, Phase 1 residents could face gridlock from the additional traffic.

But Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the area, said the residents now “need an amenity package, and I will fight to see that they get more of these amenities.” Although he supports the Village’s retail component, he has vowed to have a “healthy, open and transparent” approval process to ensure that stakeholders, including opponents worried about traffic, density and pollution, are heard.

Soboroff said he is proud of the riparian system, which serves mainly to treat storm water runoff but also provides habitat for animals and birds. The least bittern, a tiny heron designated as a “species of special concern” because of declining populations, began nesting in the marsh in 2005, according to a Playa Vista report. The Virginia rail began nesting this year in a portion of the riparian corridor that runs through the Village, the first breeding recorded in the area since 1902.

“It’s just the most wonderful community” to live in, said Paula Kirsh, a three-year resident and owner of Urban Gifts, a new shop near Concert Park. “We always lived in Beverly Hills. This is so self-contained. It’s like heaven.”