The controversial Playa Vista development passed a milestone this month, and now the man who played the lead role in getting it built says he too has reached a key juncture: Steve Soboroff is expected to announce Wednesday that he will step down as chairman and chief executive of the planned community near Marina del Rey.
The second and final phase of the multibillion-dollar residential, office and retail development won approval two weeks ago by the Los Angeles City Council, and Soboroff, long one of the city’s power elite, said he wanted to move on to another large-scale challenge.
“I am a baby,” said Soboroff, who plans to step down at the end of April but retains a 4% ownership stake in Playa Vista. “I am 62 years old.”
Soboroff said he didn’t know what his next challenge might be, but that it would be in the business world and not public office. In Los Angeles, the former mayoral candidate said, more private companies should strive to achieve objectives that benefit the common good.
“I want to take something and brand it to be a leader because there are no leader companies left here,” Soboroff said. “This community can embrace big public policy goals through a company emerging, and I am willing to make that another chapter in my life.”
Soboroff ran for mayor of Los Angeles in the 2001 election won by James K. Hahn. By that time, he had already amassed a fortune as a retail real estate landlord and broker.
He served in former Mayor Richard J. Riordan’s administration as parks commissioner and was the mayor’s pit bull on school repairs and point man bringing Staples Center to downtown Los Angeles. He was key in getting the Alameda Corridor freight rail “expressway” completed in 2002.
The creation of Playa Visa was one of the most rancorous real estate developments in modern Los Angeles history. The former manufacturing facility and airport built by aerospace mogul Howard Hughes in marshland at Lincoln and Jefferson boulevards was one of the largest developable sites in the county, and builders eyed it with enthusiasm.
At the same time, environmentalists eager to preserve open space and wetlands along the coast sought to limit development, as did many local residents concerned that they would be overwhelmed by the traffic and pollution generated by such a big project.
Three decades ago, Hughes’ Summa Corp. planned high-rise office buildings, thousands of residences, a golf course and a big shopping center. The proposal raised such ire that Summa abandoned its plans. In the late 1980s, new owner Maguire Thomas Partners planned a scaled-down mixed-use village and got DreamWorks SKG to promise to build a studio.
A down real estate market and sustained opposition, including litigation, forced Maguire Thomas out in 1997. The site was taken over by bankers Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Oaktree Capital and four labor union pension funds. Soboroff was tapped to take over.
Soboroff helped persuade residential and commercial builders to buy land in Playa Vista and build projects that conformed to a new master plan that was smaller than what Maguire Thomas anticipated. Today the first phase of more than 3,100 residential units is complete, and the community has more than 6,000 residents, shops, parks, a fire station, a library and an elementary school under construction.
Although Soboroff’s departure comes as a surprise, there is no hint that it is anything but voluntary.
“Steve has been essential to our goal of developing Playa Vista into a model mixed-use community,” said Kev Zoryan, executive director at Morgan Stanley Real Estate Investing. “We are pleased that as a minority owner he will continue to be involved in Playa Vista through to its completion.”
When Soboroff departs, management of Playa Vista will be in the hands of co-presidents Randy Johnson and Patti Sinclair.
Riordan, who encouraged Soboroff to run for mayor as his successor, was unstinting in his praise.
“Steve Soboroff challenges Eli Broad for the title of greatest Angeleno,” Riordan said, comparing Soboroff to the philanthropist. “Both of them have done fantastic things for our city.”
Riordan credited Soboroff with getting the $2-billion Alameda Corridor built, making Staples Center a reality and beautifying Venice.
While negotiating with railroads to share the corridor, Soboroff came to know billionaire Philip Anschutz, the largest shareholder in Union Pacific Railroad. Soboroff urged Anschutz to build a sports and entertainment arena downtown that became Staples Center.
In spite of all of Soboroff’s business accomplishments, Riordan quipped, “He’s a lousy golfer and has no taste for good wine.”
That just-folks aspect of Soboroff’s personality is usually front and center. The bearish Illinois-born executive likes to joke about his profound baldness and prefers to think of himself as a family advisor to Playa Vista residents.
“It’s like I’m an uncle to them,” he said. “It’s a role I was very comfortable in.”
Soboroff has his detractors. His boast that Playa Vista is environmentally responsible is overblown, said longtime opponent Marcia Hanscom, co-president of the Ballona Institute.
“The hallmark of Steve Soboroff has been huge exaggeration and misinformation about the project, which has been very difficult to overcome, " Hanscom said. “The claims they are doing things for the environment have been so outrageous and not true, and Mr. Soboroff has been at heart of that.”
Large-scale but low-rise office buildings have been built at Playa Vista with mixed success. Tishman Speyer completed four buildings on Jefferson but defaulted on a loan on some raw land and historic buildings where Hughes built his infamous Spruce Goose.
Six years ago, the state approved $140 million to buy nearly 200 acres to be restored as the Ballona Wetlands. That process is still being debated, but Playa Vista has agreed to give up its right to develop an additional 415 acres.