The last open space in Los Angeles is about to disappear.
Stand at the ocean end of the property, your back to the Pacific, and the land stretches out before you in a vast green oblong slightly larger than New York City’s Central Park. In the distance rise the smog-obscured skyscrapers of downtown and, behind them, the San Gabriel Mountains. For thousands of years, the Ballona Creek, once a vital stream, flowed through this property on its way to the sea. Today, all that remains is its concrete-encased remnant and some 200 acres of tidal wetlands—the marshes sometimes called the earth’s kidneys for their role in purifying the water supply.
Over the ridge to the south, jets take off from Los Angeles International Airport. Yet the Ballona wetlands still attract plenty of wildlife: monarch butterflies, brown pelicans, snowy egrets, and even such endangered species as the southwestern willow flycatcher. These birds have fewer and fewer places to stop as they migrate up and down the Pacific coast flyway; California has lost 90 percent of its historic wetlands to buildings, farms, and other human development.
Now, this 1,087-acre oasis of greenery and wildlife is on the verge of becoming one of the biggest real estate developments in the history of Los Angeles. Playa Capital, a consortium led by the New York investment banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, is preparing to pave almost two-thirds of the property and construct what amounts to a fair-size city on the site. Dubbed Playa Vista (Spanish for “beach view”), the development will include 13,000 housing units, 5.6 million square feet of commercial and retail space, and 750 hotel rooms.
Environmentalists say Playa Vista will not only obliterate one of the last open spaces in Los Angeles and destroy some of California’s last remaining wetlands, it also will generate 200,000 extra car trips per day, worsening the city’s already severe air pollution and condemning western Los Angeles to permanent gridlock. Activists instead want the Ballona property turned into a public park and wildlife refuge.
What has most attracted attention to the development is its star resident: DreamWorks SKG, the entertainment company founded by Hollywood megamoguls Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. DreamWorks plans to build its new headquarters on some 50 acres at the far inland corner of the Ballona property—and the company’s commitment is crucial to the project’s success.
Spielberg has a reputation as a politically concerned artist (“No one person has done as much for environmental causes as Steven [Spielberg],” his spokesman told E: The Environmental Magazine in 1998), so local environmentalists have been trying to shame DreamWorks into backing out of the deal. In August, DreamWorks publicly threatened to do just that, but not because of any environmental concern—from the start, the project has been fraught with tortured financial dealings; nevertheless, in November, Spielberg and his partners signed an agreement to purchase 47 acres of the property, although they can still withdraw during the five-month escrow period.
Spielberg, who, through a spokesman, refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this article, has simply laughed off environmentalists. When activists—one clad in a frog suit (a gesture to the wildlife potentially endangered by Playa Vista)—picketed the 1995 press conference where DreamWorks originally announced the development, the director quipped, “I also welcome every frog in L.A. to please come to Playa Vista. You have a home here, too.”
For their part, environmentalists scored a significant legal victory in June when U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lew ruled that Playa Capital’s permit to build a water retention basin to compensate for wetlands lost during construction violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may now have to do an environmental impact statement, which could take up to two years. Playa Vista opponents say this throws the entire project into question, since wetlands restoration is a requirement of the legal agreements surrounding the project. The corps is appealing the decision.
But builders are going full steam ahead, apparently willing to risk the possibility that the courts might eventually order them to halt their work. Already, bulldozers have begun clearing the land. Weather permitting, the developers plan to begin construction on buildings as early as this spring. Still, opponents of the project haven’t lost hope. Even if the construction does commence, they believe court action or political pressure may yet block its completion.
It seems incredible that any major American city still has the opportunity to add a huge new park; in most places, urban sprawl gobbled up all the big expanses of open space long ago. Even visionary metropolitan areas, such as San Francisco, must struggle to preserve green space by cobbling together what fragments still remain. Yet Los Angeles is in a category by itself—a city so entombed in concrete that even the riverbanks are paved. Los Angeles devotes less land to parks than do other major American cities—a mere 5 percent, compared roughly to Boston’s 7 percent and New York’s 14 percent. While Los Angeles’ Griffith Park is an impressive 4,200 acres, much of that is steep canyon land.
How has the Ballona property remained (largely) empty of the houses, highways, and shopping centers that clutter the rest of the Los Angeles landscape? For decades the land belonged to Howard Hughes, and as the richest man in America, Hughes didn’t need the profits development promised. The film and aviation tycoon bought the property in 1940 and promptly built a factory, where he promised to construct the largest military transport plane ever made—out of wood. The infamous Spruce Goose barely got off the ground during its single test flight; the project went sour after federal officials investigated Hughes for attempting to bribe Pentagon officials to win the contract (foreshadowing Hughes’ role in the Watergate scandal 25 years later).
Despite this dubious legacy, it was the Hughes connection that helped draw Spielberg to the Ballona property. At the 1995 press conference, held in the very building where Hughes built his plane, Spielberg explained that creating an entertainment studio from scratch was a passionate dream for the DreamWorks partners, so “there must be some kind of karmic relevance that we are here in a hangar that Howard Hughes built to bring his dream to life.”
DreamWorks spokesman Andy Spahn calls Playa Vista “a win-win for both the city and the environment.” In fact, Playa Vista officials portray themselves as Ballona’s environmental saviors. They note that, as part of the reported $7 billion Playa Vista project, they will spend more than $13 million to restore the property’s wetlands, which have degenerated from years of neglect. “The way I see it, the public is getting their cake and eating it too,” says Playa Vista president Peter Denniston.
Local politicians share these sunny views. “In my prior incarnation as [a] mayor, I would have sold my family to get a project like this,” California Gov. Pete Wilson has said. DreamWorks, after all, is building the first new movie studio in Los Angeles in more than 50 years. Playa Vista will generate thousands of new construction jobs and yield tens of millions in tax revenues. Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan has said bringing DreamWorks to Playa Vista is “the biggest business win that any city has ever had.” And the politicians have shown their gratitude in the most tangible way possible: by opening the taxpayers’ wallets. The Los Angeles City Council approved Riordan’s request for $13 million in subsidies for Playa Vista while Wilson pledged $40 million from state coffers.
“The politicians and the developers take the 1950s mentality that development is what matters and they’ll restore a little bit of the wetlands while turning most of the area into a housing and shopping development,” says Steve Crandall, the attorney representing Wetlands Action Network and the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), two environmental groups who are fighting Playa Vista. “The 1990s mentality should say, Let’s save this thing! If you put biologists to work, you could restore it into a beautiful flyway. It’s one of the last open spaces in Los Angeles, and it’s important to the future of Los Angeles, and even the world, that it be saved.”
One recent afternoon, I climbed the bluffs above Playa Vista to get a bird’s-eye view. Though it was a Saturday, eight earthmovers were hard at work. Snorting like crazed metallic bulls, they raced back and forth, carrying load after load of fill dirt to where construction is slated to begin. The bulldozers have scraped much of the land clean of vegetation, leaving behind only a smooth surface of naked brown soil.
Nevertheless, Bruce Robertson and Marcia Hanscom, activists with the Citizens United to Save All of Ballona (CUSAB), a coalition of 86 environmental groups fighting Playa Vista, insist it’s not too late. “You could restore this land if you wanted to,” says Robertson, a private investigator. “Until there are buildings on it, this land can be saved.”
Officials at Playa Vista express bewilderment that any genuine environmentalist would want to stop their project. Playa Vista, they argue, is a model community for the 21st century—sustainable development at its best. Robert Miller, Playa Vista’s vice president of planning and entitlements, says that California’s population growth must be accommodated. “Do we continue with suburban sprawl, and the pollution, traffic, and other stresses it brings to our society and environment? Or do we adopt an approach that increases housing density, emphasizes pedestrians and community living, and reduces the automobile reliance that now characterizes Southern California?” he asks.
Playa Vista is intended to be a self-contained community with its own stores, theaters, schools, and parks. Rather than climbing into the car every time they need a quart of milk, residents will walk to many destinations, reducing pollution while enhancing a sense of neighborhood. Sixteen acres of wetlands, pending appeals, will be filled in, concedes Miller, but the proposed freshwater marsh will more than compensate for those losses. Miller is confident the courts will agree.
The developers’ own environmental impact study estimates that Playa Vista will generate 200,000 vehicle trips a day, but Miller says this isn’t cause for concern. “Only 14,000 of those trips will occur during peak [driving] hours,” he says. “I’m not going to tell you 14,000 extra trips isn’t significant, but we think we can reduce their impact through mitigation measures” such as increased bus service and an improved local road system.
“On traffic, they have this cockamamy report about how a little lane-widening and three natural-gas buses for Santa Monica will solve [the problem],” responds California state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), an opponent of Playa Vista. Hayden claims to be one of the few outsiders who has actually read the Playa Vista environmental impact report, and he singles out a devastating section that discusses, in tortuously opaque language, the project’s impact on the juncture of the San Diego and Santa Monica freeways, the most crowded freeway intersection in the United States. The report, says Hayden, “dismisses the increased traffic that Playa Vista will generate on the [San Diego Freeway] because the freeway is projected to be at LOS F [bureaucratese for gridlocked] with or without the project.”
As proof that Playa Vista is environmentally correct, DreamWorks’ Spahn has claimed that “90 percent of the local environmental community supports the project.” But interviews with activists tell a very different story.
“That makes me sick to my stomach,” replies Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay, a widely respected local group, when told that Playa Vista developers cite him as a supporter. “Our organization has not in any way, shape, or form supported any of the work going on there. Now Wall Street is coming in, and—let’s be candid—I don’t think there’s an environmental group in town that feels more comfortable with them in charge.”
Los Angeles environmentalists are, in fact, deeply divided over Playa Vista. Aside from one organization called Friends of Ballona Wetlands, almost no local group actively supports the project. The coalition opposing Playa Vista includes the Sierra Club (the Los Angeles chapter has 45,000 members), CALPIRG (60,000 members), and the Surfrider Foundation (25,000 members). But many of the coalition’s most active groups have much smaller memberships, and conspicuous by their absence are such mainstream groups as the National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and even Heal the Bay. Hayden and the coalition’s Hanscom suggest that these groups shun the coalition for fear of angering Spielberg and other potential donors—a charge the groups deny. A more mundane explanation is that many environmentalists believe the battle against Playa Vista is a lost cause.
“They’re fighting to save a garbage dump, and that time and money could be spent doing more valuable things,” declares Richard Epps, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Audubon Society.
Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney at NRDC’s Los Angeles office, says, “We’re watching [Playa Vista] very closely. NRDC sees itself getting involved in phase two, when it’s more clear what the project will be like.”
The problem is, by the time phase two is under way, there could be some two dozen apartment buildings on the site and it will be too late to stop the project.
As in so many modern environmental disputes, the Playa Vista controversy has split activists into two camps: those who refuse to compromise with the developers and those who believe cooperation can make a bad situation tolerable. For example, Ruth Lansford, co-founder and president of Friends of Ballona Wetlands, argues that some development is inevitable, so activists should work to make it as environmentally benign as possible. Lansford led the fight in the 1980s to block an even more disruptive real estate project slated for Ballona. In 1990, Friends settled its lawsuit against the developers in exchange for restoration of the wetlands as part of a scaled-back development plan. The Friends retained the right to oppose future projects that adversely affected the wetlands, but signed away the right to criticize Playa Vista’s impact on traffic or air pollution.
“I think Ruth did want to save all the wetlands,” says Hanscom, “but she settled for too little [in 1990]. She became a victim of the typical developer’s strategy in these kinds of situations: Take the idealists and turn them into realists, turn the realists into opportunists, and never talk to the radicals like us.”
Lansford contends that today’s Playa Vista is a reasonable compromise, and says the legal triumph over the marsh that opponents scored last June was a Pyrrhic victory because it only halted wetlands restoration, not the larger development. “Thanks to these ill-informed zealots, restoration of the wetlands now must wait, while phase one of Playa Vista gets built,” she says.
“That argument presupposes that some development is better than none and that the sump pond the developer calls a freshwater marsh will actually work,” responds Crandall. “But the supposed freshwater marsh is really, as Judge Lew wrote in his ruling, a retention basin for the development’s storm and flood water, a concept that one of the developer’s own biologists has criticized as ‘biologically unsound and meaningless.’
“Our problem is not that the June decision wasn’t a victory,” he adds, “but that the project might get built before the new environmental impact study can be completed. I think that’s Playa Capital’s strategy: Get the houses up and the infrastructure installed as soon as possible and make the project impractical to reverse.”
Every party to the Playa Vista dispute except DreamWorks agrees on one point: In an ideal world, the Ballona wetlands and the surrounding area would become a nature preserve and public park. Where the parties disagree is whether such a scenario is plausible.
In 1975, the California Coastal Commission, the agency charged with regulating coastal development, recommended that the land be bought for public use. But in 1991, new commissioners approved phase one of Playa Vista. Peter Douglas, the commission’s executive director, says that public purchase of Ballona “would be wonderful.” But, he adds, it does not appear likely, despite California’s 1998 budget surplus of $4.4 billion. Wilson allocated $1.4 billion of that to tax cuts for citizens even as he vetoed $124 million in environmental spending.
Even Playa Capital’s environmental affairs director, Lisa Weil, does not dispute that, from an environmental point of view, Ballona would be better off as open land. “In an ideal world, yes, we’d like to restore it to its original state,” says Weil. “But is the funding realistically available? No.” (Weil has since left Playa Capital.)
Hayden responds: “If [she’s] speaking officially, [she] should call me and I guarantee we’ll put a bill in to raise the money through the bond process tomorrow. I mean, come on. They’re destroying [this land], and their last line of defense is blaming us for not buying it. But it’s not for sale!”
Noting that the California legislature is putting up $230 million to buy the Headwaters Forest and other areas in Northern California’s Humboldt County, Hayden argues that the political will exists to buy valuable ecosystems like the Ballona wetlands. He half-jokingly suggests that the DreamWorks partners, with their enormous personal fortunes, could themselves buy the Ballona property for the public. But in fact, the Playa Vista opponents want the land bought with a combination of public and private funds, which could include the $53 million in city and state subsidies already on the table for Playa Vista.
A key point, says Hayden, is that DreamWorks could still make its home on the site: “I don’t have any problem with a studio going in there. Something has to go in the old Hughes site. But they don’t need all those condos in there.”
“If DreamWorks wanted to turn this situation into a win, they could lead the campaign to buy that land for the public,” says CUSAB’s Robertson. “If Spielberg, Geffen, and Katzenberg put up seed money for the purchase, and encouraged others in both the private and public sectors to follow suit, it would happen. And those guys would be remembered forever in the history of Los Angeles as heroes.”