Contact: Jeanette Vosburg
Sunday, June 17, 2001
Make Playa Vista a Park
By J. WILLIAM GIBSON
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
Nearly 75 years ago, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was transfixed by the Ballona Wetlands. In his never-realized design of a countywide system of parks and roadways, he envisioned the westside marsh as a two-mile-long,1,000-acre bird refuge connected to a 430-acre,
six-mile-long park running along Ballona Creek. The area would become "one of the great recreation features of the world," Olmsted believed.
Today, when L.A. has only about one acre of parkland and open space per 1,000 residents (the National Recreation and Park Assn. recommends closer to 10 acres per 1,000 residents), the City Council is on the verge of financing a huge development on Ballona that will profit a few. Worse,council members will use public money to do it.
With little publicity, the council is rushing toward giving Playa Capital Co., a development firm backed by the New York-based investment banks of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Goldman Sachs and other partners, $168.6 million in taxpayer subsidies. The money will be used to build Playa Vista, a community of some 13,000 residences, up to 5 million square feet of commercial space for 21,000 workers, a 1,050-room hotel and a marina for 750 boats. About 30,000 residents will live in the largest "in-fill" project in U.S. history.
The developer says that the project will save about 190 acres of saltwater marsh. But some environmental experts contend that a project the size of Playa Vista cannot peacefully coexist with the proposed wetlands.
Playa Vista's chief lobbyist is attorney Lisa Specht, who helped Mayor-elect James K. Hahn raised campaign funds. Playa Capital shelled out $789,000 in lobbying expenses last year to speed the approval process. Apparently, it was money well spent.
On Tuesday, the council will vote on issuing $33.6 million in tax-exempt housing bonds to help build the 705-unit Fountain Park apartments, the first residences planned for Playa Vista. The project qualifies for the subsidy because the developer is setting aside 458 apartments for low-and moderate-income people. The council is also expected to vote on issuing $135 million in tax-exempt Mello-Roos "community facilities" bonds, the first installment on the $428 million needed to build Playa Vista's infrastructure.
In 1995 and 1996, when Los Angeles was mired in recession, city officials looked to Playa Vista as an economic savior. When DreamWorks SKG announced it would build a hi-tech campus there, Mayor Richard Riordan rejoiced, "It is the biggest business win that any city has ever had. .... Our economy is vibrant, our future is great."
To pave the way to the future, city officials put together a huge package of subsidies and rewrote city regulations to
allow Mello-Roos bonds to be used for projects other than regionally significant infrastructure like schools and major roads. When DreamWorks SKG abandoned its Playa Vista plans in 1999, city officials again rewrote the rules. Playa Vista maintained its Mello-Roos exemptions because it created "extraordinary public benefits," especially affordable housing.
But does it? At what costs? According to calculations made by the Citizens for Tax Justice in Washington, the $73.6 million in tax-exempt housing bonds will cost the state of California and the federal government $55.8 million in lost income-tax revenues over the next 30 years. The $428 million in community facilities bonds will eventually drain $324.5 million from state and federal treasuries, according to the center. Playa Vista's developers are thus receiving more than $380 million in indirect public subsidies. Direct subsidies--such as roadwork paid for by Caltrans and other infrastructure assistance from L.A. for streets, water and power--amount to an additional $53 million.
This money will benefit many more than just the poor. Last year, the city hired Harris Realty Appraisal to analyze Playa Vista's financial prospects. The appraisers noted that 15% of the project's residences were slotted for the poor, but that is not what made them think Playa Vista would become successful. "With an average price of $400,000 for dwellings in Playa Vista," they stressed, "buyers will generally have incomes in excess of $125,000 per household." By Harris' calculations, about one-tenth of L.A. households earn that kind of money. Renters at Playa Vista will lower that income average, but monthly rents for units planned so far will run $1,425 for a studio, $2,575 for a three-bedroom studio. Those prices far exceed what most working-and middle-class families can afford. If Playa Vista is built, the project will become yet another upper-and upper-middle-class beach town.
That fact alone--that we'd be using $433 million in taxpayer money to build another affluent beach town--should be enough to cause the City Council to slow down and reconsider awarding subsidies. But there are other important reasons not to rush ahead.
In April 2000, a consultant hired by the Department of Building and Safety reported that methane gas posed a major threat at Playa Vista. The city formed an interagency task force to investigate. The task force then hired Playa Capital's consultants to do almost all the additional fieldwork and propose mitigation measures. Unsurprisingly, the March 1 report says all gas dangers can be mitigated.
Just how extensive the methane sources are, whether there are other toxics on the site and whether the city will be liable for any damages caused by gas explosions or toxics are questions that remain to be resolved. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control has criticized the city's study, indicating that the city failed to perform "an ecological risk assessment" and did not explain what levels of methane gas and toxics would be exposed to residents. At recent public hearings, environmentalists have intimated that they will ikely challenge the most recent report on the ground that the city illegally deviated from the California Environmental Quality Act, which sets out a formal review process for performing environmental impact reports.
Rather than create another affluent enclave along the coast, the council should consider a very different future for the city's last large open space and the county's only wetlands. Los Angeles should exercise its right of eminent domain and join with the state and federal governments to buy the land for the public good. Last year, Playa Vista was listed as worth $135 million on the county's tax rolls. State and federal funds are available to help with the purchase. Some $25 million is already on the table thanks to Proposition 12, the parks bond. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are another possible funding source: They have to pay into a mitigation fund every time they expand. (In 1997, the ports contributed $66 million to help buy and restore 880 acres of wetlands at Bolsa Chica.) The federal government's Land and Water Conservation Fund, financed by oil and gas leases off the nation's coasts, has billions available to help create parkland.
This spring, the state of California obtained control of 73 acres of Ballona, and efforts are underway in Sacramento to transfer the land to the parks department. It's a good beginning.
Last month, a national study found that Los Angeles is the most congested city in the nation, with Angelenos spending an average of 56 hours a year stuck in traffic. Turning 1,087 acres of Ballona into a park along the lines that Olmsted envisioned would certainly go a long way toward making L.A. a more livable city.
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J. William Gibson Is a Professor of Sociology at Cal State
Long Beach and Author of "Warrior Dreams: Violence and
Manhood in Post-vietnam America."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)