A recent California Supreme Court decision opens the doors for developers to proceed with the 111-acre Village at Playa Vista. This second phase of the master planned community has been stalled for years as neighborhood and environmental groups challenged the EIR process in court. TPR spoke with Patti Sinclair, Co-President of Playa Capital, the owner and master planner of Playa Vista, to discuss how the development has remained focused through the litigation process and what amenities Playa Vista and the surrounding communities can expect in the coming years.
"I’ve found that a responsible developer will more often than not, at least in my experience, sit down and try to work out a serious environmental concern. You’re going to have to coexist with neighbors, and it makes more sense to be a part of the community and to be a good neighbor than it does to leave a lot of scorched earth around your project." -Patti Sinclair
Patti, as Co-President of Playa Capital, the owner and master planner of Playa Vista, what is your reaction to the California Supreme Court’s recent decision not to hear a second challenge to the EIR for the second phase of Playa.
Patti Sinclair: We are delighted. It means that the shopping center, other amenities, and the additional increments of housing can finally be built. The community here has been waiting for a retail center, our second community center, and additional housing for a number of years. People who live at Playa Vista want to stay at Playa Vista. But with growing families, they need more housing options. The conclusion of a very long legal process means we can move forward with a plan that this Phase 1 residential community has overwhelmingly supported.
Please bring our readers up to date on Playa Vista: the project, Phases 1 and 2.
When I came to Playa Capital Company in the fall of 2000, Playa Vista was literally hundreds of acres of dirt with a lot of wonderful plans. Today the first phase residential area has over 3000 residential units, everything from very low, low and moderate-income rentals to workforce housing to high-end housing. We have a science and math-focused public elementary school opening in August of this year, K-5, in partnership with Loyola Marymount University’s School of Education. We have a public library, a fire station, and a full complement of parks, including an 8-acre sports park, a Discovery Center honoring the natural history of the area as well as the Native American heritage of the area, and a small amount of retail uses that serve the daily needs of the folks who live at Playa Vista.
What the community has been missing is a larger retail center, particularly a grocery store, a pharmacy, more restaurant choices, and some other retailers. That is the key feature planned to define the Village of Playa Vista, which is immediately to the east of the Phase 1 residential area.
Moving further to the east, the Campus of Playa Vista, which some people call the "Entertainment, Media, and Technology District," has been growing as well. There is about 1 million square feet of new office space in the Campus of Playa Vista, along with about 600,000 square feet of historic buildings that the Ratkovich Company is renovating and reusing for entertainment, media, and technology uses. The folks in those buildings, both the new office space and the historic renovation space, have also been looking for retail amenities.
In the Campus we also have four parks, the biggest of which is Campus Central Park, which has a band shell for a summer concert and movie series that is attended not only by people who live at Playa Vista, but also the surrounding community. It’s free and open to the public. We’ve had a number of concerts with over a thousand people in attendance.
It’s a growing community, and it’s a thriving community. We just need to complete it.
Patti, you joined Playa Vista more than a decade ago as a lawyer, and you’re now it’s Co-President. Elaborate on the legal issues that have been so central to the implementation of the project’s master plan and that have entangled for more than a decade this master-planned development project?
The Playa Vista project has been the subject of about 20 lawsuits, the last one successfully resolved by the California Supreme Court refusing to hear the case last month. The majority of those suits have been under the California Environmental Quality Act; we also have had various and sundry other administrative-type challenges. Whether it’s the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, Subdivision Map Act cases, or a Brown Act case, we’ve experienced the full panoply of cases that you get when you have entrenched opponents that will use litigation as a tool to slow down or, if they get everything they want, stop, the project. They haven’t been successful in stopping Playa Vista, but they have certainly made it a very long and cumbersome process.
As we’ve discussed in interviews with Playa Vista’s former president, Steve Soboroff, and his predecessors, how have more than ten years of litigation affected what’s being built at Playa?
Well, the Village that was reapproved and upheld by the California Supreme Court is the same Village envisioned in the Notice of Preparation that was filed to institute the Village approval process in 2002. So with respect to the Village, all the opponents have done is delay, and cause us to spend time and money to defend the project. I think the broader question with the property really was the State transaction, which closed in 2003, and the mainstream environmental community was very involved in that transaction. That transaction was really not caused by litigation, but it did reflect an awareness that there was a desire in this part of Los Angeles to preserve more of the original 1087 acres as open space than the mid-90s Master Plan envisioned.
I don’t think it’s the litigation that has shaped the project, as much as a sentiment from the mainstream environmental community, including local neighboring environmentalists, like the Friends of Ballona Wetlands, who really worked with us to champion the property west of Lincoln Boulevard and north of Ballona Channel to remain open space in perpetuity.
That being said, it’s apparent from past TPR interviews that it’s been very difficult for the developer, Playa Capital, to make development modifications to reflect input from the community or even to offer better design because of litigation fears. Is this actually true?
Yes and no. You are right that when you have land use documents that include conditions of approval and clearly defined mitigation measures, it is extremely difficult to alter them. A great example of the point you’re making is the Playa Vista Bridge. The first phase approvals originally envisioned Playa Vista Drive going over the Ballona Channel, with a bridge that would connect with Culver Boulevard. But when we did the State transaction, the property between Ballona Channel and Culver Boulevard was a part of the State transaction, and nobody wanted that Bridge improvement.
Frankly, given the scope of the development after the State transaction, in 2004 and going forward, you didn’t need that improvement for traffic reasons. As part of the State legislature's approval of the State transaction, there was a specific provision that permitted that traffic improvement to no longer occur.
Once you have the entitlements, even if conditions change and sentiment changes, you pretty much have to build the plans as originally conceived. Every time we’ve made changes around here, depending on what the changes are, we’ve had to examine whether an opponent would look at this and say, “You need a Supplemental EIR because you’ve changed the project!”
Patti, you clearly have become a tested expert in the EIR process in California. What should readers of TPR know about the strengths and weaknesses of the EIR laws of California?
I recently appeared on a panel with some of the folks involved in the Farmer’s Field legislation as well as Senator Padilla, and we spoke about two CEQA streamlining bills approved last year. The first was the Farmer’s Field bill, and the second was the bill that streamlines the litigation process for projects that are particularly powerful job creators. One of the interesting things that came out of those discussions was an apparent realization in Sacramento that CEQA has moved far from its original purpose in becoming a tool for stopping projects, even ones that not only the development community, but also many members of the environmental community, would like to see move forward.
Urban infill is a great example because you often end up operating in an environment where it is pretty easy to trip over a cumulative impact. From a broader environmental perspective, most planners would prefer to see development in an urban infill setting as opposed to a green field setting. You’ve got this tension between what is good environmental and development policy on a broader scale versus the interests of a particular group—often neighbors—who want to use CEQA to either keep the development out of their neighborhood or extract concessions completely unrelated to environmental issues.
Is the reliance on the EIR process by project opponents, most often neighbors, a statement on the absence of other means of getting these mitigation discussions started? Could project mitigations, done with well-written community plans with zoning, offer a better alternative to reliance on EIR process lawsuits?
Yes and no. Often the community planning process is driven by, for example, the City of Los Angeles. When you have a real developer sitting at the table with a real project, the imperatives change. The opportunity for a request to be made that wouldn’t fall neatly into a nexus pattern is there. The dynamic for the discussion is different when you have a particular developer with a particular project that is going through the EIR process.
That said, there are circumstances where environmentalists do step forward at the general plan or community plan level, and they have been able to achieve changes, although often those changes are more broad land use changes as opposed to funding for a particular project or a commitment to a particular improvement.
You’ve mentioned how the dynamic between community, developer, and city changes when you have a financially capable developer at the table negotiating on a project. May we assume that this is especially true at a time when the public sector is without resources? Allow TPR to ask again: Is there a better land use or project approval mechanism for infill development than is presently in place in the City of Los Angeles? Do you have a recommendation?
I actually believe that there is a role for environmental review in projects. The issue with our current EIR process is not the concept—to consider the impact of a project on the environment as part of deciding whether or not to approve it—it’s rather the strange directions that process has taken. One of the suggestions made, and one of the opportunities that is in the Farmer’s Field legislation, is if a community group wants to step forward before the EIR is completed to mediate opportunities for additional mitigation measures or conditions of approval that might satisfy that entity’s interest, that could be a way to go.
I’ve found that a responsible developer will more often than not, at least in my experience, sit down and try to work out a serious environmental concern. You’re going to have to coexist with neighbors, and it makes more sense to be a part of the community and to be a good neighbor than it does to leave a lot of scorched earth around your project.
What’s been difficult with the CEQA process recently is that you can satisfy the concerns of the overwhelming majority of community members, and they can be overwhelmingly in support of your project, but three people with a word processor and enough money to pay a filing fee can stop or make a very long process out of approving projects that will solve problems, like transportation problems or reusing a former industrial site.
Is a consequence of the long and litigious, multi-decade development process for Playa Vista yet another red flag for other large-scale developers wanting to develop a master plan community in Los Angeles? Is it simply easier to fly under the radar screen and do one-off projects as opposed to offering up for public review a target: a master planned project?
It may be easier, but I’m not sure that it’s smarter. Playa Vista’s size garnered attention but also permitted us to be one of the first and highest quality smart growth projects in California, and I think we are widely recognized as such. That size allows you to do things that cannot be done on a "one-off" project basis. For example, we created a shuttle system that serves not only our community, but also takes people back and forth to the beach and other local destinations. A five hundred-unit apartment complex cannot afford that sort of thing. The size of Playa Vista let us create an incredible privately maintained park system that is available to the general public and is used widely by the community.
It probably is easier to get the entitlements for a smaller project, but you also can’t implement the vision on a smaller project that something of the size and scale of Playa Vista allows you to achieve. From a planner’s perspective, the larger project is the preferable project because it permits you to integrate jobs, housing, and walkability into the community.
Let’s conclude with your projections for Playa Vista Phase 2, which now has been green-lighted by the California Supreme Court. What will be built and when?
The first two projects breaking ground this summer include the Runway project, which is about 200,000 square feet of retail, 420 apartment units, and 25,000 square feet of office space. It is designed to provide the community with a grocery store, movie theater, pharmacy, additional restaurants, retail opportunities, as well as housing in a mixed-use setting.
The second project that will break ground this summer is immediately west of the Runway mixed-use retail center, and that is our second community center. Our Phase 1 residential area, which houses our CenterPointe Club, which has athletic facilities as well as significant meeting facilities, needed more gym and pool space. The second community center will provide this to all of the residents, whether in Phase 1 or the Village.
The next thing that is on the drawing boards is bringing some more senior and assisted living housing to the community. The plan is for 200 units of assisted living housing in the Village in addition to, of course, the Sunrise assisted living facility that’s in Phase 1. There are 2600 units of residential housing in the Village, and 420 of those are in the retail/mixed-use center. The balance will be developed in the Phase 2 area as we move through the property.
There are several additional parks that are coming in the Village, and there is a Link park that we’re very excited about that will run along Millennium Drive, which is the southern edge of the Runway retail center. Someone, in addition to being able to walk along the Riparian Corridor trail to get from the west end to the very east end of the Campus, can also take this Link park walking path with all the way from the western Phase 1 portion of Playa Vista down to the Campus portion. It’s an alternate walking or biking route.
Let’s close with you painting us a picture of what’s happened to that Howard Hughes industrial airport property over the last ten years. And going to the next ten, what will have happened? It will have gone from dirt to what?
It will have gone from some abandoned industrial buildings to rehabilitated historic buildings. Even as we’re sitting here today, these buildings are actively being used in the entertainment industry. There will be a mixed-use community with dozens of parks recognized as amenities for the surrounding areas, and not only for the people that live at Playa Vista. There will be homes for roughly 12,000 people and 3 million square feet of office space catering to the entertainment, media, and technology tenant sector. We’ll have transitioned from an abandoned industrial facility to a mixed-use community that serves a broad range of incomes and serves a broad cross section of Los Angeles in an area that hasn’t seen that kind of opportunity for decades.
Now that you’ve won all these cases, how do you find a challenge that will be the equal?
It’s very exciting for this project to finally come out of the ground in its final phase. Like the people who live here, this has been a very long road for the Playa Vista team and me. We’re all excited to be able to finally build it after all these years.
And next for you?
I would very much like to take a vacation.