Enviros Can Kill Marsh, but not Playa Vista 

Wednesday, Jul 22 1998
Here's a good example of the law of unintended consequences.

You may have read how U.S. District Judge Ronald Lew's decision earlier this month that halted grading at the future Playa Vista site actually applies only to 16.1 acres of "permitted area" - that is, an area in which no building was ever planned. By staying the developers' obligation to grade and re-vegetate this relatively tiny plot, the decision may just speed up the entire project, and make it less ecologically sound.

What hasn't been stressed, though, is who was responsible for Lew's decision and its consequences. In fact, it was Ballona Wetlands Trust, the Malibu-based coalition that takes an uncompromisingly "anti" stance on the Playa Vista development. Via the outcome of its litigation, the Trust has now managed to score a touchdown for the opposing team, the developers of the (maximum) 29,000-resident project. The disputed 16 acres were intended to be part of an environmental showpiece, a re-creation with native, instead of modern, plant and animal species of the original Ballona freshwater wetlands. Lew's decision did not affect the vast commercial development at all. But it did hold up the 16-acre restoration, based on the Trustafarians' opposition to this proposal, pending more proof of its validity.

Most of the financial interests behind the Playa Vista project have protested Lew's decision, wanting to look like environmental good guys. But the mitigation that's now on hold wasn't their idea, anyway; it was a key, costly condition of the Ballona compromise - now so excoriated by the Wetlands Trust - that traded the promise of environmental alleviation for permits to build commercial and residential units elsewhere on the property. You can't imagine the developers are deeply hurt now that they can build their entire project on selected portions of the remaining 1,000-plus acres, only with fewer ecological givebacks.

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The Trustafarians now largely appear to accept the narrow scope of Lew's ruling. Bully for them. (Actually, I'm told that before they realized the ruling applied only to the 16 acres, the Trusters visited the site and tried to get the LAPD to stop the ongoing construction work. They were politely informed that this was a federal-court matter, while their wandering on the site constituted trespass, which was LAPD business. They left.)

The law is indeed capricious, true justice may only be found in heaven, and this case's outcome shows precisely how badly ill-conceived litigation can misfire. I'm not privy to Trustafarian councils, but unleashing the Playa Vista build-out looks like the opposite of what they've always said they were after. They may deserve this outcome, but do we?

Apart from their fantasy of turning all Playa Vista into parkland, the chief difference between the Trusters and other environmental groups is over a specific portion of that Ballona-wetlands compromise. The earlier, Friends-of-Ballona generation of environmentalists favored - and settled for - a freshwater-wetland-restoration proposal approximating in size the 70-or-so acres of swamps that existed there in recent decades. The Trusters, as I read their saner arguments, want to re-create a saltwater marsh that they claim existed in centuries past over a much larger area. A contingent difference is that the original Ballonists want only native California species on the restored site. Paradoxically, the Trusters who favor the older configuration seem to also want to save every plant and animal that's moved in since.

There's much to be said for either point of view, so there are grounds here for a very cogent ecological debate; but the Trusters seem determined that it never be waged on its own terms. Instead, they claim that the freshwater alternative would be a sellout - quoting J. William Gibson in last week's Weekly, "a sump for toxic storm water that would overflow into the [I guess he means adjacent] saltwater marsh."

I'm not sure what's meant by "toxic" storm water - the stuff rains pretty clean and only picks up the maximum of toxics as it flows through sewers into the sea. Wetlands have been absorbing much of the Earth's storm water for hundreds of millions of years. Natural "sumps" are what wetlands are and what they've always been. And how do you keep any marshland from overflowing, once it's saturated? Build a big wall?

But Lew bought the Trusters' argument. While the full project steamrolls along, a crucial chunk of the wetlands is in limbo. Gibson writes that the Trustafarians are now pondering whether to halt the Frankenstein monster they've created by the extreme measure of appealing the decision they themselves evoked. With that object in mind, they might even find some common ground with the environmentalist "enemies" whom they've vilified on this troubled project. And assume some culpability for what they and their sanctimonious allies - the local Sierra Club and CalPIRG chapters - have now managed to accomplish at Playa Vista.

Together at Last

Dick Riordan and Courtney Love? What, them at it again? Seriously, it was a great celebrity week for our luminary-maddened mayor. On Wednesday, Milton Berle celebrated his 90th birthday in City Hall's council chamber, where he made friends of us all by refusing to let Mayor Riordan tell a joke. On Bastille Day, Love walked in, with Riordan, to announce the return to Los Angeles of the long-absent MTV awards.

Had anyone noticed they were gone? Or where they'd gone to . . . Omaha? Billings? Grand Rapids? But then I wouldn't have even noticed that the Grammys themselves had left Los Angeles if New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani hadn't made such a public fool of himself last winter in the process of kicking them out of the Big Apple. And back to our fair city.

Maybe I lost interest in such events because, years ago, I used to have to spend so much time attending them. It actually wasn't much fun. Back then, the promoters usually meted out to lowly radio stringers like myself only slightly better treatment than the Sheriff's Department gives to unruly inmates. The event mongers generally locked you away from all the decent food and action, in an airless backroom where you watched the proceedings on dinky TVs. Then they dragged in the unluckiest of the winners - after their innings with the television people and the national press - to say a few sullen words to and maybe answer some leftover questions from us tertiary news schleppers.

That was how it went when things went well. They did not go well at my last music-awards night, where some idiot impresario had confused radio reporters with paparazzi. So both media were herded together outside the auditorium, well beyond the velvet ropes and way out of mike range, by a regiment of blood-lusty security guards.

This was way back in the '80s, but even then, I knew I was getting too old for this stuff. As a glittery couple ran their gauntlet of camera flashes, I wanted to know, "Who is that weird tyke on Sophia Loren's arm?" just as the young photographer on my right asked, "Who's that woman with Michael Jackson?"

I was happy to let my antiquity - along with the network's outrage that I didn't get shot or clubbed that night in pursuit of their exclusive soundbite of the Gloved One - end my days on the entertainment circuit. So last week, I laughed at Uncle Miltie (a familiar face from those days) in the council chamber and passed on Riordan and Love's MTV happening.

What would it have taken to get me out to see it? Maybe a promise that Dick and Courtney were going to sing "I Got You Babe." Or that the sometime lead singer of Hole would debut a new acoustic album - with or without Riordan's backup vocals - called Courtney Love Sings Songs of Courtly Love. Fa La La La La.

A Thought for This Week

Uttered by the Budget and Finance Committee chair, city councilman and freelance ontologist Richard Alatorre, during heated deliberations on pending bond issues:

"That argument no longer ceases to exist."

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