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Enviro groups lose it at Playa Vista Wetlands 

Wednesday, Sep 2 1998
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I'd really hate to have to forgo the affectionate mail I get every time I write about the Ballona Wetlands/Playa Vista controversy. But it seems I can stop beating this particular dead horse for a while. Since the anti-Playa forces' wrong-way win in federal court - provoking a decision that halted wetlands conservation at Playa Vista but let construction go full speed ahead - the Save-All-Ballona crowd have been placed, to put it modestly, on the defensive.

And the news from the bench is only accelerating. On August 21, U.S. District Judge Ronald Lew, who ruled in favor of the original anti-Playa suit, denied a motion by the plaintiffs, CALPIRG-Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, to expand the 16 acres Lew had set aside for study as a restoration. A week later, the defendant Playa Vista developers' appeal of Lew's June ruling, which seeks to erase any cloud of judicial intervention, was put on the appellate-court fast track.

The path may be convoluted, but there is some measure of justice in this judicial crisscross. To quote Times columnist Robert A. Jones, "[T]he campaign to 'Save Ballona' amounts to a big lie. A big lie that already has managed to cripple some of the restoration of Ballona and could scuttle it altogether."

True enough, but this big lie could do even worse than that. Here's the background: 15 years ago, the land in question belonged to the Summa Corp., a.k.a. the estate of Howard Hughes. Summa wanted a Playa Vista development that would have been about as ecologically friendly as Rockefeller Center. The Friends of Ballona Wetlands, after a heroic round of resistance, managed to strike a deal that preserved 30 percent of this land, including all the wetlands. It also got the project scaled down dramatically.

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    Tonight, everyone is Howard Hughes. Or at least, 20 people at a time get to be him, standing in his old office in Playa Vista, with the original mahogany paneling on the walls, a 20-cent issue of Life magazine on the velvet couch and typewritten correspondence on Hughes Aircraft Company...

Now come the Trustafarians, in their many guises, to say this is not good enough. Their misfired lawsuit was intended to halt all development, so the Trustafarians could grab the entire property to make a nature preserve. Nice Idea. But talk about The Impossible Dream.

If it were somehow stopped, developer Playa Capital would be financially obliged to turn the entire tract over to a fresh gang of capitalists. The Trustafarians - I call them that because they have tended to call themselves and their alleged adherent groups Earth Trusts, Land Trusts and so forth - say that if Playa Vista bows out, they'll intervene and somehow raise the up to $500 million needed to buy the entire place for a park. That's around a $140 contribution from every one of the 3.6 million men, women and children in Los Angeles. All for a Westside park many of them will never see. Do tell us another one.

Trust, of course, means unswerving belief. It's an attractive locution: That's why it is so copiously abused. It was once used to describe the industrial monopolies - the Beef Trusts, the Oil Trusts - that killed competition, fixed prices and lowered product quality. Now it's the Land Trust and all its sometime little trusts.

For 25 years, whatever you thought of their goals, you could usually trust environmental activists to get their facts straight - unlike the big companies and government agencies they opposed. The "tree huggers" were right about air and water pollution, about nuclear energy, recycling, the need to conserve. The rest of the world has finally begun to listen.

At Ballona, however, we see this credibility pattern reversed. The "environmentalists" now make the incredible claims, while the developers, of all people, seem to be telling the truth. Now, it's one thing when the Ballona Trustafarian posturers strangle reality by claiming - as Jones pointed out, purely for the sake of the publicity it generates - that Steven Spielberg is behind the Ballona development. Or that all 1,087 acres of the Playa Vista property are necessary to the survival of the wetlands. It's quite another when formerly legitimate, trustworthy organizations like CALPIRG, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace endorse these lies out of mere fellow-traveling softheadedness and what seems like a knee-jerk resentment of people who wear suits.

Wendy Wendlandt, the political director for CALPIRG in Los Angeles, holds to the notion that the Friends of Ballona compromise gave too much away, as does Rose MacHardy of the Sierra Club Ballona Wetland Task Force. "The paltry 160 acres is not enough," MacHardy declares. "It would not do the job of preserving the wetlands."

But these are easy judgments, arrived at late in the game, formed more from allegiance than through the hard process of negotiation that went before. And they come at a cost.

Because these well-recognized public institutions have associated themselves with the Trustafarians' falsehoods, now you can't believe anything they say about anything. And a quarter-century of trust - the real, original thing, not the capitalized, proper-noun kind - is suddenly being forfeited by a movement that's done more than any other to change the face of America for the better in the last generation.

Little Buses

This summer marks the 13th anniversary of one of the Tom Bradley administration's least-acclaimed major accomplishments: the Downtown Area Short Hop - DASH, for short - bus service. This municipal operation kicked off in 1985 with the help of the USC marching band (complete with gold-tone plastic Trojan helmets) and lots of colored balloons. Balloons, you may recall, were big in those days.

DASH has changed the way we get around downtown. It used to be that if you went from City Hall to, say, ARCO Plaza, your choice was a hot, hustling, half-hour walk, a slow, expensive RTD bus ride, or taking your car and then trying to expense $8 worth of parking.

Nowadays, you just fish out a quarter, hop on a well-upholstered, air-conditioned DASH busette with a friendly young driver, and off you go. The city owns the minibuses and contracts their operation. The routes are determined by demand. The project's been so successful that DASH lines are now popping up all over town - in South L.A., Hollywood, the Eastside and Fairfax, for instance, courtesy of Proposition A and Proposition C local sales-tax subsidies. The system seems to please everyone, except the transit unions (DASH pays its drivers less than United Transportation Union scale) and the downtown parking mongers. DASH may be L.A.'s only new mass-transit success story so far: The MTA could learn a lot from it about how cheaply and efficiently you can carry more than 50,000 people a day across Los Angeles.

Last week, however, as the City Council considered awarding some new DASH operating contracts, I got a scarier take on the story. It had to do with operating safety.

The disclosures came during the debate over the suitability of two DASH contractors - one the locally- and minority-owned APT, which has run the Crenshaw DASH routes, the other a subsidiary of the international Laidlaw Corp., which also has had the contract for a number of routes. Both firms have friends on the council. At the end of the day, Laidlaw lost out to a firm named ATE/Ryder, while APT is still in the running for its route pending a further committee hearing. But on the basis of the reports delivered last week, it sounded like neither firm should have won.

Councilman Joel Wachs stressed certain staff findings. Laidlaw had been skipping more than 1,000 scheduled trips per month. It was on schedule just half the time. As for APT, most of the tested buses it operated flunked surprise inspections: They suffered from brake, steering and other major problems and were immediately pulled out of service. Laidlaw's mechanical record wasn't much different. Wachs suggested that it might be time for the city to seek more responsible contractors.

Phil Aker, the city Department of Transportation (DOT) planner in charge of the DASH (you want to call it the DOT-DASH) program, later told me that APT is a tiny outfit with limited resources. Laidlaw, on the other hand, is a much larger firm whose performance has shown a long slide, he said. ATE/Ryder, the company taking over Laidlaw's routes, he added, seems to have a better service operation, and he also noted that DOT's automated vehicle-maintenance system is just now coming online.

This is good news. Buses are such humble transportation that we take their safety for granted. We shouldn't. I still remember putting two teenage friends on a southbound bus in Ensenada years ago. They became two of the handful of survivors of a plunge off a narrow road that killed 40 fellow passengers. During its 13 lucky years, DASH has had a prodigiously low injury record. But then, we downtown DASH users may have just been lucky that there aren't too many narrow roads or precipices between ARCO Plaza and City Hall.

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