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Squinting at the Future 

Playa Vista is the Westside's housing of tomorrow

Wednesday, Sep 30 1998
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No one really wants the future anymore. It certainly wasn't always thus. I was raised on the future's Jetsonian pledges: commercial space travel, personal air cars, picture-frame TVs on walls. And its threats: first, the Red menace and total nuclear annihilation, and then an ecological doom that somehow included California's falling off the continent.

From the '30s through the '70s, Americans thought of almost nothing but the future. Now that a new millennium's almost here, though, we seem to have turned our collective back on issues like: What must we do to improve public transportation? And where will we put all the hundreds of thousands of new Angelenos who are expected to show up over the next 20 years?

I wondered about this last week at Playa Vista, where some reporters were shown models and drawings and heard architects extol their plans to develop all over that wondrous landscape. I remembered the original promises of a new community attractive enough to be a destination of its own. Playa was supposed to meld its populations - renters, small-condo buyers and homeowners - into an amenity-studded context something like an ideal Italian hill town with easy freeway access.

Oh, yes. It's also supposed, in the end, to house more than 20,000 people in 13,085 units. There are cities in this county smaller than that.

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Playa Vista may never be that big: Only 3,246 units are now authorized, and about one-fourth that many are now being built. So most of the project awaits authorization. But the presentation showed what's really at stake and helped explain the Playa promoters' persistence. Let's leave out, for the nonce, any consideration of the 3-million-square-foot commercial and industrial components, which may be worth even more. But with full residential buildout, the housing itself, if we fix an average price of between $400,000 and $500,000 a non-rental unit, could bring gross sales revenues approaching $5 billion. This is Pentagon-style money: No wonder those Playa insiders have been hanging in for this long, hard haul. For many months, it appeared that internal dissension among partners and the resolution of a lawsuit might stop the show. As of last week, however, the developers seem to have settled their differences by pushing founding partner Robert Maguire into a subsidiary role. So the only question at hand was, did the planners' proposals live up to the promises?

Hard to say. There are a lot of trade-offs going on. Marketing V.P. Kenneth Agid, the Playa presentation's floor manager, kept talking about how the architects tried to avoid "the red-tile-roofs" cliches of south Orange County. Yes, they have. But despite good use of interior space, they haven't quite eluded the classic condo-development footprint, which tends to exclude as much as include.

I love to hear architects talk. But what they were offering as "a celebration of the history of Los Angeles architecture" was in reality more eclectic and less interesting than that. One complex, supposedly inspired by Gianni Versace's Miami villa, flaunted the fantasy turret-spiral staircase architecture indigenous to fairy tales. While there were a locally inspired row of separated town homes a la the Silver Strand and a condo court reminiscent of Bullocks Wilshire, complete with copper spire, a clutch of cheaper condos with downstairs stores evoked the international "Spanish Flats" style of a century ago. There was even a Romanesque row of Henry Hobson Richardson-style homes that might have faced Brooklyn's Prospect Park. But there was little to suggest the local architectural heritage of Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and Frank Gehry. Further, some condo communities will be gated - which makes them seem more like luxury senior-citizens reservations than part of a new borough.

But there's also some good that can be said about the housing at Playa Vista. First, the overall plan saves half the 1,087 acres of open space on which it's sited. Secondly, the area desperately needs all those 13,000 units of housing - 15 percent, or nearly 2,000, of which (if the 15 percent proportion stays) will be moderate-to-low-income apartments and condos, integrated into the overall project: The promise remains that this portion won't be ghettoized.

As my colleague Harold Meyerson noted here recently, since its recent economic recovery, Los Angeles has once again become one of the world's tightest housing markets. Playa's Ken Agid says the Westside vacancy rate is now under 1 percent - where it has been since the early '80s. Agid contends that those who insist that housing such as Playa's has no place on the Westside must understand that the Westside is sustaining a net loss of housing.

Lack of low-cost, moderate and even mildly expensive housing in Los Angeles' most desirable area hammers a diverse lower-income segment. On the bottom, it pushes marginal earners into homelessness. Further up, it puts many West Los Angeles wage earners into three-hour, high-pollution commutes to Palmdale, Ontario and Orange County.

At Playa, many residents - Agid claims at least 20 percent - will have jobs elsewhere on the Playa campus. Most of the rest will work in the west or South Bay county areas. So they won't be coming in from the high desert. Dare one say this sounds like a positive environmental impact?

The Voice from Brazil

The Brazilian actress made famous in the 1940s . . . - Times writer Hector Tobar

She was the first name that was widely known from Brazil. -Sergio Mielniczenko, Brazilian cultural attache who hosts a popular KXLU show, quoted by Tobar

Maybe some kid will look at it and do some research on who that person was. -Cultural-affairs director Adolfo V. Nodal at the dedication of Hollywood's new Carmen Miranda Square

One fact you might easily research about Carmen Miranda is that she wasn't Brazilian. Although she attained international fame marketing her own and Hollywood's versions of Brazilian folklore, Miranda apparently retained her Portuguese passport most of her working life.

But her little local memorial surely belongs right across from the Chinese Theater: Miranda's cinematic affectations were about as authentic as Graumann's Cantonese architecture. She belongs on Hollywood Boulevard because, like the famous movie house, Carmen Miranda was unequivocally, sincerely and essentially Hollywood: She actually reinvented herself in its image.

The dedication of her "square" - actually just the intersection of the Boulevard and Orange Drive - last week brought out a reported 70 Brazilian diplomats. Sorry, guys, but she belongs to us now. That's because 58 years ago, Brazil turned its back on her. And Hollywood became her salvation.

According to biographer Martha Gil-Montero, Miranda was born in Portugal in 1909 and came to Rio de Janeiro as an infant. Trained as a hat maker (aha!), at 21 she began recording sambas. By 1939, as South America's most famous living singer, she opened on Broadway. There, she began to replace her Brazilian music - by native-born composers like Dorival Caymmi and Andre Filho - with the pseudo-rumbas of Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths Henry Warren and Mark Gordon, and her soulful Portuguese lyrics with pidgin doggerel like "Chica Chica Boom Chick." The norteamericanos ate it up. In her 7-inch heels and 2-foot fruited turbans, the bare-midriffed little "lady in the tutti-frutti hat" with her "hula-dancing eyebrows" was credited with saving the entire 1939-1940 Broadway season from the heated competition of the New York World's Fair.

Back in Rio, however, her new show bombed on opening night. She returned to the United States, where her talents were soon deployed in Hollywood's official wartime effort to coax Latin America into the Allied bloc. But her campy, exaggerated and manifestly controvertible film ethnicity nearly had the opposite effect ("Down Argentine Way" was actually banned for bad taste in Argentina). And she rapidly became such a comic presence, even to U.S. audiences, that she began consciously to parody her own pretension, to play it for laughs.

But she endured as a Hollywood legend, even as her film roles degenerated from musical stardom to Dean-Martin-and-Jerry-Lewis featured player. She fought this decline with frequent appearances on early TV variety shows, and it was on one such show, hoofing away in her turban and stiltlike heels, that she had a fatal heart attack in 1955, at age 46. She's buried in Rio, but I think her soul belongs with us. And with our culture, wherein box office beats authenticity every time.

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