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Wetlands and the Well-Ordered Society 

Coming to terms with Playa Vista after DreamWorks

Wednesday, Aug 11 1999
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Philosopher John Rawls calls it "overlapping consensus." What I understand the author of A Theory of Justice to mean here is that even among the most embattled opponents, there can be agreement on certain fundamental issues.

Of course, even Taliban clerics can concur with militant feminists that rape and armed robbery are public evils. What gets much tougher is finding overlapping consensus on other basics — such as social equality — in a hugely diverse population such as ours. Attaining this overlapping consensus is an object of Rawls’ ideal — the Well-Ordered Society.

I’m not sure how much closer we are to Rawls’ ethical utopia than we were when he first hinted at it in 1958. But what may not be reachable globally could be attainable locally. Reading Jorge Casuso’s piece on Playa Vista in these pages last week, I realized that there’s finally a chance of reaching a genuine consensus on the future of the 1,087-acre Westside development.

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Mere opportunity, of course, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

By now, one should hope, the failure of Steven Spielberg et al.’s original DreamWorks scheme has taught the same lesson to both sides in the conflict: Nobody gets everything he wants. Playa Capital had hoped that DreamWorks would be a link to the top of the region’s prime industry. The 47-acre puncture that Spielberg’s withdrawal leaves in the project may not be hard to fill in today’s hot Westside land market. The glamour connection, however, may be irreplaceable.

Meanwhile, Playa Vista’s die-hard opponent, the Wetlands Action Network (WAN), has little to show for Spielberg’s cancellation despite its claims of victory. For one thing, it has lost its prime whipping boy — the man it has long and falsely accused of being behind the entire project. What other celebrity figure can it vilify in Spielberg’s stead?

For another, Phase 1 of Playa Vista’s main development is moving right along on schedule: The first 3,000 housing units (25 percent of which are to be rental or below-market priced) will flow into the parched Westside housing market by early 2001. And Playa Vista has picked up serious inner-city political support through its commitments to Senator Tom Hayden’s jobs-for-gangs program and activist Anthony Thigpenn’s Metropolitan Alliance’s $5 million entertainment career-development pledge, which survived Spielberg’s retreat. WAN has made vague promises of low-end jobs to refoliate the area once they’ve kicked out all the developers and somehow commandeered the entire 1,087 acres (most of which are wetlands by no known official definition). But no one living east of Sepulveda seems to be buying this pledge — which may be why the supposedly broad-based Wetlands Action Network retains a virtually lily-white membership.

WAN’s environmental fundamentalists are easy targets. But they’re not the only ones who have missed opportunities here. As Casuso noted, Galanter’s announcement last week that it was time to seek (unspecified, unquantified) public funds to acquire (again, unspecified) lands to the west of Lincoln Boulevard seemed weak and vague: Worse, Galanter roused redundant rancor by leaving neither herself nor her staff available to explain — to her opponents, the media, Playa Vista or even to other politicians — just what she was talking about. Curiously, Galanter’s press release named two complete outsiders to city government as contacts — one of them being Mark Gold of Heal the Bay, perhaps the only environmental organization that’s remained in the middle on the Ballona controversy.

But he did elucidate the enigmatic press statement: "There have been three major changes [over the past year]: the election of Governor Gray Davis, the [consequent] empanelment of a new Coastal Commission, the [latest] Bolsa Chica decision," a court ruling that makes it much harder to build on wetlands.

Ergo, we are no longer living in the Pete Wilson–Republican world of frenzied development in which the final version of the current Playa Vista settlement got approved. In other words, all those mid-1990s compromises — the tax abatements, the service-fee cuts, the concessions made to keep nearly 200 acres in wetlands and make another 300 into open spaces — might no longer be, uh, merited, what with the Democrats in charge and so on. It might even presently be possible to make some changes in the agreement via the good old state Legislature and Coastal Commission.

Now you can certainly wonder that it took Galanter most of 10 months to bring forth a public statement on the implications of last November’s electoral changes. Of course, WAN, with its primary agenda of vexatious litigation and wanton defamation, has yet to recognize these changes either.

Anyway, according to Gold, what Galanter is suggesting would stop all construction west of Lincoln, where, according to maps of 1896, most of the historic wetlands were. Much of this territory is already preserved under the current Playa compact. But about 138 formerly wet acres sit under a burden of dredge fill dropped there 35 years ago during the construction of nearby Marina del Rey. All but nine acres of this is now dry land, but it’s been wet within memory. An adjacent 43-acre hunk of creekside land is in Galanter’s 6th Council District. But the larger, more desirable tract is unincorporated, and lies in the 4th Supervisorial District of county Supervisor Don Knabe. Whom Galanter ill-advisedly stiffed last week by announcing her new position without cluing in the supervisor.

And it is the area under Knabe’s jurisdiction where, Gold suggests, "World War III is going to break out" with the developer — because this is where Playa Vista plans to build a small-craft marina and some million-dollar condos. It is, in short, P.V.’s major money shot.

"This issue is going to be escalated beyond local politics," promised Gold. That would be nice. But then all politics is local, and Sacramento has a 40-year record of deferring to the usually Republican 4th District Los Angeles County supervisor on all marina matters. To purchase the plot, governments will have to lay out what remains its unguessable market value (though one source did mention $250 million, no one else wanted to take even a wild guess). Much of that money could come from the state, and it would probably be easier to obtain if Councilwoman Galanter were on great terms with the supervisor of the adjoining jurisdiction in which most of it would have to be spent. That’s not the direction in which things were last seen heading.

Galanter now admits, "I probably should have told Knabe." She said her announcement was intended to put herself formally on the map in favor of acquiring additional Playa properties for public benefit. "We’ve actually been talking about this for years," she said.

But, she cautioned, expect nothing soon: "There’s no indication that they [Playa] want to sell, and this won’t be a hostile takeover."

Playa Vista V.P. David Herbst agrees that the land isn’t for sale. This sounds something like a formula for deadlock. So what have we here now? Nothing, probably, unless something unimaginable happens — like an overlapping consensus of the old-line environmental Democrats like Galanter and the Wetlands Action Network types. That just might just force the issue. Unfortunately, the old-liners bear the onus of their past well-intentioned compromises, while the WAN folk, if they go on claiming they’ll settle for nothing less than everything — plus a little bit more — are going to end up getting nothing. But — if only in some philosophically objective frame — settling the future of all the present and recent Ballona coastal wetlands has to be in the interest of both sides.

If only they could let themselves realize it.

The Beast With Two Wheels

My thanks to poet and riparian activist Lewis McAdams, who recently got me astrad dle a bicycle for the first time in 18 years and re-indoctrinated me into believing it a safe and useful mode of transit. He did this by putting me, with the assistance of friends from the Sierra Club and other worthy groups, on the back of a tandem cycle in that traffic-stuffed hell’s elbow by the Los Angeles River where Figueroa Street meets San Fernando Road.

The ride-in was a demonstration in favor of completing the L.A. regional bike path — but its ancillary effects were stunning. After surviving this cycling experience, I realized that fetching milk from the store by bike would be no challenge. And I’ve just pumped up the tires of the neglected, dusty creature in the back of my garage.

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