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Growth Is Great

It’s another old saying, but sometimes you can‘t avoid them: “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.” And on. The dogs may not like who’s on the camels, the color of their saddles and where they‘re headed. But the caravan’s on the road, headed toward its destination anyway. Despite the ambient canine noise.

I‘m talking Playa Vista, of course, that costly development going up between Westchester and Marina del Rey. Despite what many are saying about it, folks, it is really starting to happen. That is to say, it’s starting to get built.

On December 16, Playa Vista Properties obtained a building permit to begin foundations for 400 housing units. I don‘t suppose it’s accidental, but most of that first housing will be the so-called “affordable” rental units -- low-to-middle-income units that, face it, project opponents are going to look plug-ugly opposing. I‘m sure the choice of this phase of the project -- rather than some of that million-dollar-range high-end stuff on the other end of the agenda -- was no coincidence. It’s great PR, but then it‘s also reality: well over 200 units of new, low-income housing such as is practically nonexistent elsewhere in West Los Angeles. And there are another 13,000 units promised. Among other things, Playa Vista represents affordable housing in L.A.’s tightest market -- a market that‘s sustained a net loss of all multiple-unit housing over the past decade. And, as the Los Angeles Business Journal just reported, more than 6,200 low-income rental units in just the past few months alone. This, along with a rather over-the-top-sounding promotional “visitors’ center,” will be the first above-ground construction permitted at Playa.

You got some problem with that? Many do. In fact, I‘ve read time and again over the past five months that the whole project was dead in its tracks, the developers near belly-up. And here they are, about to lay pipe for maybe a thousand residents. Did someone miss something?

Norman Mailer defined his word factoid as “a fact that never existed before it appeared in print but has been reprinted ever since.” The Wetlands Action Network, which purports to have successfully opposed this project so far -- at least that’s what WAN czarina Marcia Hanscom claimed the last time she was out looking for work with the city of Malibu -- has built its case on factoids. But now the case shreds as Playa Vista‘s housing component rolls along. And WAN, counter to its claims, has nothing left in its quiver to stop it. Except, perhaps, another feeble suit like the one that got tossed last summer with the judge admonishing, “The plaintiff’s initial showing was weak.”

And ever more factoids. Factoids and nothing but, often bouncing off unrelated other news. Like the new but unproven assertions of on-site methane-gas pollution -- shades of Belmont High. Just walking out my door Friday morning, there were a couple more WAN factoids hanging from my front door, in a flier from the Friends of Sunset Park, which purports to represent those who reside in my part of Santa Monica. It also purports to be part of a group called Citizens United To Save All Ballona, consisting of I-don‘t-know-exactly-how-many parties opposed to this project. Many of them, from what I can tell, are ill-informed as to its actual nature.

The Sunset newsletter suggests, among many other things, that we vote in March for Proposition 12, the $2.1 billion state-park bond issue. Okay, I’m voting for it. And yes, it does provide $25 million to start acquiring the Ballona tract. Which the handbill refers to as “the remaining 1,100-acre coastal wetland habitat at Ballona.” And then we have our key factoid, or if you prefer, falsehood. First, no one but Hanscom, who might well have a degree in creative geology, alleges that there is anywhere near that much wetlands on the site.

The Corps of Engineers, our supposed coastal-wetlands arbiter, gives a figure of under 300 acres -- roughly equal to what Playa is required under contract to save. A geologist working with Hanscom came up with 550 acres. The 1,100-acre figure is, as I have said countless times, totally imaginary. This is obvious to anyone who‘s ever looked at the site, which includes hundred-foot cliffs and rolling hills. But hundreds of Hanscom followers say it is accurate. I imagine they’ve gone out of the way to avoid the site all these years.

What is Sunset Park‘s interest in this? Well, it says here -- new factoid two -- that leaving the land undeveloped (in fact, roughly half that land has been, historically, farmland, parking lots, a working airport, and research and manufacturing plants, but we’ll let that “undeveloped” go) “will create much needed regional open space and avoid . . . the 200,000 car trips per day (more than LAX) that Playa Vista would put on our already-congested local streets.”

I‘m not sure what we mean by “local” here. But the last figure I saw for current LAX traffic was 160 million people per year, close to a half-million per day. To bring in as many as, let alone more than, that, with Playa’s maximum resident-employee component of upward of 50,000 people or so, Playa is going to have to offer the world unlimited 24-hour free beer in tank-car quantities. And I just don‘t think that’s in the current site plan. (I should add that if Friends of Sunset Park truly objects to obstructed traffic on local streets, it has a funny way of showing it. Elsewhere in its bulletin, it vaunts the “curb extensions and islands” on local streets that appear to have no other purpose than to frustrate us “local” motorists.)

But WAN is a factoid operation, not a fact outfit. It‘s never been constrained by the truth. First, it stigmatized Steven Spielberg for siting his DreamWorks studio project on wetlands, when the studio actually was to be located -- as Hanscom from time to time admitted -- on a 50-acre clutch of old factory buildings on a 70-year-old Hughes plant site. Then it asserted that the whole Playa Vista project was Spielberg’s idea. When Spielberg dropped out, it obligingly carried on, this time claiming the entire project was doomed without him. And guess what? It isn‘t.

There was a WAN protest at the issuance of state Mello-Roos bonds of $350 million for Playa Vista housing, and then an attempt to get the Coastal Commission to see things WAN’s way about salinity issues. WAN lost on both, but at least, by protesting MTA funds granted the project, it got the Bus Riders Union into Citizens United.

Now Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa has ponied up $25 million for Playa acquisition in the new state-parks initiative. You might well ask yourself, just how much of the total 1,087 acres of this particular well-advanced Westside development will that buy? There is an easy answer. According to a November Corps of Engineers memo, signed by COE Senior Project Manager Aaron O. Allen, “Assuming Playa would be willing to sell the entire . . . property . . . a conservative result of a million dollars an acre would result in land acquisition costs of over one billion dollars.” Put another way, the state-parks initiative provides enough cash -- assuming Playa were willing to sell, which it keeps saying it isn‘t -- for 2.5 percent of the entire property. Or about 25 acres.

WAN’s allies have also hoped to get the Port of Los Angeles to use its available hundreds of millions of wetland-mitigation funds to buy the tract. Or at least to acquire and revamp the portion filled in 35 years ago near the Marina. But such agencies are, according to the Corps memo, only interested in acreage with a “mitigation cost of less than $175,000 per acre.” The local cost runs far higher than that, the memo states.

WAN occasionally continues to claim it‘s halted all construction on the project via its last true win -- an order in federal court in 1998. Leaving aside the merits of that action, WAN did manage to stop the construction of a freshwater marshland of 16 acres on the property. That finding is still awaiting appeal, but meanwhile, construction is stopped only in that 16-acre area.

Elsewhere, as anyone driving Lincoln Boulevard can tell you, it roars on. As does the Playa Vista caravan, despite the barking, despite the dogs.


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