Playa Vista Was Going to Be a Utopian Planned Community. But Capitalism's Harsh Reality Keeps Creeping In
On a breezy Tuesday afternoon in early January, Stefanos Polyzoides stands outside the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Playa Vista, surveying one of the most ambitious projects of his four-decade career.
"I was actually so disappointed by what happened here, rather than what could have happened, that I didn't come here for almost seven years," the 67-year-old architect and urban planner says in his thick, Greek accent. "The streets are flabby ... [and] this set of buildings is very routine."
Marc Huffman, 46, chuckles uncomfortably. In 1997, when Polyzoides and his colleagues abruptly lost control of the biggest development project in Los Angeles in the last 50 years, Huffman was part of the group that took over and got Playa Vista built, decades after planning began. At the time, Polyzoides told the L.A. Times that he'd been "completely betrayed."
"I mean, yeah," Huffman says. "We were trying to move forward with the vision the best that we could within the marketing realities that we were faced with, within economic realities."
Huffman spent the next two decades overseeing the construction of the 220-acre neighborhood he's standing in, as well as a 130-acre office campus. He's now vice president of planning and entitlements in Playa Vista for Brookfield Residential, the latest developer to control the controversial neighborhood, where just 15 years ago only a handful of warehouses stood on grassy wetlands, the largest undeveloped open space in Los Angeles.
In recent years, Playa Vista's office campus has gotten a jolt of hip tech and media tenants, including Microsoft, Facebook and TMZ. UCLA created a new campus for experimental architecture. Google-owned YouTube opened a fancy new L.A. space, where video creators can use soundstages and editing facilities. The area also is becoming L.A.'s Madison Avenue, attracting ad agencies such as 72andSunny. (See articles on some of these offices in this section.) The neighborhood's developers hope the influx of creative firms feeds demand for housing.
The latest phase of construction in Playa Vista is a Grove-style mall called Runway, mixed with residential space and built on the 111 acres between the office campus and the residential area. It should be finished at the end of this year, to the dismay of environmental and archaeological activists.
Huffman is the kind of guy who convenes focus groups and works with people whom Polyzoides calls "marketects": architects who emphasize volume and speed over quality and originality.
By contrast, Polyzoides has degrees from Princeton, spent 25 years as an associate professor of architecture at USC and, while working on Playa Vista, helped found an intellectual movement called New Urbanism, which fundamentally changed how cities plan and organize neighborhoods.
The Pasadena-based firm that Polyzoides runs with his wife, Elizabeth Moule, has had a hand in pedestrian-friendly master plans and transit corridors in cities from China to San Antonio to Dubai, but his greatest influence has been on the resurgence of walkable neighborhoods in L.A.: Downtown, Boyle Heights, Beverly Hills and Pasadena all have benefited from his careful hand.
But Playa Vista is the one that got away.
The two men walk along Pacific Promenade, past a dry cleaner's and a yoga studio, and cross the 58-foot-wide street to a terraced, leafy park protected on all sides by imposing, four-story condos, about half of which have shops on the ground floor. (Polyzoides wanted this street to be 36 feet wide, to create an intimacy that would make pedestrians comfortable.) Unlike most other high-density neighborhoods in Los Angeles, there are no parking structures, no homeless people and no hipsters.
The New Urbanists wanted it to look like the central square of Anytown, California, circa the 1920s and '30s, just half a mile from the desolate thoroughfares of Lincoln and Jefferson boulevards. What exists instead is a mash-up of New Urbanism and Orange County, a park-filled small town populated mostly by tacky, mass-produced condominiums in clashing styles. The buildings around the park are a confused pastiche of Spanish Colonial, Italianate and '90s contemporary architecture, with a smattering of dissonant trellises, decorative arches, chamfered corners and slate-tiled walls thrown in for good measure.
But kids are playing in the park, residents are comfortable going for a jog at 11 p.m., and Polyzoides finds one building that he likes: a sanitized version of the kind of converted industrial space found in the downtown Arts District, with large expanses of windows and steel balcony railings. Its upper levels are set back from the street, creating a depth that makes the other buildings look like movie sets.
L.A. Police Commission president Steve Soboroff, who became president of the development company that was overseeing Playa Vista in 2001 after a failed mayoral bid, saw the project through to final City Council approvals in 2010. He once compared the neighborhood to a Prius, a hybrid byproduct of grandiose plans, practical necessities and years and years of arguing.
Discussions about what kind of neighborhood belongs on these ocean-adjacent wetlands began in 1978, two years after the death of Howard Hughes, when his heirs decided to develop the 1,087 acres where the eccentric entrepreneur had built an airport, a helicopter factory and the legendary Spruce Goose aircraft.
Unlike the rest of the city, which had formed in land grabs and immigrant waves, here was a blank slate, where everyone could project their ideas for what Los Angeles should be like.
What followed were 36 contentious years of community meetings, environmental impact reports, log-jammed city bureaucracy, pie-in-the-sky proposals, NIMBY protests, redrawn plans, Indian-remains reburials, wildlife-protecting lawsuits, loan defaults, big-name tenant defections, appealed court rulings and, improbably, the emergence of the most influential urban-design movement in America since modernism.
Dana Cuff, a professor of urban design and founding director of CityLAB at UCLA, dislikes both the "aesthetic doldrums" of Playa Vista today and the anachronistic nostalgia of New Urbanism but says the current iteration is far better than what was initially planned by Hughes' inheritors: hideous, low-density sprawl punctuated by skyscraping office buildings that obstructed the views from the Westchester bluffs, botching neighbor relations from the start.
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In 1989, development firm Maguire Thomas Partners took over Playa Vista from the heirs' beleaguered company. Project manager Nelson Rising was supposed to be the guy who cared about the community, who pacified the environmentalists, who built something that fit the context. He wanted a neighborhood based on prewar Los Angeles, before freeways and single-family homes dominated the landscape. Rising called in Duany Plater-Zyberk, a Miami firm famous for a Florida beach village called Seaside, a successful experiment in dense, walkable living and nostalgic, site-appropriate architecture — The Truman Show was later shot there. Polyzoides and Moule filled out the lineup, along with other progressive architects.
They invited the public to three all-day brainstorming sessions, called charrettes. Let's build a neighborhood that accommodates cars but doesn't revolve around them, they decided. Instead, they wanted narrow streets, parks and retail within walking distance, "hidden" underground parking garages, and housing that varied in type, cost and density in order to encourage a diverse population. The team studied model streets across L.A. — mostly in Pasadena, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica — measuring everything from the width of the sidewalks to the heights of the buildings.
The ideas they discussed went on to become the basis for thousands of redevelopment projects in U.S. cities and abroad.
But in the mid-'90s, Los Angeles city officials rolled their eyes.
"People were saying, 'You're full of shit. What are you doing? This is crazy. This retail will never happen. You people are idiots,' " Polyzoides recalls.
Beset by lawsuits, financial troubles, red tape and internal squabbles, Maguire Thomas sold its interest in the property in 1997 to Playa Capital, a group led by Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, which just wanted to get the damn thing built already. Huffman was hired as an assistant project manager. But while the sale included a city-approved grid of streets and blocks for the planned community, it did not include a form-based code, which would define things like how far the buildings should be from the streets, how tall each building should be and how many buildings there should be per block. The 15 building companies commissioned by Playa Capital could alter the designs as they saw fit, undoing the work of Polyzoides and his colleagues.
"Part of my personal disappointment is that ... none of us were actually called in to continue to work on this project and to help it along in some way," Polyzoides says to Huffman. "What we were advocating was not particularly well accepted by the new group that came in, [which] were very unfriendly and very unhappy."
"You had a new group of people who were used to working with certain people," Huffman tries to explain. "A lot of them were from Orange County."
Polyzoides' team had incorporated diverse building types, including duplexes, villas, row houses and courtyard housing, so that Playa Vista would feel more like a town that had developed over time and less like Levittown. But the Orange County builders didn't understand. They were used to two types of housing: stacked flats (where one family lives above another) and single-family homes. One marketing consultant told Polyzoides that if new housing built around a shared, outdoor courtyard space hadn't been built in Los Angeles in 60 years, then it must be because the public doesn't want it. The most profitable thing to do, he said, was to make every single building four stories high.
But Huffman doesn't feel responsible for Playa Vista's cookie-cutter uniformity. "The way the city codes were set up drove the form of a lot of these buildings," he says, explaining that making the buildings any taller would have pushed them out of the city's least restrictive building classification, Type V.
Polyzoides agrees that the city was "medieval" back then, with the Department of Transportation and the L.A. County Fire Department insistent on widening the streets, but he no longer sees codes as a legitimate excuse. "The best developers are really the ones who have broken the rules," he says.
Plus, Polyzoides and his team didn't want the buildings to all be taller. They wanted a variety of building types. Huffman and Playa Capital interpreted that to mean a variety of architectural styles.
Although construction on Phase I of Playa Vista — the office campus and the dense residential neighborhood — was finished in 2008, construction on Phase II, covering Runway and the additional 2,800 houses and condos, didn't start until early 2013.
The L.A. City Council first approved an environmental impact report for Phase II back in 2004, prompting a lawsuit from environmental groups, representatives of the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe and the city of Santa Monica, which claimed Phase II would cause a 15 percent increase in traffic congestion.
An appellate court ruled in 2007 that the environmental analysis should be revised, but activists say the conditions set out by the new report aren't much better. They appealed, but this time the same three-judge appellate court ruled in favor of Playa Capital, and in March 2012 the California Supreme Court declined to hear their case.
For Huffman, the opening of Runway later this year will serve as the culminating triumph of his 17-year struggle to transform Playa Vista into a livable community. Residents and office workers will finally have a movie theater, a Whole Foods and more than two restaurants to choose from.
But for activists who have been fighting the construction for the past three decades, the opening of Phase II will be bittersweet. According to David Singleton of the California Native American Heritage Commission, construction at Playa Vista has led to the largest excavation of artifacts and human remains since the commission was formed, in 1977. "It's tremendous destruction, and it is disappointing that the city did not recognize that publicly when they approved Phase II," he says.
Kathy Knight, the conservation chair of the L.A. Sierra Club's Airport Marina Group and a board member of the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, says that the only development she would have accepted on the Phase II property would be a 5- to 10-acre shopping center: no homes. But some of her colleagues are relieved that any of the original 1,087 acres was saved.
"It was a win that we saved 70 percent of the property and that the development is 40 percent of its original size," Ballona Wetlands Land Trust president Rex Frankel says. "Everything that we didn't stop, we fought as much as humanly possible, but I'm happy with what we saved."
Polyzoides has mixed feelings about Playa Vista today. Despite the flashy creative occupants and the 8-acre park at its center, he despises the sprawling office campus, with its car-friendly boulevards and self-contained buildings whose entrances face parking lots, not sidewalks. "That's a mess over there," he says. "It couldn't be worse."
He hasn't seen the plans for Phase II, but Huffman tells him there will be areas of retail mixed with housing, and that has Polyzoides optimistic. These days, he has come to accept Playa Vista as a necessary stepping stone on his quest to re-envision what an L.A. neighborhood should look like.
"If you think you're going to do it once, and it's going to come out perfect the first time, that's fine, good luck to you, but you have to be able to see it as something that evolves," Polyzoides says. "Now, when I walk around and look at this, I'm deeply thankful and appreciative. If you squint, it's the best project in L.A. in the past 30 years."
His eyes fall on a set of salmon, mint green and beige condos with irregularly placed windows and awkwardly executed stucco references to Italian stone.
"It's not perfect, but it's passable," he says. "It's wonderful to sit here and say it's ugly, but it is built and it works and it is in place. At the time, there may not have been another [residential] building with retail on the ground floor anywhere in the city."
Huffman smiles. "The perfect is the enemy of the good, right?" he says. "And what you see before you — it's amazing that it happened."