ONLY ONE COUNCILMEMBER, it seems, is concerned that the city’s coziness with Playa Vista developers could be setting the stage for a potential disaster.
The lone voice last January in calling for stronger environmental review at the $7 billion, 1,100-acre development, Councilman Bill Rosendahl lashed out at his colleagues. “Many of them have been around this large conglomerate that is creating Playa Vista, and they have historical relationships with [the developer] and some of the lobbyists involved with the project,” he told reporters.
Rosendahl’s frustration stemmed from concerns about whether dewatering at the Playa site, built on the Ballona Aquifer, could release deadly methane gas into the soil, and endanger residents. When the council passed a narrower study pushed by developers working with the City Attorney’s Office, he said, “I am saddened that the council did not support a thorough, transparent public process to examine this crucial public-safety issue.”
Last Friday, a group of Playa activists asked a Los Angeles judge to hold the city in contempt for failing to ensure Playa Vista’s methane-gas-safety measures are up to snuff. They charge that the Department of Building and Safety approved the methane-safety system in spite of the possibility that deadly gas could leak into the 3,246 homes, apartments and condominiums in the first phase of the development, where 4,000 people live. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Wu will decide on August 29 if the city has violated his February order and a state Court of Appeals ruling requiring environmental testing in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Upscale and trendy Playa Vista is the first major residential development on the Westside in nearly 50 years. The activists calling for judicial intervention, none of whom live in the complex, claim the city has caved in to lobbying pressure and crafted a devious end run around CEQA. Playa Capital LLC and the City Attorney’s Office insist they have complied with the law. Opponents hope that scientific evidence will emerge at public hearings in August that will force Rosendahl’s colleagues to revisit murky City Council actions that Playa foes are challenging.
Playa foes charge that the building department, on the advice of the City Attorney’s Office, violated two court orders and CEQA when it revoked and then reissued 26 permits for the methane-detection and prevention system and issued thousands of occupancy certificates on the first phase of development. In 2005, the state Court of Appeals instructed Judge Wu to order the city to revoke the methane permits until it complied with CEQA and conducted either a separate or supplemental environmental review. Despite that ruling, the council went ahead on January 11 and authorized “peer review and assessment” of reports from two ground-water-management firms to ensure that dewatering processes on the site would not result in the release of poisonous gas. The council’s motion called for the firms to review materials received from the public and other agencies. Rosendahl complained that this was insufficient oversight under CEQA guidelines.
Richard Fine, attorney for the Playa opponents, agreed, saying the council’s motion was “a devious motion that doesn’t comply with CEQA, which requires public comment and response before the city issues methane-system permits.” In February, Judge Wu ordered the city to revoke permits and comply with CEQA.
Then the City Attorney’s Office took over. A March 17 letter to the council from Assistant City Attorney Peter Gutierrez instructs the members, in light of Wu’s order, to pass a motion that requires the city to revoke the methane permits for purposes of determining whether a separate or supplemental environmental report is required. However, Gutierrez advised them not to mention CEQA, even though the Court of Appeals and Wu ordered the city to “proceed accordingly as required by CEQA.” Rosendahl sponsored the new motion along with Councilman Ed Reyes, and it passed on March 31.
Just last week, with the methane permits already reissued, the city’s chief legislative analyst posted a notice of public hearing along with summary reports from the Bureau of Engineering and ground-water experts hired to work with the City Attorney’s Office. Attached to their motion for contempt of court last Friday, Playa foes included a stack of property reports that show the building department reissuing permits before public hearings have been held.
Sources at City Hall say the August 15 public hearing on Playa’s environmental status, and another one to be scheduled, could pressure the council to revisit the issue. Rosendahl is out of the country and unavailable for comment. Reached on his cell phone Monday, Reyes could not say whether the city has complied with CEQA, or even the intent of the motion he seconded on March 31.
SO IS IT TOO LATE? Judge Wu may now be the Playa foes’ last chance to stop what they claim is a potential environmental disaster. In addition to the shifty manner in which the City Attorney’s Office — working closely with Playa’s lawyers from Latham & Watkins — steered the matter through City Council, a review of the money spent lobbying for Playa suggests that the entire political and business establishment is determined to move on.
Rosendahl must have known what he was up against when he took on Playa. He had recently defeated Flora Gil Krisiloff in the 11th Council District race, which generated more than half a million dollars in independent campaign-related expenditures, including $46,000 on election day by Playa Vista president Steve Soboroff to distribute fliers supporting Krisiloff, who favored the controversial development. The day before the election, Playa developer Robert Maguire spent $25,000 to get out the vote for Krisiloff. The day before that, Playa vice president Douglas Moreland spent $10,000 on fliers in support of Krisiloff. Playa developer James Thomas spent another $17,000 on Krisiloff, while the Ballona Wetlands Committee to Stop Playa Vista spent a mere $14,791 for mailers, split evenly between Rosendahl and Antonio Villaraigosa on his way to being elected mayor.
Ethics Commission reports show that Playa lobbyists, principles and employees have spent lavishly to promote the development, now in its second phase, which will add another 2,600 residential units. Since 2003, the 14 registered Playa lobbyists have spent at least $1.2 million on “development of Playa Vista and related land use and permit matters.” They gave another $106,713 in political contributions. Included in that amount is a $5,000 donation to the American Diabetes Association at the behest of then–council president Alex Padilla, and an inauguration-day donation of $12,500 to the mayor’s after-school program, L.A.’s Best. Last year the lobbyists gave $5,600 to City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s campaign for state attorney general and $500 to his officeholder account. They gave $1,000 to the Youth Policy Institute at the behest of Padilla, who also received $30,000 from Playa lobbyists for his state Senate campaign.
Other firms acting as consultants for Playa have received more than $1 million from the developer, and spent more than $1.2 million lobbying for the project. Private political contributions from Playa employees, partners, investors and lobbyists total more than $18,000, and contributions by Playa total more than $36,000. Council members who voted for the narrower “peer assessment” environmental review last January, with the exception of Greg Smith and Janice Hahn, received contributions from Playa in the months before the vote. Wendy Greuel, a leading voice for public campaign financing, received the most direct contributions from Playa Capital: $2,000.
Yet the Playa foes, who believe the law is on their side, may have a secret weapon: David Hsu, a geological engineer who oversaw the grading division at the Department of Building and Safety. According to Playa activist Patricia McPherson and employees at the building department, Hsu voiced major concerns about the methane-gas venting system and whether methane barriers could withstand gases released during the dewatering process. When Hsu resisted approval of the methane system, McPherson and building-department employees say, he was promoted to deputy superintendent in West Los Angeles and prevented from any further involvement at Playa.
Hsu might bolster the case for the environmental review that Rosendahl has yet to deliver. Provided, that is, the engineer will talk. “I will comply with a subpoena or court order, but I cannot talk to you about this,” Hsu told the Weekly on Monday, after confirming he has been interviewed by the Ethics Commission about issues arising while he headed the grading division. Hsu would not confirm the substance of his discussions with the Ethics Commission, but sources at the building department say it involved grading issues in the Hollywood Hills, and Mark Abrams, accused of campaign-money laundering.
Sources at the building department are skeptical of the Playa methane system, which is supposed to consist of 50-foot vent wells, a gravel blanket under the buildings, pipes to pull water from the ground while diverting any gas that is released, and an impermeable membrane under the concrete foundation of the 17 or so residential projects. The project’s foes point to methane-inspection approvals that occurred, in some instances, after the foundation was poured. They question how approval of an underground system could even occur in such a fashion — assuming that such a system exists. The foes further question the city’s monitoring process, insisting there’s been a lack of continuous inspection by the city’s deputy methane inspector. On June 22, after months of inquiring about the city’s methane-inspection regime, Rosendahl wrote to building-department general manager Andrew Adelman and urged him to produce methane reports that show input from members of the public and the neighborhood councils, as required by a city ordinance.
“We have no assurances that there is an adequate methane system at Playa, or that it works,” activist Daniel Cohen said on Friday.