Playa Vista Overcomes Its Obstacles

Once mired in litigation and always fraught with controversy, Playa Vista, a 1,000-plus acre wetland, residential community, and commercial development in western Los Angeles, may now be considered a success story. While parts of the 3-mile-long by 1.5-mile-wide site are still in contention, Playa Vista’s combined parklands, residential community, and commercial district certainly offers an improvement on the usual Los Angeles model: sprawl on steroids. Sure, residents still need to drive to this publicly-accessible yet privately maintained community, but once there, cars are hidden in underground parking lots and residents can walk on nice sidewalks, bike, go to cafes, walk their dog, or chill in one of the many parks. Film and multimedia studio employees in the commercial sector can walk to the site’s central park or even hike a trail along the ridgeline. And at a tour of the site during the conference of the American Planning Association, bicyclists were even seen carrying trays of coffee, making their way to studios.  

Playa Vista’s innovative master plan was created in the 1990s by OLIN, a leading urban and landscape design firm, and other firms. There were a few major segments in the plan: a protected wetland, central park, multiple residential communities, and a commercial area, which houses Howard Hughes’ old aircraft facilities, structures that are mostly protected under California’s historic preservation rules. Then Playa Vista Capital and the Trust for Public Land worked off that plan to create an updated master plan that sets aside some 70 percent of the land as open space. 

Indeed, they may have had to set aside a big chunk as protected nature. A major share of the site is one of the last remaining wetlands in California and lies within the coastal zone. Also, lawsuits in the mid-80s prevented an earlier development team from damaging the Ballona wetlands so Playa Vista Capital decided to hand this piece over to the state. Preserving this area was a great thing though: the wetlands are lush, but could be further improved if the state moves forward with a major restoration project that will take out the narrow concrete lining parts of the river in favor of a meandering natural system. That’s still being debated between a number of local organizations and the state.

There’s some forward-thinking green infrastructure systems here that connects the development to the greater ecological system of the area. A 51-acre riparian corridor and reconstructed marsh (see image above) was designed by Friends of the Ballona Wetland, Psomas & Associates, landscape architecture firm Collaborative West, and Erik Streaker, a water quality expert, to cleanse and manage the development’s stormwater and connect with the wetlands. Already, the new marsh has brought in 100+ plus birds, including an endangered species. A new central park by the Michael Maltzan Architects and the Office of James Burnett is already in place to welcome the second residential segment, the new “Village,” now underway (moving forward only after more lawsuits were finally settled after they went to the State Supreme Court). Maltzan’s park provides a sustainable, multi-functional public space bridging the residential and commercial sides, which is also now under development.

First conceived as a New Urbanist community, given its tight density, multi-family housing complexes, and use of street grids, the first residential community diverges from that rigid model in a few key ways. There’s lots of affordable housing units. Diverse parks and street landscapes play a central role in making the community, a two-square mile development, seem a bit less like the creepy community in the Truman Show. According to Mark Huffman, Playa Vista Capital, the landscape architecture was central to making Playa Vista work so well. There are 17 acres of “active parks” and another 12 acres of “passive recreation” set within distinct park districts, with a “concert” park, “fountain” park, and others.

Streets, which have bicycle lanes, each have their own plant-based identities. “We want people to be able to find their own street,” said Huffman. Some of the buildings do look very similar to each other, even though many architects worked on the different buildings within the complex. Huffman added that 50 percent of all plants are native and drought tolerant, but some “did better than others,” with some trees felled by mites.

An innovative homeowners fee finances the upkeep of the landscapes, green infrastructure, and much of the community work. Given some 3,200 residences have been purchased, meaning some 6,000 people are living in these two square miles, the fees must not be onerous. In fact, one of the selling points of the fees may be that they help ensure the community keeps close watch over the initiatives that make this development more environmentally and socially-sound than others in Los Angeles. While the marsh is self-sustaining, said Huffman, fees are needed to cover all the permits and regulatory reporting and control the cattails in the marsh and corridor. The cattails, which are the heart of the constructed wetland system that remove pollutants from the water, often grow too wild so they have to be pruned back. Fees also help finance programs for the community, including widening the 4-lane street right out front of the development, and new computer labs for nearby schools.

Throughout, there are other sensitive ways of dealing with water. All the parks are watered with recycled water provided by automated systems. A new wetland “discovery” park designed by Levin & Associates still isn’t quite open to the public because the groups involved first need to finalize the details on the non-profit that will run the site, but that also promises to educate the public about the critical importance of water and wetlands.

While the development isn’t really the “Live, Work, Play” development it’s sold as — given most of its residents still face a long car ride to their workplaces — the commercial district isn’t too far for those lucky ones that live nearby, perhaps a 10-15 bicycle ride. The commercial side, which is run by The Ratvokich Company, offers very nice reuse of historic buildings. The Hercules Campus is named after the Hercules, the wooden plane Howard Hughes created in World War II and was deemed the “Spruce Goose” by the press. Hercules was built in the old hangers now leased out by Ratkovich to movie studios. (We had to sign a non-disclosure agreement so can’t talk about the new Hollywood movie being produced there).

The beautiful, gargantuan hangers from the 1940s are actually made entirely of wood, like large boats turned upside down. There are molded, glued wood beams that tower 72 feet and provide the frame of the structures. New tenants coming in to use other buildings for “production support” include Google, with its new YouTube channel; social media marketing; and multimedia production studios. In Los Angeles, buildings can be zoned for “production support,” which is different from plain-old office space.

Milan Ratvokich, one of the developers, seemed bemused by what “creative professionals” like in these old buildings — the cavernous loft spaces and the old, authentic materials — but clearly “saw a place with a lot of opportunities.” Designed by a sensitive interior designer, the old spaces, one of which includes an old vault Hughes kept his plane designs in, could be amazing new creative spaces for movie and Web workers.

Ratvokich proves that they are at the cutting-edge of development: They are not only looking at bringing in a new hydrogen-powered fuel cell to serve as a generator for a cluster of buildings, but also working to preserve the 100-year old Sycamore trees that line the old 1940’s Hughes offices.

Image credits: (1) Ballona Marsh / Friends of the Ballona Wetlands. Lisa Fimiani (2) Central Park, Michael Maltzan Architects / Iwan Baan copyright, (3-4) Playa Vista Concert Park and Spyglass Park / Playa Vista Capital, (5) Playa Vista streetscape / Debra Berman and Pat Kandel Real Estate, (6) Ballona Wetland Park / Friends of Ballona Wetland, (7) Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose” aircraft hangar, Playa Vista / The Wall Street Journal, (8-10) Buildings at Hercules Campus / The Ratvokich Company.

4 thoughts on “Playa Vista Overcomes Its Obstacles

  1. Collateral Damage 04/26/2012 / 9:03 am

    Fluff is fluff. It tripled the amount of cars and pollution in the surrounding neighbors that weren’t able to go to six or more lanes like in front of their land. Sitting in traffic so an investment company gets rich, while sticking people on top of methane gas deposits. It was a swamp for a reason even If you dump lots of fill dirt. Then there is the mitigated hazardous materials dumped by Hughes and Tongva burials pushed under sports areas and 10,000 years of life erased for a Discovery Park plaque. The lawsuits by the neighboring cities, environmental and social justice groups were not settled. They and LA lost. Forgive me if I don’t see this as a success.

  2. Michael Murray 05/02/2012 / 10:15 am

    Have you ever been there? Feels like a semi-“New Urbanism” Stepford. I visited on a Sunday afternoon. Saw only about 30-40 people out and about. The community has some lovely features like a small central park with an amphitheater. I also saw a community garden with about 10′ x 30′ plots which rent (!!) for $250/year. The community felt very cold, even with beautiful planting. And the right-sized streets were overshadowed by the adjacent 5-story buildings in the small commercial district. Maybe there aren’t enough people living there yet, but as it’s fairly expensive I think it will be awhile before it feels like a vibrant place to live.

  3. Westchester Neighbor 10/20/2013 / 6:17 pm

    This place is so sterile – it reminds me of some hyper regulated, dystopic community of the future. I tried to have my daughter’s 5th birthday party there (after calling to check for rules or permits needed and was told no bouncys/alchohol) and they made us get rid of the balloons, table cloths and happy birthday sign.

    The nazi like security guard on her scooter stayed there the entire party and told the parents they couldn’t take pictures and that our party exceeded the 15 person limit (because of the parents being there) and tried to shut us down…. The same guard made my kid’s soccer team take down their team banner during their game because they didn’t allow “advertising”.

    Give me a break! This place is awful!

  4. pete gerard 08/19/2016 / 3:35 pm

    During the 1990’s, the old buildings were first being rented by movie production companies. But many of the historic structures remained, and were more or less “off limits” for us. The atmosphere there was indeed spooky, and in the big hangars especially, one could see remnants of aircraft and helicopter manufacturing strewn about, free for the picking. But with each step of gentrification, more and more of the interesting history of the place was swept away. I am fortunate to have taken many photographs back then, of those strange buildings that are now gone forever. Today they serve to remind me of the intense loss brought about by the likes of McGuire/Thomas Partners, and many successive high-rolling, money-grubbing “players”. Playing with the past, I say, and it’s our loss as a culture and a nation.

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