Since the 1970s, the development of Playa Vista has been a controversial subplot in the greater narrative of LA. Its development spurred decades of litigation, innovations in urban planning, environmental activism, celebrity protests, and even an alleged political hit.
The Playa Vista Institute aims to preserve that history as they inaugurated the organization on Oct. 25 with a private film screening of their new documentary, “Playa Vista: A Four-Decade Overnight Success.”
Mark Huffman, president of the Playa Vista Institute’s Board of Directors, says the title came from an interviewee, who said it seemed like Playa Vista appeared overnight. In reality, Huffman says, it was over 40 years of hard work and political gymnastics that brought Playa Vista to where it is today.
Playa Vista’s early years
The Playa Vista Institute’s documentary goes through the area’s history back to the Gabrielinos/Tongva, the Native Americans who occupied the historical Ballona Wetlands before Spanish settlements.
Terry Conner, another of Playa Vista Institute’s Board of Directors, explains that Playa Vista would not be what it is today without the famous Howard Hughes, who purchased the land just in 1940 to build an airfield.
Before his death in 1976, Hughes wanted to leave the property largely uncultivated, as his interests lay in aviation. However, those who inherited the property identified Playa Vista as an ideal plot of land for development. The Summa Corporation, a separate company controlling much of Hughes’ business interests, swiftly began to draw up plans to develop the property.
Summa originally conceived Playa Vista as primarily a commercial area, with 6 million square feet of office space, several high-rise buildings, and a million square feet of retail space. The plan would develop nearly all of the 1,000-acre property and reduce the Ballona Wetlands to a mere 170 acres.
When Summa’s plans for development went public in 1980, they were not well received by the surrounding community. Traffic concerns reigned paramount and homeowners were concerned high-rise buildings would block their views of the oceans. Environmental groups, like Friends of Ballona Wetlands, were also in opposition to the plan.
At the time, Pat Russel was the LA City Councilmember representing Playa Vista and the surrounding communities. Russel wanted the city to annex Playa Vista and for the development to take place under the supervision of the city government, an effort that was ultimately successful. Russel’s support of Summa’s unpopular plan led local groups to back a new candidate in 1984, Ruth Galanter, an urban planner from New York living in Venice.
The election went into a runoff after Russel didn’t receive the majority vote. Galanter said it was at this point she had to face the idea that she may win the election. That was when someone broke into her house and stabbed her in the throat.
“I believe it was a political setup. Everybody in Venice believed it was a setup. Venice turned out to vote for me in double the numbers when they wouldn’t normally turn down for anybody,” Galanter says. The assault and the construction of a high-rise building secured both the Venice and Westchester votes for Galanter, granting her the election.
Environmentalists vs the new face of Playa Vista
Following the political upheaval of the late 80s, Summa wanted to lend a new face to the development by bringing in McGuire Thomas Partners to lead the development process. McGuire Thomas quickly realized that commercial development was not well suited to the area and shifted the project in the direction of community development.
In 1990, McGuire Thomas worked with Galanter and the Friends of Ballona Wetlands to eliminate a pending lawsuit the group had against the development by making a settlement that would call for a revised plan to develop Playa Vista.
The settlement allowed McGuire and Thomas to shift the development to primarily residential complexes and expand the area allocated for Ballona Wetlands to 340 acres. The new plan also committed $18 million to create a 24-acre freshwater marsh, a 26-acre riparian corridor and dedicated $750,000 to fund a restoration program to restore salt water flows from Ballona Creek to the salt pans.
But the suffering economy of the mid-90s made this plan difficult to execute. Ultimately, Galanter approached the Trust for Public Land in pursuit of a purchasing option for the Ballona Wetlands that would grant the state ownership over approximately 600 acres of the property, scaling the McGuire Thomas plans to half its original size.
Playa Vista as we know it today
With the money made from the sale of the Ballona Wetlands, the development of Playa Vista could finally move forward. In 2003, the project broke ground as McGuire Thomas worked to change the narrative of Playa Vista into one of sustainability where people could live, work, and shop without getting into their cars.
After the first residents moved in, the developers quickly realized that their intentions for Playa Vista to be a community of young professionals and retirees were not coming to fruition; residents were instead deciding to stay in Playa Vista to build their families. Soon after, LA Unified School District decided to build Playa Vista Elementary School.
Playa Vista also became part of the technology sector’s move to the westside, which became known as Silicon Beach. Although the developers failed to complete a deal with DreamWorks to build a studio, several other production houses set up shop in Playa Vista. In the 2010s, Yahoo, Microsoft, YouTube and Facebook all acquired property in the area.
In 2012, Brookfield Residential bought the Playa Vista development for $265 million. They completed the project as primarily luxury housing condos. According to rental listing sites, the median rent in Playa Vista is $4,632, and the average price of a home is $1.16 million at $749 per square foot.
Playa Vista Institute and Historical Society
Huffman says the Playa Vista Institute has two goals: “The first one is the historical mission to document, organize, and share the history. The second one is recognizing the goal for Playa Vista to be a more sustainable community.” The Playa Vista institute aims to be an advocate for that mission moving forward.
The institute’s website went live approximately one week after the premiere screening of the documentary. The reason the institute has kept its existence quiet until now was that Huffman didn’t believe there was anything to announce until the documentary was complete, though Playa Vista’s controversial past was frequently alluded to at the premiere screening.
In the future, the Playa Vista Institute hopes to have a physical location where the public can access archives and records relating to the creation of Playa Vista, but for now, they are focusing on building out their online resources and providing digital access to any archives they currently possess.
Playa Vista Institute