After 18 years overseeing the development of Playa Vista, Randy Johnson has some stories to tell
By Shanee Edwards
Though commuters along Jefferson Boulevard may beg to differ, Playa Vista didn’t spring up overnight.
Nor did things always go smoothly.
But that gives Randy Johnson, who has spent the past 18 years overseeing the construction of Playa Vista on the former grounds of the storied Hughes Aircraft Co., plenty of interesting stories to tell.
There was the time that developers had to call in the FBI to remove shell casings from World War II bombs discovered in the dirt. As it turns out, Playa Vista’s history wasn’t just Hughes building his Spruce Goose — defense contractors also set up shop here over the years.
But military-grade explosives weren’t all they found buried here. Excavations also turned up bones and ancient artifacts of the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe, causing a fair amount of controversy when they were exhumed prior to construction until they were reinterred in 2008 at what’s now Discovery Park.
And then there were the soil problems and the presence of methane gas — not to mention a fortune spent on litigation that went all the way up to the California Supreme Court.
So the next time you pick up some organic nut milk from Whole Foods, know that it took detailed planning, leadership and sheer tenacity on the part of many to bring L.A.’s newest neighborhood to fruition.
Currently executive vice president of Playa Vista master developers Brookfield Residential, Johnson, 60, remembers when this was all mostly empty space.
Johnson came to Southern California in 1979, seeing opportunity for growth and development that just didn’t exist in his native St. Louis. He came aboard the Playa Vista development project way back in 1989. With an all-star team of developers and a deal exactingly negotiated by then L.A. City Council member Ruth Galanter, the first phase of Playa Vista was finally approved in 1993.
“At that point, there was a tremendous amount of outreach with the communities, a lot of charrettes [collaborative sessions in which a group of designers draft a solution to a design problem] and things like that, but we had some real smart people working on it,” Johnson says.
Shortly after that, however, came defense industry cutbacks that cost Southern California about 700,000 jobs.
“There wasn’t a market at that point,” says Johnson of the monumental setback.
A glimmer of hope came in 1995, when DreamWorks SKG wanted to build a movie studio campus in Playa Vista.
“They thought that the animated film ‘Prince of Egypt’ would be another ‘The Lion King.’ The capitol that they raised — they wanted to go into content, not bricks and mortar. They started building the animation campus in Glendale and were going to create the feature film and music departments here. They actually bought the land from us, but ended up moving on,” he recalls of giant setback No. 2.
In spite of all the hurdles, Johnson and his team forged ahead.
“Playa Vista is like my fourth child!” he says.
Ownership changed in 1997, and by 2000 the first tenants moved in to Playa Vista’s westerly Phase 1 apartments. Johnson believes it was the vision for a progressive, inclusive community that helped Playa Vista succeed in the end.
“In addition to 3.5 million square feet of office production support and sound stages, we had 32 projects in the first phase, 1,324 apartment units and 1,922 for-sale homes. The second phase took over 10 years to get entitled and includes 2,600 residential units, 200,000 square feet of retail and 50,000 square feet of office space,” says Johnson.
“The idea was to have stuff that was a little more affordably priced initially and to provide a mix of different housing. In our first phase, 48% of the 1,324 apartments were income-restricted. So we had people who made 50% of the median family income, people who made 80% of the median family income, and people who made up to 120%.”
Johnson is also proud of the non-residential components that tie the community together.
“Cedars-Sinai took 35,000 square feet for health care, and now you don’t have to schlep over to St. John’s,” he says. “The office campus, that’s all employment. It’s huge and it’s happening. We have something for everybody.”
If he had it all to do over again, Johnson said he would have brought the retail component in earlier to help establish Playa Vista’s lifestyle component.
And, he’d make sure the local school accommodated kindergartners up through eighth grade, not just fifth grade, so that parents could see a clearer educational pathway for their children.
“Initially, we had more pets than kids. In 2010, we had 200 babies born here. In 2011, we had over 230 — there were a tremendous amount of young children being born here,” says Johnson. “That first phase, when we did the floor plan, we had a preponderance of two bedrooms. You could have a 2,800-square-foot two-bedroom apartment. In this current phase, we’re bedroom centric — three, four, five bedrooms. You shift with the market.”
One of the more successful components of Playa Vista’s design is the way it balances density and open space. Given the requirement of four acres of open space for every 1,000 residents, Johnson said builders relied heavily on pocket parks to break up the density.
When it came to aesthetics, the master developers encouraged architectural diversity.
“The beauty of Playa Vista is that we don’t tell the builder to conform to any type of architecture,” says Johnson. “We define the geometry of the box, but we need the builder to be able to produce the product. We never said, ‘You need to do this in Mediterranean.’ We celebrate the diversity of different architecture.”
Johnson remains excited about the future, especially about Google building on 12 acres next to Hughes’ former Spruce Goose hangar.
“We are going to do well with that,” he says, almost like a proud papa.