BALLONA WETLANDS --
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN "NEW TIMES", LA, JUNE 3 - 9, 1999
By J I L L S T E W A R T
The houselights dimmed as a throng of people squeezed inside the theater at the Museum of Tolerance for a
documentary about the fight to stop a subdivision (population 29,000) in the Ballona Wetlands. As the film began,
a handful of audience members spotted a familiar Hollywood icon quietly slipping into a specially saved seat.
Incredibly, it was Steven Spielberg there to watch The Last Stand: The Struggle for Ballona Wetlands. Virtually
unnoticed, he was among an audience of liberal Westsiders, the sort of people he calls his own. Yet with each
mention of Spielberg or DreamWorks during the film, which describes the studio's role as the anchor tenant in the
would-be development at Ballona, the audience hissed and guffawed.
That the beloved director of E.T. could be the object of jeering at the Museum of Tolerance, which he helped build,
is emblematic of the fight surrounding massive construction proposed on 1,087 acres of wetlands and buffer
acreage that sprawl below the bluffs of Westchester. The Ballona brawl has profoundly redrawn the battle-lines
over megadevelopment that have long divided Los Angeles, thrusting lead characters into roles that go
uncomfortably against type and leaving a perplexed public wondering which side is which.
On the pro-development side are major environmental philanthropists: Spielberg, the world's most successful
filmmaker; David Geffen, the music industry giant with so much money that he paid $47 million cash for the fabled
Warner Estate a few years back; and their partner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Disney financial whiz. Together,
the three are among the 10 biggest contributors to, and close friends with, President Bill Clinton and Governor
Gray Davis, among other powerful liberal Democrats with major environmental credentials.
Despite claims to the contrary, DreamWorks has acted as the Trojan horse, opening the way for the long-delayed
Ballona project. Today, developers are finally laying in sewage pipes and bulldozing extensive roadbeds to erect
"Playa Vista", which will be twice the size of Century City. If completed, the project will cover 750 acres of the
Ballona Valley, and already enough dirt to fill half of Dodger Stadium has been dumped into its sensitive
The $7 billion project would include 13,000 mostly luxury residences, 5.5 million square feet of commercial and
retail space and two artificial lagoons or lakes to be dredged from Ballona's wildflower fields and wetlands. In an
era when the United States is losing 60 acres of wetlands a day, Playa Vista would destroy hundreds of acres of
buffer lands that protect Ballona from humans and would also fill in 100 acres of scattered wetlands. Just 249
acres, including a marsh and tidal channels, would be preserved.
Ruth Galanter, once the most environmentally friendly member of the L.A. City Council, has taken to publicly
sneering at the Sierra Club and the California Public Interest Research Group as she defends her dream to build
Playa Vista. And the longtime group, Friends of Ballona Wetlands, which settled a lawsuit with the developers and
now supports Playa Vista, is rued by a younger generation of activists, one of whose leaders says "They should put
the word 'friends' in quotes."
The mainstream media - normally coldly skeptical of gargantuan L.A.-style developments, such as Warner Center
or Ahmansaon Ranch that have gobbled up acres of open space - has undergone a role change, too. Led by the
film-industry-friendly L.A. Times, the media has provided an unusually uncritical forum for the developers, who
claim their project would be "sustainable" and environmentally friendly despite undisputed studies showing
gigantic increases in traffic and smog for the area west of Beverly Hills and Inglewood.
"If sustainability means gridlock and restoration means bulldozing and 'friends' means enemies of the last open
space, then I think we've found the lost chapters from Alice in Wonderland," says Jerry Rubin, spokesman for the
6,000 member Southern California peace and environmental activism group Alliance for Survivial. "You've heard
of whitewashing. Playa Vista is greenwashing."
In keeping with the topsy-turvy nature of the Ballona controversy, three weeks ago the City Council unanimously
approved $35 million in taxpayer subsidies for DreamWorks and Playa Capital, the company developing Playa
Vista. Although it was a legally required "public hearing", just one member of the public was allowed to speak out
against the subsidy while a decidedly frosty Ruth Galanter controlled events with an iron hand.
Elected 11 years ago on her vow to stop development of Ballona, the councilwoman would not let stunned leaders
Rosemary MacHardy of the Sierra Club or Wendy Wendlandt of CalPIRG speak, snapping at them: "You've had
Yet not a week later, City Hall insiders privately admitted to New Times that the subsidies are "indefensible" in
today's boom economy and would merely boost the profit margin for Playa Vista's billionaire investors.
Considering how the skids have been greased for them, Galanter and Playa Capital ought to be breathing easy by
now. Buoyed by the $35 million city subsidy and another $40 million from Caltrans, energized by DreamWorks'
close of escrow on 47 acres at Ballona last month for $20 million, and heaped with praise by Governor Davis,
former Governor Pete Wilson, and Mayor Richard Riordan, the project, by all rights, should be unstoppable.
It is embraced by powerful local unions, led by County Federation of Labor Secretary-Treasurer Miguel Contreras,
who is delighted over Playa Capital's plan to cover two-thirds of the Ballona Valley with buildings and pavement,
thus promising thousands of construction jobs. Jazzed about the profit potential, Microsoft billionaires Paul Allen
and Bill Gates have become partners in DreamWorks' proposed new studio, to be nestled in a palm-studded
media district dubbed "The Campus" at Playa Vista's eastern end.
The Microsoft billionaires are outranked by Playa Capital's wealthiest backer, former Michael Milken aide Gary
Winnick of West L.A., now America's richest citizen thanks to huge profits from his transoceanic high-speed data
firm, Global Crossing.
Winnick, a friend of Katzenberg's worth $6 billion, has joined with the big pension fund Union Labor Life
Insurance Co., which has never before invested in a land development of this size, to pour in more than $40
million for a stake in Playa Vista. They have partnered with two big Wall Street players that have promised more
than $150 million - Morgan-Stanley's real estate group led by Owen Thomas and Goldman Sachs real estate fund
led by Dan Neidich. The four entities now control the project.
Investors expect profits in the billions from the sales of housing and commercial lots.
A business leader close to Mayor Riordan giddily explains why: "If the land at Playa Vista costs, say, $5,000 or
$10,000 per lot" and the lots are then sold for $100,000 or $200,000, huge profits roll in. "The question is: Will
people pay north-of-Montana-Avenue prices to live in Venice housing density? Investors think yes."
Riordan, himself a multimillionaire, touts the project as "badly needed higher-end housing that will attract skilled
workers to move to L.A., who in turn will attract not just DreamWorks but lots of high-tech companies. It's great all
Yet despite this powerful imagery put forth to the public that the Ballona Wetlands will be turned into a
megadevelopment with the new DreamWorks studio as its anchor, the picture looks anything but rosy for the
millionaires and billionaires of Team Playa Vista.
"This is not," says CalPIRG's state political director Wendlandt, "a done deal."
In addition to finding themselves in the cross-hairs of many of the region's big environmental organizations, the
developers have raised the ire of top wetlands scientists and formidable environmental lawyer Steve Crandall, the
former U.S. Attorney who won $5.5 billion for victims of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.
A coalition of 90 groups, led by the Wetlands Action Network, the Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation, the
Ballona Valley Preservation League, and CalPIRG, argues that the 1,000 open acres that survive in the Ballona
Valley today - the last coastal wetlands in L.A. County - are critical to the ecological health and human sanity of
congested and paved-over Los Angeles.
Their cry to "Save All of Ballona" is finally reverberating with the public, in part because the nation's disappearing
wetlands (which lacked a lobby years ago when Ballona's developers cut their deal with Galanter) are now widely
viewed as crucial contributors to biodiversity and global health.
Standing-room only crowds of 400 plus have attended "town hall" meetings sponsored by the Ballona Valley
Preservation League and the Wetlands Action Network in Santa Monica and Westchester, including one in Playa
del Rey last week. Anxious Westsiders are expressing bewilderment over how such a huge project got approved
without a federal Environmental Impact Study. And, just like at the screening of The Last Stand at the Museum of
Tolerance, each mention of Spielberg or DreamWorks at those public meetings has been met with a chorus of
"If the City Council of Los Angeles had any guts after the city burned in 1992," Steve Hoye, of the John Muir
Project, said to sustained applause recently, "they would be worrying about putting mass development, jobs, and
construction where it is needed in LA. - and that's not on the Westside."
Three weeks ago, a new crop of faces on the Santa Monica City Council voted to revisit the city's stand on Playa
Vista; a previous council had accepted $1 million from the developers in exchange for its silence on Phase 1 - a
giant grid of 3,200 condos, an artificial lake, and 3 million square feet of office space and studios, including
DreamWorks. In the major political shift, Santa Monica voted to study whether it could take back control of Lincoln
Boulevard from Caltrans, thus preventing a proposed expansion of that north-south corridor into 10 lanes for a
throroughfare into Playa Vista.
If Playa Vista is built, it will decimate an estimated 200 of the 589 species of animals, reptiles, birds, and plants
in Ballona Valley, create 200,000 extra car trips daily on the 405 Freeway and nearby roads, and bring unheard of
density to the Westside - averaging nearly 50 units per acre. Galanter claims the community would contain 50
percent open space. But that figure is arrived at only by including street medians, cement flood-control channels,
the practically vertical Westchester Bluffs, and the wetlands that Playa Capital says it will preserve.
Many other issues have barely been broached. "It's just dawning on Santa Monica that all those pampered studio
types are going to turn the Santa Monica Airport into a Lear jet center louder than anything they have ever
dreamed," says newly elected Councilman Richard Bloom. (Noise is already a huge issue for those who live
around the facility.) "And 29,000 people will turn Lincoln Boulevard into a freeway - but did any of us get to vote
The L.A. chapter of the Sierra Club, mortified that Playa Vista's promoters have convinced the vast majority of the
local media that most environmentalists favor the project, is expected to respond soon by winning formal
opposition to Playa Vista from the National Sierra Club. (Even the National Audubon Society, severely tainted by
accepting $10 million from Ballona's previous would-be developers in 1984 on a promise that 175 acres would
be saved, is under pressure to clarify its muddied involvement and to take a public stand.)
Over the past few months, several of California's most respected wetlands biologists - including university
professors James Henrickson, Rudi Mattoni, and Barry Prigge, all of whom were hired by Playa Vista to assess
the health of the wetlands - have openly attacked the developer's "wetlands restoration" plan. They were joined
last week by Terry Huffman of San Francisco, considered the nation's top wetlands scientist, who supports a
request for an injunction - which will be argued in court next week - to stop the bulldozers.
"The developer thought he would hire us to say we approved of the restoration plan," says Henrickson. "But none
of us would do it, and you won't find a serious biologist who will."
Riordan's advisers refuse to speak on the record about how the project can claim to be "sustainable" when every
measure in the development's own Environmental Impact Report (a document far less rigorous than a federal
EIS) shows a bleak outcome for the Westside.
"I will have to refer to the Sierra Club [White Paper] on sustainability and get back to you," said Deputy Mayor
Rocky Delgadillo, who never got around to calling back. While Delgadillo did speak in vague terms about the
project before this hot potato came up, other key players refused to discuss Playa Vista with New Times at all,
including Ruth Galanter, the original developer Rob Maguire (who was squeezed out by Playa Capital), and the
principals at DreamWorks.
The political explanation has been left to Playa Capital, where vice president of corporate affairs David Herbst
asks, "Do we create development where there is already existing infrastructure or go out into the hinterlands...
and build in the mountains?"
But selling Playa Vista as an antidote to suburban sprawl has been skewed by such urban planning luminaries as
Margaret Crawford, of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, who calls Playa Vista "scary" and its strain
on urban infrastructure "extraordinary."
The recent leak of Playa Capital's confidential business plan to Rex Frankel, the activist publisher of the Save All
of Ballona newspaper, suggests possible dissent inside the company itself. The business plan"s content has
deeply embarrassed Playa Capital's top dogs by revealing, Frankel says, "that despite their insistence that they
needed large taxpayer subsidies to save the project, Playa Capital got significantly more in handouts" from City
Hall and Caltrans than the developers had privately thought possible.
One high level DreamWorks insider says "Everybody is cringing over the stupidity of putting down on paper that all
these millionaires got even more taxpayer money from City Hall than they dreamed. What a screwup!"
Perhaps most unsettling for Playa Capital, however, is the recent withering reaction in the California courts to
such so-called wetlands restoration plans pushed by profit-driven developers.
A major ruling against Playa Vista by federal judge Ronald S.W. Lew last summer and a published decision in
May against developers of Bolsa Chica Wetlands near Seal Beach by the California 4th District Court of Appeal
question the very premise upon which Playa Vista is justified by Galanter and Dream Works: that man can save the
wetlands even as man constructs upon them.
That debate is now before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Playa Capital is on the hot seat. On May 4, in
a major showdown, Steven Crandall (of Exxon Valdez fame) representing the Wetlands Action Network, faced off
against the Corps of Engineers and Playa Capital, which are appealing the injunction Lew slapped on the corps
for granting a milestone permit n 1992. The permit allowed the developer to construct Phase 1 without the federal
Environmental Impact Study and gave Playa Vista permission to build a huge "freshwater marsh" on saltwater
wetlands west of Lincoln Boulevard. Lew's order has stopped work on the 1-acre marsh, but other aspects of
Playa Vista are moving forward.
Playa Vista's in-house wetlands ecologist, Sharon Lockhart, and Friends of Ballona Wetlands say the
half-completed dammed pond is "the critical first step" to reviving the saltwater wetlands by using the pond to
regulate freshwater storm runoff that enters the salt marsh and by naturally cleansing that storm runoff.
But this opinion is disputed by top biologists and Wetlands Action Network leaders, who contend that the marsh
would be a poorly disguised "storm runoff treatment pond" that would have to be dredged of toxic-muck buildup
every few years. The real reason the developers desperately need the pond, they argue, would be to handle the
virtual river of runoff once Phase 1 is covered with pavement and structures.
The legal battle, according to attorney Crandall, "has uncovered something you almost never see, and that is a
memo showing the federal government's Army Corps of Engineers working on behalf of a developer, and not
doing its job, and the people of L.A. getting a very large piece of open space taken from them as a result."
As Crandall explains, the notoriously pro-development corps was the top authority in 1992 when it permitted
Playa Vista to move ahead without the Environmental Impact Study, despite heated objections from federal
government scientists. The EIS was the sole way to determine how much the valley's ecosystem would be
damaged by high-density development.
Sometime in the next two months, the 9th Circuit could lift Lew's injunction and let Phase 1 and the "freshwater
marsh" go forward, or it could halt all of Playa Vista for two years to conduct the federal EIS - a delay that
probably would send investors packing.
Yet, standing outside City Council chambers, just having won the $35 million subsidy, Playa Vista President Peter
Denniston declared himself worry-free about the upcoming appeals court decision. "We are bullish ... and we
think the court will rule favorably," he boasted. "These lawsuits are just nuisances."
Perhaps, but Sharon Duggan, an attorney for the Wetlands Action Network, warns, "The big dogs aren't always as
smart as us, because we are smaller and we are quicker and we are scrappers - and we want it more."
Marcia Hanscom, a former public relations executive who now directs the 3,000 member Wetlands Action
Network and is the person most hated inside the executive offices of Playa Capital and DreamWorks, likes to tell
a story about a good friend who in the 1960s bought a house in stunning Point Reyes near San Francisco.
"The beautiful seashore had been bulldozed, the street lights were in, the pavement was laid, the model homes
were up, and Point Reyes was being subdivided," says Hanscom. Then President John F. Kennedy signed the
Point Reyes National Seashore Act "and the developers had to take it all out."
The earth, Hanscom says, "is incredibly resilient. Ballona can be saved."
In the 1930s, the Ballona Valley was a rich cradle of wildlife, a vast stretch of fresh-and saltwater wetlands
created by the converging estuaries of the Ballona and Centinela creeks and the incoming tide of the Santa
Monica Bay. But in the 1930s, the Army Corps forced the creeks, which coursed beside and across the current
Hughes Aircraft site at the foot of the Westchester Bluffs, into cement channels.
Between 1940 and 1950, parts of the valley were bought up for a nominal price by Howard Hughes, and parts of
it were given to him outright in exchange for Hughes' promise to build aircraft there that would be used in
World War II. Hughes' company tried to fill in the marshland, finally resorting to driving pillars 50 feet down, but
was never able to tame the stubborn acreage where DreamWorks now plans to build its studio.
Despite claims by Katzenberg and his spokesman Andy Spahn that DreamWorks' land is "more than a mile"
from any wetlands, the truth is that two federally recognized "pocket wetlands" survive on DreamWroks'
property. Also, just south is the so-called Centinela Ditch, a federally recognized wetland that, though badly
tattered, contains a riparian habitat of willow trees, flocks of birds, and native mammals.
West of Lincoln Boulevard, Hughes had taken ownership of a huge misty bog filled with herons, egrets, terns,
and sparrows - and the mice, fish, and shrimp on which they preyed. In the 1960s, Hughes devised a tax dodge
by tilling the driest section near Lincoln, planting lima beans and Italian rye grass, and dubbing it "The
Beanfields". Though the pathetic produce grown in the salty marsh soil was rarely sold, Hughes got a big
"farming" tax break.
The destruction wrought by Hughes in the Ballona Valley enraged locals and environmentalists. So in 1978,
when Hughes' parent company, Summa Corporation, announced plans to build offices, hotels, and homes
everywhere but the marshy and largely unbuildable expanse west of Lincoln (where a golf course and senior
housing would be built), an outcry arose.
Local residents formed Friends of Ballona Wetlands, led by Playa del Rey screenwriter Ruth Lansford. They
were furious that a major road would be cut from the Westchester Bluff down to their area, and that the senior
housing would encroach on sleepy Playa del Rey. They strenuously fought the golf course planned for the
Beanfields and attacked the Hughes company's widely ridiculed offer to set aside only 72 acres of salt marsh.
Federal agencies urged Hughes to preserve 325 acres of wetlands, but in 1984, the National Audubon Society
suddenly agreed to accept $10 million from his firm - to restore the Wetlands and to build Audubon a flashy
nature center - in exchange for Audubon's agreement that just 175 acres need be saved.
Mary Neiswender, then a reporter for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, followed the story as Hughes
steamrolled its plan through the California Coastal Cammission with the complicity of pro-development forces
at Audubon. That year, Friends of Ballona Wetlands sued to stop the deal.
"I went after the Coastal Commission, which had approved the developing of Ballona against everything the
Coastal Act stood for," Neiswender recalls. "But one day, the Hughes people called my publisher, Dan Ridder,
and I was yanked off the story. The story was and still is: They [took] Ballona wetlands for Howard Hughes, and
then they cut deals to pave and wipe out protected wetlands, and nobody even paid for what they did. And today,
the powers that be are still moving ahead at Ballona with impunity."
In 1985, Councilwoman Pat Russell pushed Hughes' project through the L.A. City Council, and she soon
became a casualty of the public's outrage. Westside voters threw Russell out in 1987, choosing unknown and
part-time urban planner Ruth Galanter, who was supported by Friends of Ballona Wetlands. Galanter ran
under the anti-Hughes slogan - "She Can't be Bought and she Won't Back Down" - a claim that would come
back to haunt her.
The novice Galanter created a new city law that required developers to more carefully spell out details of their
construction proposals. Facing that new hurdle, and still fighting a lawsuit by Friends of Ballona, Summa Corp.
sold Ballona to the giant Maguire Thomas Partners in 1989. Maguire Thomas also wanted a
megadevelopment, but rather than waste precious time in court on a lawsuit it inherited from Hughes, it
negotiated with Friends of Ballona.
By most accounts, the two Ruths - Lansford and Galanter - became fast pals as they and other locals met with
powerful development executives Nelson Rising and Rob Maguire, a builder of luxury resorts and downtown
According to a former Galanter staffer: "Ruth was exhausted by the fight with Hughes, just exhausted." One
critic of the suave Rising and the crafty Maguire says the two men knew they could hook their quarry by
providing Galanter and the locals with "just enough of what they desired."
And the only discernible passion of the stiff and reserved Galanter seemed to be recycling, so Maguire Thomas
Partners devised a series of "green" projects - such as a since-abandoned "organic sewage treatment plant"
and extensive use of recycled building materials - to sell Galanter on their mini-city.
One of Galanter's allies, the well-known Santa Monica Bay marine biologist Rimmon C. Fay, recalls, "Ruth
Galanter came to visit me one day and said 'Rim, Playa Vista is a done deal. Please don't oppose me on this.'
I was just sick over what a sad and tragic case Ruth Galanter had become, and how she turned coat so damn
fast! Don't think me an old fool, but I have looked at what they're doing to Ballona, and I have wept over Ruth
Soon after, in late 1990, Maguire Thomas Partners and Friends of Ballona reached a legal settlement, with
Friends' co-founder Ruth Lansford publicly announcing, "The wetlands have been saved!"
Actually, Friends of Ballona had saved only most of Area B, west of Lincoln, which contains the Beanfields and
tidal channels and is largely unbuildable. Most of the Ballona Wetlands ecosystem could still be filled and built
Lost was Area D, a huge space containing the Hughes hangars and open fields stretching east almost to Culver
City, as well as the long-untouched acreage of wildlife-rich Area A along Ballona Creek facing Marina del Rey,
the large grassy lands known a Area C next to a Little League field, and a large corner of Area B wetlands.
Friends of Ballona also got a promise that the senior housing project next to Lansford's own neighborhood
would be scotched.
Ellen Stern Harris, director of Fund for the Environment and coauthor of the California Coastal Act, says, "This
was the best deal they could get at the time, but now Marcia Hanscom and the rest have come along, and
people understand we can actually save Ballona. Ruth Lansford at Friends of Ballona has clearly gotten herself
into a box she can't get out of."
In a supplemental settlement three years later, Maguire Thomas agreed to spend $13 million restoring the
Centinela Ditch and Area B wetlands - but only after its new city was well under way. In a master stroke by the
developers, Friends of Ballona then agreed in writing to support the Playa Vista project if it did not hurt their
limited wetlands-restoration plan, and to act as an outspoken proponent of Playa Vista in court and at public
hearings. Friends also agreed to accept $110,000 annually from the developer to pay its lawyer and biologist -
a highly controversial arrangement that continues today.
Christopher Jones of the 25,000 member Surfrider Foundation, which fights to protect coastal waters, says, "I am
sure Friends of Ballona began with the best of intentions, but the deal they signed is a compromise of integrity -
period - and of the right to speak freely."
Cal State L.A. professor James Henrickson, the biologist hired by Maguire Thomas to work with other top
scientists to identify the crucial ecosystems and endangered life that should be saved at Ballona, calls the
agreement by Friends, "a true disaster."
Henrickson says, "Friends of Ballona approved of pieces they personally wanted to save, and in return, they were
required to back this thing. This deal on a huge regional issue occurred in private without public debate. We
biologists came on later, and said 'How could Friends of Ballona have approved this - this nonrestoration plan?'
Friends of Ballona sold out. It's a simple as that."
Friends cofounder Lansford, embittered by such criticisms, sees things far differently, arguing that while her
group is now heavily financed by the developer, it still has autonomy. Lansford says the settlement accomplished
more than any other wetlands settlement she has ever seen. "Why would we work 20 years on an agreement that
In 1992, with Galanter enamored with the development's "green" aspects, the huge project moved at lightning
speed through City Hall. In 1993, when the 3,200 condo, 3 million square foot Phase 1 came up for council
approval, Galanter lead the near-unanimous vote.
"Ruth Galnter was my friend," says Don May, an original member of the League of Conservation Voters, who
managed Galanter's 1987 City Council victory. "But she went from being a person shouting in the audience for
the environment to the one saying 'We are done hearing from you people' ."
Among the city's elected elite, the only person who raised hell was Tom Hayden. Then an assemblyman, he
begged city leaders to give the public more than only 29 days to read and comment upon Maguire Thomas' Draft
Environmental Impact Report.
Hayden blasted Playa Vista's "mitigation" plans, devised to partially offset major regional problems, such as the
expected 200,000 additional car trips per day, projected air pollution that would make Playa Vista the largest
smog source in L.A. (after Los Angeles International Airport and two oil refineries), and mass runoff.
"The 'solution' to the traffic crisis becomes the construction of streets up to eight lanes throughout the
surrounding residential communities," Hayden said at the time. "The 'solution' to storm drain runoff is to build
bigger systems through which greater volumes of contaminated runoff will enter the wetlands and bay."
But nobody paid Hayden any attention. Newly elected Riordan was desperate for a major development that
could resurrect the city's broken, post-riot, post-recession economy. The L.A. Times reacted as Maguire had
hoped - by cheer-leading Playa Vista's green projects such as recycling, while giving scant attention to the
damage it could do to the Westside and to the historic open space at Ballona. The media mostly ignored the
great environmental clash taking shape among scientists, government agencies, consultants, and activists, who
began to read the fine print and to ask just exactly what had been won by the Friends of Ballona Wetlands.
As Professor Henrickson notes, for example, "In the most rich and diverse area of Ballona, the developer simply
decided to build a 'freshwater marsh.' The entire area was dug up and destroyed with the blessings of Friends of
Ballona before they were stopped by [Judge Lew]. Their so-called wetlands restoration - none of it makes a bit of
Bob Hoffman, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist, says the entire restoration plan "needs to be
reconsidered. The key element, the freshwater marsh, has nothing to do with helping habitat and everything to
do with handling the developers' own massive runoff."
Even Heal the Bay, which stayed neutral on Phase 1 of Playa Vista, because the developers satisfactorily
responded to the group's narrowly focused concerns over water quality, questions the restoration claim. Heal
the Bay Executive Director, Mark Gold, says, "Not to say it doesn't have value as a sort of restoration. But they
are putting a freshwater marsh on what was a saltwater marsh. How is that restoration? Restoring what?"
Playa Vista vice president Herbst counters that his firm would plant 12,000 native trees and bushes to help
absorb heavy metals and toxins from the runoff thus creating a new habitat for wildlife. "That's so damn ironic to
me that quote/unquote environmentalists are stopping the freshwater marsh habitat, and we, the developers, are
fighting for the habitat," Herbst says. "Ironic! Ironic!"
In 1994, with Friends of Ballona working as the de facto public relations arm for Nelson Rising and Rob Maguire,
a new generation of environmentalists began launching suits against Playa Vista, the California Coastal
Commission, and the Army Corps. In mid- '95, several groups formed a coalition called Citizens United to Save
All of Ballona, whose leaders included Marcia Hanscom, Rex Frankiel, Cathy Knight, Sabrina Venskus, Jeff
Jones, Andrew Beath, and others.
Bruce Robertson is head of the 2,000 member Ballona Valley Preservation League in Mar Vista and director of
Nature's Last Stand, a short film about the Ballona controversy. He recalls, "Playa Vista was dead in the water.
The real estate market was stalled out, and major investors wouldn't touch it. In his desperation, Rob Maguire
went to Ruth Galanter for public money. We saw a very weakened developer and had a chance to kill something
very bad for the health and sanity of Los Angeles."
But inside City Hall, Mayor Riordan had a different perspective. He had assigned a team to save Playa Vista,
viewing the project as crucial to reviving the city. "My assignment was not to worry about the environmental
battles, but jobs, jobs, jobs," says Deputy Mayor Delgadillo. "And jobs is what I went out and got."
Riordan's team worked with Galanter and Maguire to find a major glitzy tenant to kick-start Phase 1 with a
proposed 100 acre media and entertainment district (which later became The Campus). Everybody from Ted
Turner to Rob Reiner to Steven Spielberg - who rejected a downtown location for his and his partners' newly
formed DreamWorks SKG - was wooed.
The high-level DreamWorks insider says, "It was Steven [Spielberg] who chose Ballona from a list his own
consultant brought to him. Steven's vision has been driving this - a studio within this new model community for
the Westside designed for the next century."
Thus in the winter of 1995, Citizens United to Save All of Ballona watched in quiet shock as the long-sought
anchor tenant - DreamWorks - was announced. Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffery Katzenberg would
put L.A.'s first new studio in more than 50 years smack in the center of land that thousands of people were
struggling to recapture as open space.
Rubin, the activist from Alliance for Survival, remembers thinking "My God, we have to tell DreamWorks whats
happening here. David Geffen and Steven Spielberg will never build a studio once we tell them." Instead, Rubin
says, "we found ourselves dealing with just another corporation."
Environmentalists quickly realized how tough it was to get a meeting with DreamWorks. Citizens United, a
grass-roots organization whose members have ordinary jobs, were stunned by the indifference of the billionaire
"environmentalists", Spielberg and Geffen. When Rubin resorted to a hunger strike to force a meeting,
DreamWorks' owners let him waste away for 26 days.
Only Katzenberg finally agreed to meet, but he refused to allow the Sierra Club or any other major Playa Vista
opponents to attend. It was one of the many tactics by DreamWorks, Bruce Robertson recalls, "to marginalize
the opponents to Playa Vista and to make it seem that no big environmental groups were dogging DreamWorks-
just fringe types."
Katzenberg was openly hostile. Hanscom recalls, "We asked Jeffery, 'If we can stop Playa Vista and find
financing to buy the Ballona Wetlands, wouldn't you rather help create a huge nature park for Los Angeles and
get your name on that, than another subdivision?' "
"Next question?" Katzenberg responded.
The environmental groups went to war against DreamWorks even as City Hall swooned over them. According
to the DreamWorks insider, "Ruth Galanter would get right down on the floor and help us map out ideas with
marking pens - she was so turned on." Says one Riordan insider, "Even the lowliest [City Hall] clerks stopped
saying Mr. Spielberg or Mr. Katzenberg, and it was just 'Steven this and Jeffrey that.' "
But outside City Hall, everyday people were catching on to what the Hollywood boys were really up to. Led by
teacher Susan Suntree, a group called Theater Flux created a play called FrogWorks (featuring the evil
SpielKatzenGef, who is killing all the frogs), which has come to be performed in dozens of elementary schools
yearly. It is used as a lesson about how corporate power affects the health of the planet.
Because of FrogWorks, "Children come up to us when we have a booth about Ballona, and they think
DreamWorks is a terrible thing before we even open our mouths," says Doug Korthof, Web master for the
Wetlands Actions Network.
Criticism of DreamWorks has horrified Ruth Lansford. She began a volley of public attacks against the
Wetlands Action Network and others, calling them "a bunch of nuts" and "environmental zealots" in interviews
and at news conferences.
The Friends cofounder angrily says " If anybody thinks they can get more open space, go to it. But when you
start basing it on faith and not science, you are in trouble. Going to schools with FrogWorks and telling kids to
write to Spielberg is just defaming stuff."
Such angry retorts from Lansford have unsettled the environmental community. Some groups, long aligned
with Councilwoman Galanter, have stayed on the fence - notably Heal the Bay and the League of Conservation
Voters - even though some of their members privately hope Citizens United prevails. Also neutral is the
Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC's attorney, Gail Feuer, wife of pro-Playa Capital L.A.
Councilman Mike Feuer, has told Hanscom the NRDC will not oppose DreamWorks.
Don May, of California Earth Corps - which leads the fight against the San Onofre nuclear power plant - says
Friends of Ballona has tainted the L.A. environmental movement and created a media misimpression that the
environmental community likes what is happening to the Ballona Valley.
"Ruth Lansford's attitude is unbelievable," May says. "As a long-term, old friend of hers, I hate to see what has
happened to her. Ordinarily, when you settle a court battle as Friends did, you hold your nose and hope
someone else will carry the ball further. Ruth needs to get out of the way and stop doing such shameful stuff."
For example, in 1997, just as Wetlands Action Network was typing up the final paragraphs of a lawsuit to
prevent Playa Capital from harming endangered birds living in a thick 80 year old willow grove at Ballona,
Playa Capital sent out huge bulldozers that obliterated the grove and left a branch-strewn dust bowl behind.
With the grove eliminated, no lawsuit to save it could be filed.
"It hurts me deeply to even think about the willow grove," says Roy van de Hoek, a biologist who worked for
Friends of Ballona as a field-trip educator and has now joined the Wetlands Action Network.
"The developers wiped out an irreplaceable, endangered bird habitat just three days before they knew the
lawsuit was coming," van de Hoek says. "Ruth Lansford and the Friends of Ballona just looked the other way.
They gave horrible excuses. You see, all this destruction is part of the 'restoration' they have agreed, in
writing, to support and promote."
Playa Capital now plans to release its own Environmental Impact Report for the project's phase 2 - which has
not yet been approved by governmental agencies. Phase 2 would carve a marina or lagoon out of the
long-undisturbed fields and wetlands of Area A, erect a big tract of condos and retail abutting the Campus and
DreamWorks, build 1,800 condos on a large corner of wetlands in Area B, and construct pricey view office and
condo complexes near the existing Little League field in Area C.
David Herbst of Playa Vista says, "This is planning at its best."
Perhaps, but as Playa Capital's Vice President Chuck Colton recently explained to the L.A. Business Journal,
"We're in the business of making a profit beyond all else."
Under the Phase 2 plan, destroying Area A to dredge a marina or lagoon (also called the "water feature")
would increase profits two ways: The company could offer $1 million homes on man-made islands in the
marina, and the company could also market the "view" commercial property and condos, built next to the Little
League field in Area C, which would look onto the new water feature in Area A.
To separate the rich from the poor, the 10 percent city-required low-income housing in Phase 1 would be
densely packed, mostly above retail businesses near Lincoln Boulevard. Market-priced condos of $300,000
and $400,000 would act as a buffer between the project's low-end residents and rich buyers so that, as Playa
Capital marketing chief Ken Agid said, "people don't have a fear of the neighborhood."
It is this sort of contemplated mass destruction of rare open land, in seemingly crass pursuit of the bottom
line, that has inspired the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust to search for money to buy the 1,087 acres in the
Of course, the billionaires at DreamWorks have refused to consider such a plan, and Playa Capital says
Ballona is not for sale. But the Land Trust is researching funding sources, including $100 million available
from park bonds in California, as well as about $400 million that the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles
must spend to upgrade the environment to make up for ecological damages they have created by dredging on
A former DreamWorks executive on the business side say that, given such huge questions hanging over
Ballona's future, it is "amazing" that the 1,200 employees of DreamWorks have been kept out of the loop.
Employees, the former business executive says, know only that "Playa Vista would be a state-of-the-art world
in which you walk from your beautiful condo with its beautiful lake view to a campus on a lake surrounded by
creative thriving businesses, and everything looks pretty and wonderful. They have successfully convinced
employees that no environmental battle exists."
To do that, DreamWorks is promoting the notion that just "one nut" is to blame for dissent over Ballona's
future, and rumors have surged through the company that hated rival Disney is underwriting that person.
"Employees are definitely fed the idea of 'the one nut - that Marcia Hanscom woman' " says a former
DreamWorks creative-side employee privy to the strategy. "Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen are not used to
any criticism, yet are suddenly having this woman jump up their asses. They are used to seeing 12 people at
meetings against them, but now the meetings draw 400. They are in denial even more rigidly than before."
Hanscom laughs, "God, we would love for Disney to come help us save the wetlands."
Andy Spahn (the former environmental activist and staffer of Tom Hayden's who now arranges President
Clinton's overnight stays at the home of his current boss, Jeffrey Katzenberg) is a DreamWorks' spokesman
on the Ballona battle. He blames Hanscom for "misinformation and disinformation."
"I know Wetlands Action Network maintains that we made their life harder," says Spahn, "but I'm not sure
that's true. I question whether we really were so crucial to the developers of Playa Vista, who at one point
were even looking to open a spec studio of their own and didn't act like DreamWorks was so critical to the
An interesting spin. But the fact remains that former Governor Wilson and Mayor Riordan insisted on
DreamWorks' inclusion in Playa Vista as a prerequisite for handing out subsidies, including a $40 million
Caltrans grant to build 405 Freeway exits that would slightly offset the gridlock caused by Playa Vista. And
when Playa Capital bought the Ballona Valley from the creditors of the financially strapped Maguire Thomas
Partners, the firm was told it had to sell 47 acres of land to DreamWorks for a low price, or lose the subsidies.
"Dick Riordan was obsessed - I mean obsessed - with making sure DreamWorks did not go to Glendale or
Universal City. It had to be inside his city limits," says the former Galanter staffer.
A Riordan confidant adds, "Everybody knows that politically you can't easily hand $75 million to a bunch of
greedy land developers, but you can hand it out if it means the first 'new Hollywood studio in 60 years.' Of
course, DreamWorks was crucial to this project's survival!"
In fact, DreamWorks heavily (though quietly) lobbied City Hall for the public money.
One business leader close to Riordan says Katzenberg met repeatedly with Riordan's team to press for
"huge" public subsidies. "What did Jeffrey want?" the source says. "He wanted more."
Meanwhile, Spahn privately met with environmental groups - many of which have received big contributions
from Spielberg and Geffen over the years - to ask them to oppose Citizen United's fight against Playa Vista.
Surfrider Christopher Jones says "We met with Andy in a little spot at the Third Street Promenade, and he
peddled the idea that DreamWorks was just a tenant and not connected to the evil developers, and the
wetlands would be restored. Frankly, we are incredulous that DreamWorks thinks wetlands can be saved by
erecting a towering development bigger than Century City."
The Wetlands Action Network has publicly said they would not fight a DreamWorks studio on the former
Hughes industrial site if it were a stand-alone project that allowed the environmentalists to save the
remaining 1,000 acres of the valley.
Spahn refuses to comment on his bosses' views on the subject. (He also questions whether Spielberg really
attended the Museum of Tolerance's showing of the documentary The Last Stand, saying "I don't know, I
doubt he was there that night. He got a copy from the filmmaker, Sheila Laffey, and I assume he intends to
Whether the points made in the film register with Spielberg or not, the idea of building a stand-alone studio is
not "even under consideration by Steven," says the high-level DreamWorks insider who requested anonymity.
"Steven is a truly nice man, but his ego cannot be understood," says the former creative-side employee who
also asked not to be named. "He wants what George Lucas has - he wants that biiig studio gate with his name
on it and fabulous homes nearby where his executives can live, and it's come down to sheer force of will to
make it happen at Playa Vista. Everybody else be damned!"
Now that DreamWorks owns 47 acres of land outright, Spielberg's passion for the greater Playa Vista project is
expected by some to finally draw DreamWorks into a public war against environmentalists, an irony that some
say is lost on DreamWorks' driven owners.
"You can never underestimate the arrogance among Katzenberg, Spielberg, and Geffen on this project," says
the former employee. "They really feel that: ' We don't have time to bother with this environmental nonsense:
We can steamroll it if we have to.' President Clinton and Governor Davis will hear from the good friends
Jeffery, Steven, and David if [the three] don't get their way."
SKG and Playa Capital may have influence in high places, but the Wetlands Action network has key laws and
recent court rulings on its side. If the all-important 9th District Court orders a full federal Environmental Impact
Study into the effects of Playa Vista upon the entirety of the Ballona Valley, large portions of the development
may be ruled out. In addition, Debbie Cook, attorney for the Bolsa Chica Wetlands' environmentalists, says the
ruling by the 4th District State Appellate Court, published in May, bans developers from building any dwellings
or businesses on wetlands in the so-called Coastal Zone. That ruling, which environmentalists say finally
interprets the state Coastal Act as it was intended, complicates life for Playa Capital since wetlands are
scattered throughout Areas A, B, and C in the Coastal Zone, where Playa Capital wants to build during Phase 2.
(Hughes managed to get Area D exempted form the Coastal Zone.)
Finally, the coalition's new request for an injunction against Playa Capital and DreamWorks addresses the L.A.
City Council's permits, which allow Playa Vista to go forward only if it meets dozens of "conditions" to protect
the land. Yet the developers have marched ahead in many areas, and the City Council is refusing to step in to
protect the land. At the hearing scheduled next week, attorney Crandall says, "We will ask the court to stop
them immediately and make them repair the damage."
For example, Hanscom says, illegal bulldozing in Area B, to create a route for construction trucks, forced the
scattering of the wetlands' famous nesting colony of great blue herons. Several heron chicks died last month
as a result. In addition, illegal bulldozing is under way along Centinela Ditch and other areas of Phase 2 that
have never undergone a required environmental review, she says.
Lansford and Friends of Ballona call the new lawsuit, which seeks monetary relief, "really strange," and Playa
Vista spokesman Herbst terms it "unfounded."
Herbst and ecologist Lockhart stress that Playa Vista employs scientists, hydrologists, and engineers who are,
in good conscience, creating their own wetlands-restoration plan to be released this summer. Despite the
overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they believe (as do those in the top echelons of DreamWorks), that the
environmentalists are all wet, that the proposed megadevelopment in the Ballona Valley is really for the best.
After all, those who back Playa Vista include Steven Spielberg, arguably the most beloved and environmentally
aware moviemaker in the world, and politician Ruth Galanter, a darling of liberals, as well as billionaires Gary
Winnick and David Geffen, who couldn't possibly be in it for the money since they have so much already.
People like this wouldn't sacrifice the last surviving wetlands in L.A. County for the bottom line. Would they?
"Sometimes," says Marcia Hanscom, "I stand at the edge of the wetlands, and I wonder how these people will
tell the story to their own kids one day. Will they really say 'Honey, this was a huge green place filled with life,
but a bunch of us broke the rules and put alllll these buildings in - and now it's just like the rest of Los
Angeles?' Is that what power and greed do to the human heart?"
Is there a moral to the struggle to save Ballona Wetlands? And the loss of a sensitive bird sanctuary and
marine ecosystems? Are there lessons to be learned from the "give-away" of hundreds of acres of migratory
habitat and sheltering marine nurseries, merely to increase city revenues by extending the concrete slab of Los
Angeles to the water's edge? Is there perhaps even a morale builder in the knowledge that part of the habitat
was saved as a bargaining chip by the developers' attorneys and collusive city officials? For some, the answer
will be yes, no, and maybe. But for those activists whose decisions will determine the future, the answer may
perhaps be the adage of endless pressure, applied endlessly; and/or research and litigation, initiated endlessly.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Wildflowers of the Pribilof Islands
The Environmental Relief Center
Studio City, California 91614-0084
Ballona Wetlands -- a diminished but thriving marshland -- is today merely a small replica of a once larger landscape
which sheltered ancient communities and nourished a vast array of wildlife along the Southern California Coast.
From a distance, this miniature Eden appears as a sea of grass barely visible above the sprawl of Los Angeles; its
natural beauty has long been defaced by concrete waterways and urban blight; its upland habitat ravaged by
development and despoiled by an incongruous mix of architectural clutter. In the lowlands, heavily traveled boulevards
slice haphazardly through small parcels of habitat giving motorists easy access to other densely populated areas.
Nearby, broad avenues and up-scale shops beckon to newcomers, while automobile gridlock spews a deadly cloud of
pollution across the horizon. Yet, on a smaller scale, the splendor that once was Ballona Wetlands can still be seen
today as naturalists from the Ballona Institute lead their groups along tranquil paths and through secluded areas.
Early in the 20th Century, Ballona Wetlands was a dazzling sight to behold; coastal waters mingled with the free flowing
Los Angeles River creating rich and ecologically diverse tributaries and meadows which extended nearly five miles to
the east. This vast expanse of undisturbed marshland provided a buffer zone against storms and seasonal flooding --
incubating and protecting thousands of species of plants and animals. Through most of the last 100 years, as the City
of Los Angeles transitioned into a large metropolis, entrepreneurs were invited to pluck the wealth of this great natural
resource transforming coastal wetlands into a dumping ground for development and a catch-all for manufacturing,
drilling, farming, and other enterprises. Through decades of civic neglect, these short-term operations took their toll,
destroying ecosystems and contaminating acres of alluvial soil. Over time, however, as the fortunes of industrialists
rose and fell, periodic disuse and seasonal renewal gave birth to natural cycles of restoration and a portion of the
degraded land regained its function as the nurturing cradle and migratory oasis it once had been.
As Los Angeles grew, this frequently threatened natural sanctuary became a destination for travelers, while local artists
and poets typically sought inspiration in the rare geographic blending of prairie, streams, mountains and sea. Since
the early 1900s, Ballona Wetlands has also served as a haven for bird watchers and many quaint accounts of rare
sightings and daily observations have added a personal dimension to the recorded history of the great Pacific Flyway.
In March, 1999, Jill Stewart, investigative journalist and now Deputy Editor of the L. A. Weekly, published a story in New
Times, LA, detailing how this broad ribbon of wetlands was torn asunder by a passing parade of Los Angeles politicians
and speculators. Her gripping story reveals a long and dramatic struggle by local activists to save the wetlands -- not
only from the bulldozers -- but often from each other and from the compromises and settlements which defeated public
protest and all too frequently mandated affiliation with powerful interests. Over the years, many large and small
environmental organizations fell victim to corporate agreements which silenced their voices, defeated their non-profit
goals, and forced loyalty and support for the massive projects they had previously opposed. During the mid 1990's,
however, other groups of local conservationists effectively united as a coalition and initiated community outreach and
public education calling forth the services of biologists and other wetlands conservationists. Soon, they were able to
awake an entire City to the importance of coastal habitats and ecological preservation. Over time, these activists
courageously withstood corporate invective and demeaning publicity which undermined their cause. Eventually they
were able to salvage for posterity much of Ballona's endangered wetlands -- even as elected officials collaborated with
the developers and laid claim to large swaths of irreplaceable acreage. Nevertheless, the visible accomplishments of
many unsung local activists are now engraved in the public mind and in the public record. Although initially ridiculed,
and stigmatized, these grass roots leaders (identified below) have earned lasting respect for their vision and for their
unshakable commitment to the principles of coastal ecology and wetlands preservation.
At the conclusion of her spellbinding report, Ms. Stewart suggests that litigation may be the instrument of choice for
local activists as they practice the fine art of "endless pressure, endlessly applied."
The Environmental Relief Center
* * * * * * * * * * *
THE DEVELOPMENT OF BALLONA WETLANDS