Nearly every project falls a little short of its initial promise, and nearly every project loses some of its visionary luster in the translation from idea to fact. Even with limited expectations, however, Playa Vista comes as an unpleasant jolt. The 1,085-acre housing development immediately south of Santa Monica is the most striking example I know of the discrepancy between a plan and on-the-ground reality

True, the outlines of the elegant plan we first saw nearly 15 years ago are vaguely discernible in this incongruous cluster of newly made residential blocks on the Los Angeles waterfront. That plan had promised New Urbanist residential streets amid gardens and trees, sprinkled with small parks throughout. But, today, these streets are filed with massive, square, four-story apartment buildings of unvarying and unrelieved bulk that appear to have been extruded like ingots from some giant furnace. What’s more, the buildings are tricked out in gaudy dress, like truck drivers in drag. One building is a mediocre pastiche of Irving Gill, while another is a Saturday-morning cartoon of Josef Hoffmann.

Despite builders’ rigid compliance with rules requiring a continuous “street wall” of buildings along the sidewalk, these streets are not walkable. The narrow sidewalk is intimidated by the massive buildings, which are separated from the sidewalk only by a thin green margin. Nothing here is charming or carries any conviction, not even the cheerful Babbittry of the homebuilder. The entire effort seems forced, and the mood is one of intense psychological oppression.
In case readers suspect that this description is a told-you-so snub by a Playa Vista hater who would attack anything whatsoever built on or near the Ballona wetlands, please be informed that I am not one of them (although there are many). I have endorsed Playa Vista throughout years of planning and politics, primarily because I support affordable housing in crowded and expensive West Los Angeles, and because I hoped the promise of fine residential streets and a mix of housing types would succeed.

In fairness, the promised public amenities of Playa Vista, voluminously codified during the 1990s, have all been kept: There is a mix of housing for people of all incomes. There is a high ratio of open space to buildings, even if much of that open space is flat, unshaded grass. Here and there, one can see the electric buggies that the developers promised as a gadget-crazy alternative to driving. (What’s the matter with bicycles?) And whether or not I like the housing, it does add critically needed units in Los Angeles: For the approximately 1,400 units that remain to be built in the first phase of 3,200 units, there are 40,000 names on a waiting list.

At this moment, though, it is difficult to remember that Playa Vista, or at least its site plan, had been one of the great promises of the New Urbanism. Early in the planning stages, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybek, co-founders of the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU), were involved in the planning, and Plater-Zybek remained involved with the project for years. Later, Stefanos Polyzoides and Dan Solomon, two of California’s best-known urban designers and also CNU co-founders, consulted on the project.

In its earliest stages, Playa Vista was imagined by designers as a group of different housing types and different scales, designed in varying styles by many architects. The original vision of Playa Vista was a walkable place with little of the uniformity usually imposed by developers. This was a genuinely exciting idea for one of the largest urban infill projects in the country. Much later, after further “charrettes,” or all-day design sessions, architects and homebuilders reportedly agreed that much of the project would have to be four stories to be profitable, according to Ken Agate, the former Playa Vista marketing director who remains a consultant. Despite this move from creativity to uniformity during the charrettes, many New Urbanist planning principles remained in place: The sharp corners, the streets lined with buildings, the emphasis on landscape, the notion of locating stores and transit within walking distance of homes.

With so many “correct” design guidelines, how could the final result turn out so dismally? The easy answer, which is not exactly right, is that the money men took control of an unconventional project that they were too crass to understand. The financiers and merchant homebuilders cheapened and conventionalized Playa Vista to maximize their profit.

That kind of cheap shot will satisfy the Playa Vista haters, I suppose, but I think the real answer is more subtle.

The project fell into some crevasse between the intentions of the original designers and the practices of conventional homebuilding. It’s as if the builders followed the letter of the design, but not the spirit.

In particular, there seems to be a fundamental problem with the building type. For some reason, the buildings at Playa Vista are not “boulevard buildings,” to borrow architect Jan Van Tilburg’s memorable phrase. Height, by itself, is not the problem; much of Paris is covered in six-story apartment blocks, while Boston’s Back Bay, arguably the finest planned community in America, is made up four-story townhouses and apartments. But the buildings at Playa Vista, at least the ones finished so far, are conventional apartment buildings pretending to be row housing.

Conventional apartment buildings have one explicitly public area – the entrance – while the rest of the building and facade are private, in the sense that the facades were not really designed with an awareness of passers-by. Row houses (think San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, Boston) are explicitly urban because they “acknowledge” the public realm with formal and attractive facades while still protecting privacy with a small setback — usually a beautifully kept garden or miniature lawn, The narrow, green band-aids of Playa Vista are inadequate setbacks. The very features that make the row house seem public — front steps or “stoops,” a covered entrance or portico, a garden in front — are also the very things that protect the homeowner from public intrusion. Playa Vista, for the most part, lacks these protectors of privacy. We feel like intruders while walking by the balcony of a private apartment because there is no spatial or architectural intermediary. Quite literally, we can reach out and touch the hibachi, folding chair and guitar resting on the balcony. The housing seems vulnerable to the street, while the street, having no design or public character of its own, feels like an adjunct to the housing compound. Add narrow sidewalks and a lack of shade trees, and the result is claustrophobia.

The disillusionment is unavoidable for anyone who held out hopes for Playa Vista. It is doubly dismaying for the many people who risked their careers and political reputations to support what they thought would be a progressive piece of planning.

For my part, I am glad that new housing exists, especially the 25% that is reserved for low- and moderate-income renters and buyers. But once in Playa Vista, I cannot wait to get out — to get back in Los Angeles, on Sepulveda Boulevard’s strip of fast food, low-end retail and pawn shops. At this moment, it looks like the Golden City.