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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

L.A. Wetlands

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard about some head-to-head disputes between Hollywood and the environment, including the recent decision by DreamWorks SKG to cancel its plans to build a studio on the last, major open space in Los Angeles.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In California, land conservationists are increasingly running up against a formidable opponent: Hollywood. In April, we reported on plans to develop one of the last remaining open spaces in Los Angeles. Steven Spielberg's production company, DreamWorks, wanted to build a studio there. DreamWorks promised to protect fragile wetlands in the site. But some environmental groups claimed that any development would be too much. And recently DreamWorks announced the deal was off. Joining us now to discuss this turn of events is Living on Earth's political observer, Mark Hertsgaard.


CURWOOD: Mark, most media coverage of the DreamWorks decision has been playing it as a business story. But there are some big environmental concerns here as well, right?

HERTSGAARD: Very big environmental issues. You're talking here about the last open space in Los Angeles. Very large piece of undeveloped land, about 1,087 acres. And for those of you who know Los Angeles, it's very close to the L.A. airport just on the other side of the ridge. If you stand with your back to the ocean at the ocean end of the property and you look back towards downtown L.A., the land stretches out for about 3 miles in a long oblong. And in fact, it bears a striking resemblance to Central Park of New York City. And that's one of the issues that the environmentalists who oppose this have raised, and say, look, if any city needs a new Central Park, it's Los Angeles. It uses only 4% of its land as park and open space. That compares with 17% in New York. L.A.'s a city where they literally pave the riverbanks. And so that's been a big concern: why would you pave over the last open space?

CURWOOD: But now, according to DreamWorks, they say they're not pulling out because of these environmental concerns. They're saying it is cold cash, and that they can't raise enough of it through financing. Do you buy that claim?

HERTSGAARD: I think there's maybe some truth to that, Steve. Financing has been a problem for this project for a very long time. The previous owner, McGuire Thomas, had to drop out because of financing difficulties. However, you're talking here with DreamWorks about some of the richest people in America. Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, is a big backer of DreamWorks. These guys could put together the money if they really wanted it, out of their own pockets. Out of their own lunch money, almost. So you have to figure that there was something else going on here. And certainly, all the environmental lawsuits that have been brought against the project couldn't have helped.

CURWOOD: So what happens now, Mark, to this site?

HERTSGAARD: The owners, Playa Capital, are saying we're going to go forward, we're going to build a studio, we're going to build all the condos. But that sounds, to be honest, like PR spin. It's going to be very difficult for them to do that because, first of all, the financing problems that stopped DreamWorks are still there on the table. And in some ways they've even become worse, because there is about $100 million worth of public subsidies that were going to go into Playa Vista from the state and from the city of Los Angeles, and those subsidies were essentially offered on the grounds that DreamWorks is going to be there, they're going to be a star anchor tenant and bring in all kinds of other development. If you take DreamWorks off the table, all those subsidies are going to be taken away, and it's going to be very hard for them to get the money for this.

CURWOOD: So at the end, what will happen to this land?

HERTSGAARD: The environmentalists who've opposed this say hey, we've got the answer, we should turn this over as public land. This should be a Central Park for Los Angeles. This should be a wildlife refuge. And indeed, they're in discussions already with state and Federal agencies to try and come up with the money. They've even been quite cheekish and suggested to DreamWorks that DreamWorks could try and donate its 47 acres of the 1,000-acre plot to get this process rolling.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Well, that's ambitious. And DreamWorks says?

HERTSGAARD: Well, DreamWorks laughs at that kind of thing. Jeffrey Katzenberg had a great line to the Wall Street Journal a few years ago about this. He said, "You know, in Hollywood, all great stories come down to one of three things: love, greed, or ego. This great story at Playa Vista has got two, and love's not one of them."

CURWOOD: (Laughs) You know, speaking of Hollywood, there's a project now in San Francisco, at the Presidio, that's got what? George Lucas involved as a developer.

HERTSGAARD: Sure, it's actually got some interesting parallels. The Presidio is the land that is right at the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the most beautiful and striking pieces of publicly-owned real estate in this country. Used to be an Army base, and then it's been recently turned into a national park. And then just two weeks ago, George Lucas won the rights to develop the Letterman Hospital Complex there. This set off an absolute firestorm of protest here in San Francisco, from both environmentalists and neighborhood groups who are saying wait a minute, this is a national park, why are we commercializing a national park and developing it? And the reason for that is the act that went through Congress to buy the Presidio for the national park said that it has to be financially self-sustaining in 15 years. And this, as I say, has set off a lot of protest here in San Francisco. It's going to be a big issue in the months to come and a real story for us to watch.

CURWOOD: Author and journalist Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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