His name has long been synonymous with Playa Vista, the controversial planned community of approximately 6,500 residents who are seeking residential life in a self-contained enclave. He has shepherded his company through dozens of legal challenges, environmental reports and legislative hearings.
After nine years at the helm of Playa Vista’s ship, Steve Soboroff is ready to give the wheel to two new co-captains.
Soboroff, the president of Playa Capital, announced April 20th to the surprise of many that as of Friday, April 30th, he will relinquish the day-to-day operations of the real estate enterprise to Randy Johnson and Patti Sinclair, who have been Playa Vista co-presidents since 2008. Soboroff insists that he will still be involved with Playa Vista, albeit in a much smaller role.
The announcement of his scaled back role comes nearly a month after the Los Angeles City Council approved Playa Vista’s Phase II known as the Village, a 111-acre mixed-use development that will include new parks, retail and commercial space and 2,600 additional housing units.
Soboroff said he expects that Sinclair and Johnson will not miss a beat once they officially take the reins.
“They’ll handle it beautifully, even better than I did,” Soboroff predicted.
He plans to stay involved with the company on a more limited basis, retaining a four percent interest in Playa Vista.
“I have a strong emotional connect with the residents, the neighbors and the mainstream environmental groups here, so that doesn’t go away at all,” Soboroff explained. “And while I won’t be here everyday anymore, I’ll still be involved with Playa Vista.”
During an hour-long interview after his announcement, Soboroff reflected on his time in the leadership role at Playa Vista, the planning and legal hurdles that he faced in building the sprawling urban development, whether or not he has any political ambitions and what the next stage of his professional life will entail.
The developer said he wanted a new challenge to tackle after his nine years of getting Playa Vista to the brink of fusing the primarily residential section with the Village.
“I want to do something in the private sector to help Los Angeles,” he told The Argonaut. “I planned to stay at Playa Vista for six or seven years originally, and now I think it’s a good time for a transition, for the company and for me.
“I’m not sure what I want to do yet, but I’m sure that I’ll find something.”
Sinclair and Johnson both view Soboroff’s move as a continuation of Playa Vista’s drive to complete the second stage of development and link the Village with Phase I, which is largely residential.
“Randy and I have worked on Playa Vista together for two decades, so we’re just continuing what we’ve been doing for years here,” Sinclair said. “It’s a great community. It’s part of who we are professionally, and we’re proud to be a part of it.”
Johnson said the first thing that he would like to see happen with the Village is determining what type of retail clients can be enlisted to come aboard.
“We’re having discussions with many different developers,” he said.
Johnson said some of the potential builders are looking at the mixed-use component of the Village while others have expressed an interest in building a project along the lines of the Waterside plaza in Marina del Rey.
Sinclair, an attorney who has been handling many of the company’s legal affairs, said the planned community’s residents have made their feelings very clear that they would like a supermarket and the retail stores to be built as soon as possible.
“We really want to bring that amenity to the community,” she said. “Unfortunately, our opponents have stated publicly that they intend to litigate (the approval of the Village by the City Council) which means one of the first things on my plate will be handling those litigation challenges.”
The Argonaut obtained a 2001 memo where Soboroff outlined a series of goals that he laid out that he said were a condition of accepting the position at Playa Capital. They included creating an excellent park system, providing housing, making traffic work, working with the media and being a good neighbor, to name a few.
Stephen Donell, a Playa Vista homeowner who is also a member of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, says Soboroff was the most visible component of Playa Vista and it is easy to see his influence throughout the community.
“He’s a very forceful, powerful and a politically well-connected individual, and I think that helped to get the community built,” said Donell.
Soboroff categorically denied having any political ambitions and ruled out running for elective office.
“Absolutely not,” said the developer, who campaigned for mayor in 2001.
Sobroff touched on his legal battles with a group of environmental and conservation groups that filed several lawsuits against the first phase of the development. He said he was disappointed that the opponents of Playa Vista have not done more with the 400 acres west of Lincoln Boulevard that Playa Capital sold them.
“Look at what we’ve done with the land that we own, and what have they done with what they were given,” the Playa Capital president said. “It makes me think that they were in this just for the sport of it.”
Soboroff said he recognized that development is often controversial and was not completely surprised that many outside groups opposed Playa Vista.
“It is controversial and sometimes it should be, because a lot of development is abusive,” he stated. “But ours isn’t because we’re implementing good public policy goals, and people love it here.
“When that happens, the opposition peels off,” Soboroff added. “And at the end of the day, what you have left standing are extremists. The mainstream environmentalist groups are with us.”
Tom Francis, the executive director of the Ballona Wetlands Trust, which successfully sued the project to delay Phase II in 2007 and whose organization has been one of Playa Vista’s most vocal critics, did not return phone calls for comment.
Heal the Bay Executive Director Mark Gold gives Soboroff credit for his directness.
“The one thing that I appreciated working with Steve is that you always knew where you stood with him,” said Gold, whose organization did not join any legal action against the development. “But I don’t want anyone to confuse the fact that because we had a working relationship we were supportive (of Playa Vista).”
While Heal the Bay took issue with Playa Vista on natural resources and water quality matters, the Santa Monica-based environmental nonprofit did agree with the developer’s decision to sell 150 acres of wetlands to the state several years ago.
“We were very critical, but we never formally opposed the project,” Gold clarified.
Donell said Soboroff’s ability to persevere throughout the protracted legal proceedings was instrumental in the development of both phases of the community.
“He never wavered from the message of live, work and play within your own community,” he said. “That helped to create a legacy of a brand new community land use model.”
Donell said many in the environmental community saw Soboroff as a divisive figure.
“But most leaders that are successful tend to be somewhat polarizing,” he noted.
As a former parks commissioner, Soboroff is proud of the public parks system that he has helped develop. According to estimates from Playa Vista, 70 percent of the usage of the community’s recreation facilities is by non-Playa Vista residents.
“We’ve created probably the finest privately built, privately maintained free park system in America,” Soboroff asserted. “We also have a freshwater marsh that we created and we’ve built a public library.”
Near the end of the interview, the former head of Playa Vista was asked how he would like to be remembered and what he thinks the signposts of his legacy as the public face of one of the city’s most controversial developments should read.
After a few moments, he answered, “He did what he said he was going to do.”