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DEVELOPMENT—Ahmanson: 15 Years and Counting

Guy Gniadek Title: President, Ahmanson Land Co. Age: 45 Education: Educated in architecture and planning at Indiana’s Purdue University and the Southern California Institute of Architecture Career turning point: Making the switch from architectural work to representing a large-scale project Personal: Married, two children Most admired people: Father Henry and sister Rita Guy Gniadek has been involved in getting Ahmanson Ranch off the ground since it was just a developer’s dream 15 years ago It’s been nearly 15 years since plans for 3,000-plus homes and a “mini-city” among the twisted oaks and rolling hills of Ahmanson Ranch were first introduced, nine years since the project was initially approved by Ventura County officials. Nevertheless, the first shovelful of dirt has yet to be dug. Throughout almost the entire history of the project, Guy Gniadek has been involved. Ahmanson Land Co. President Gniadek, a trained architect, lives in Woodland Hills. He first got involved in the project as a planner in 1986 while with the Los Angeles firm of A. C. Martin & Associates Environmentalists and West Valley residents opposed to the project have waged a bitter campaign against the developer, Ahmanson Land Co., a subsidiary of Washington Mutual. They say the project is certain to turn the already congested Ventura (101) Freeway and nearby city streets into a nightmare for commuters and residents, that it would suck up the last open space in the region and that it threatens to wipe out the habitats of endangered indigenous plants and animals. Fourteen lawsuits have been filed against Washington Mutual regarding Ahmanson Ranch since 1992. While none have succeeded in stopping the project, they have managed to stall development significantly. The original target date for breaking ground was 1997. The Los Angeles City Council is calling for a new environmental review of the project, saying the one submitted in 1992 is now outdated. The council also voted earlier this month to deny Ahmanson’s request to extend Victory Boulevard (which now dead-ends at the city’s border) to allow access for construction crews and ultimately the residents who will live there. Washington Mutual officials remain undaunted: They say forecasts of a 50-percent increase in population in Southern California by 2020 clearly support the need for more housing in the already jobs-rich area near “the Ranch,” as they like to call it. To appease opponents’ concerns about the environment, Ahmanson has transferred more than 10,000 acres of open space to an acquisitions unit of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. A supplemental EIR has been completed since the discovery in 1999 of the red-legged frog and San Fernando Valley spine flower, and the project now includes plans for a protective habitat. Ahmanson officials say the project will create about 1,700 permanent jobs and 500 construction jobs that would last throughout the planned 10-year build-out process. They also predict the project will generate more than $20 million in sales tax revenues for Los Angeles and Ventura counties and pump an additional $2 billion into the local economy over the next decade. Gnaidek spoke recently with Business Journal reporter Jacqueline Fox about the latest developments and how they impact plans to break ground in 2003. Question: Given the recent developments, is 2003 still a reasonable time frame for breaking ground? Answer: Yes, we are very confident that we are on track and ready to start this project sometime in mid-2003. Q: Ahmanson recently hired former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to address opponents’ concerns. What kind of progress has he made so far? A: Mr. Babbitt has been extremely helpful to us by providing open dialogue with various environmental groups here in Los Angeles, like Heal the Bay, for example. He is helping to bridge gaps and identify the best way to explain the project and discuss it from the perspective of addressing complicated environmental concerns. Q: Critics have suggested Babbitt’s hiring was an indication that Ahmanson was starting to feel pressure from opponents. Has Ahmanson or WAMU ever considered backing out of the project? A: Absolutely not. Mr. Babbitt didn’t decide to come and help us because we called him up. He looked at the project very, very carefully and has helped us deal with some of the complicated issues involved, and we thought he could create a better form of dialogue for communicating those issues with the public. Q: Gov. Davis has authorized a statewide $2.6 billion parks bond vote. Would its passage take some heat off of Ahmanson Ranch regarding the objection environmentalists have to the potential loss of open space? A: I think it’s important to remember that the Ranch has appropriated 10,000 acres to a public trust, and that’s a design component offering the kind of space program we think is unprecedented. But we also think that the parks bond would address many concerns for open space programs in Los Angeles and areas adjacent to the ranch. Q: Is the estimated price tag for the project still around $1.2 billion, even with the number of mitigating projects Ahmanson has agreed to fund and the lawsuits it has had to defend? A: I would say yes. We are still pretty consistent with that figure. Many of the mitigating factors were plugged into the budget, so if the costs move a few million one way or another, they are already costs that are factored in. Q: Most of the more than a dozen lawsuits filed against Ahmanson since 1992 were unsuccessful in stopping development. How many are pending and how are they expected to impact development? A: There are no outstanding or pending lawsuits today. Q: A supplemental report dealing with the discovery of the spine flower and the red-legged frog will be released soon. You have said that another complete report is unnecessary. Why is that and what will the supplemental EIR show that the first one did not? A: (The supplemental) report, we believe, will address all of the new issues as they relate to the discovery of the spine flower and the red-legged frog. We don’t know exactly what is in the report because it is prepared for the city by Ventura County, so everybody sees it at the same time. And it’s Ventura County officials’ decision to decide what it will contain and what is needed to address any concerns that have come up since the original study was completed. And, the county has already determined that this report addresses any new environmental concerns. Q: This is being touted as a “model community,” with a variety of residential uses, including low-income housing. What makes Ahmanson Ranch a “model community”? A: What we have tried to do is design a project that encapsulates smart-growth principals. I think it is going to have a very strong identity for itself as a public place, but with all the components of a good mixed-use community. We have planned for some low-income housing and are trying to make it as collective and diverse an environment as possible. It has 23 different housing components ranging from apartments to one- to two-acre parcels, so we envision that it will be home to many diverse groups of workers and families. The lower-income units are actually at three pricing levels. At the bottom of the scale, a three-bedroom unit, which may be an apartment or a townhouse, would probably start at about $170,000. Q: What is the status of the dispute over opening up Victory Boulevard to allow access for construction crews in the near future and for residents down the road? A: I understand that there is a motion before the Los Angeles City Council to refer the issue back to the L.A. City Attorney’s Office for review of the legal boundaries, to give them an opportunity to understand all of the terms of Ahmanson’s rights to the easement. We are confident that those terms are going to hold.

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