On The Edge in Malibu: Build Green or Let It Be?

Posted on 07. Apr, 2010 by Administrator in News

by Jason Dean

The hypocrisy hounds smelled blood when word began to spread last year about “Leaves in the Wind,” the 156-acre, five-dwelling development in the Sweetwater Mesa area of the Malibu hills proposed by U2 guitarist The Edge. People salivated over the suggestion that the very band that propped itself up as a paragon of social responsibility would allow one of its own destroy the ecological balance of a cozy, coastal enclave.

As rancor built among neighbors and the California Coastal Commission debated aspects of the project, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez added to the cause-célèbre quotient when he launched a couple screeds impugning the integrity of the plan. The informational website that offered extensive details on the project was “slick,” scoffed Lopez, and the PR firm handling media inquiries were “lobbying/marketing people.” But what of the actual substance of the plans and the people who created them? Project Designer Wallace Cunningham and Landscaper Pamela Burton have built world-class reputations as sustainable building professionals. All necessary permits have been granted; there’s no rule bending or circumventing going on here. Thus far, Edge (David Evans when necessary) has stayed out of the fray, his statement on the Leaves in the Wind website being his only public comment on the matter. But he did take the time to provide some thoughtful responses to questions I e-mailed to him in mid-February.

First off, I wanted to know, did he expect that local opposition would be so passionate, and has it gotten him to reconsider any aspects of the project? “I went into the project determined to set a benchmark for architectural design in the Santa Monica Mountains, and for the project and to be exemplary in every aspect. Therefore, any legitimate criticism has been welcomed,” wrote Edge. “I believed that if I could communicate my intentions that I would win people over…. I believe that most of the local opposition is softening as understanding of our blended, sustainable approach deepens. However, there is a small group of locals who are very vocal and simply want to stop all development of any kind. We are not expecting them to change their no-growth opinion.”

Therein lies the crux of the issue. Build anything new in Malibu—on public or private land—and you’re committing a sacrilege, according to a few. I ask Edge what he thinks about this. “There is a new development of houses in a similar setting to our own that recently received permits just to the east of our land, so construction is not particularly unusual,” he wrote. “An important thing to realize is that because this land has pre-existing entitlements for five, individual, salable homes, it will be built upon at some point by somebody. From looking around at all of the inorganic, unsustainable homes in the area, the question for this land is not whether it is built upon, but what will be built,” he continued.  “We have the opportunity now to do it right.”

Edge and business partner Derek Quinlan bought the Sweetwater Mesa acreage in 2006 for $9 million. Of the 156 acres that make up the five land parcels, the plan calls for each home to sit on roughly a quarter acre, with a total of 1.15 acres being utilized for the development. Originally looking for just a single-family home in the area, Edge said when he saw a brochure for the property, he realized there was vast potential to create a pocket of “sustainable, organically blended homes” that would “collectively complement the landscape” of an area that he has developed strong connections to over the years. (Not exactly a recent invader, Edge has lived in Malibu for the past decade.)

I wanted to know how Edge came to choose Burton and Cunningham as the design team, and he obliged with a thorough explanation. After initial discussions with MIT Boston professors of architecture John Fernandez and Andrew Scott to “tease out the design philosophy,” Burton’s company was chosen because of her extensive work with native plants. Edge was attracted to Cunningham’s “organic architecture based on the design theories of Frank Lloyd Wright.” Edge and his wife, Morleigh, met extensively with Cunningham, visiting other homes he had designed, meeting at the local Starbucks in Malibu, and, finally, walking the site and discussing their shared goal of building on the land while respecting it.

“What I loved about his work,” wrote Edge about Cunningham, “was that each home was totally different and site-specific. They felt in harmony with the landscape. Seeing how Wally has painstakingly studied each square foot of the Sweetwater Mesa landscape…has been very inspiring. He got to know the land so well that he gave each natural rock outcrop a name.”

Cunningham, a gentle man with an easy laugh, understands people are upset, but he believes their anger is misdirected. “When I drive [Pacific Coast Highway] in Malibu, I’m disgusted,” he tells me. “The architecture’s ugly, everything’s paved, and those people who are complaining, did it all. They built ugly houses in gray colors, no rainwater systems, no solar…they have exotic, non-native landscapes, and they’re complaining.” Cunningham’s building plans integrate with the land, using non-objective shapes for the houses. “We didn’t use right angles,” he says. “We use shapes…and colors that [look like] the mountains.” I ask Cunningham what he makes of the protests, and he empathizes for a fleeting moment. “Everybody means well. It’s a beautiful piece of property. I’m sure they all wish they would have put money together and bought it years ago. But they didn’t.” Still, Cunningham believes when all is said and done, and the vision for Leaves in the Wind becomes reality, the opposition will be won over.

I ask Cunningham about the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy’s claim that the project would bring with it “unavoidable significant adverse visual and ecological impacts,” according to a recent letter. “The Mountain Conservancy, it’s their job to say [they] don’t want anything [built].” Cunningham has already repositioned and redesigned the houses based on recommendations from the California Coastal Commission. “We took a year’s worth of work and threw it in the trash and started from scratch, and I redesigned [the houses] with their wishes in mind.”

Critics also have leveled claims that because a new water line will have to be constructed, other builders inevitably would be drawn to the area to tap into it as well. Edge was ready with an answer. “The extension of the existing water line will have very little potential for other builders to draw from it,” he replied. “The alignment was carefully designed to predominately follow already built and disturbed land. The two or three un-built parcels that conceivably could be served by the water line extension are growth-limited by difficult-to-build terrain, rather than water supply.” Clearly, this rock musician has become geologically enlightened through this whole process.

Stephen Billings, senior project manager at Pamela Burton and Company, elaborated on the process of integrating with the sensitive landscape. “We’re working with a native plant expert to help propagate plants….We want to plant small, for good root structure, have temporary irrigation for a year, then it’s survival of the fittest after that.” Billings mentioned that sophisticated drip irrigation systems that can communicate with weather satellites will be used within 100 feet of the homes to maximize efficient water use on a permanent basis. “We’re trying to reduce ecological impact by creating patches and networks of [native] plant materials,” he added. “We’re looking at how to go into this landscape and create new planting that blends in; we don’t want to create a green scar.”

I ask if there are plans to eventually widen the road or if any adjustments have been made to anticipate increased traffic. “There’s not going to be a lot of parking; they’re not going to be having big parties,” he assured me. Fair enough. But there is one final straw to grab at that even the most ardent dissenter probably had not considered. Surely, Edge’s home will be equipped with some ridiculously extravagant, state-of-the-art, recording facility that will by chance emit high frequencies causing all the furry critters in the area to turn rabid and attack the good people of Malibu in the town below. Then these meddling green builders will finally see the error of their ways. Your move, Edge. “Actually, the house will have no built-in technology. It’s going to be our family home, maybe a place for me to study, but hopefully not a work place.” No further questions, your honor.

Before Morleigh introduced him to the beauty of the Santa Monica Mountains years ago, Edge explained, “I had only ever seen L.A. from the perspective of a visiting touring musician, which was the basically the West Hollywood and Beverly Hills area. When I discovered the raw beauty of the mountains I was totally blown away. I felt I was seeing the real L.A. for the first time. From then on I have always stayed down near the coast.”

Cunningham offers a final rejoinder to those who would like to give Leaves in the Wind the proverbial rake. “We could be looking at more Taco Bells up there. We could be looking at a southern Tuscan villa,” he said. “In this case, we have something that I believe is American architecture. I like American architecture, from Thomas Jefferson to now. And I think American architecture is very different from other architecture in the world. And there is a tradition. I feel connected to John Lautner, to Frank Lloyd Wright, Schindler, Neutra—all of the gang…. Would I set out to destroy a beautiful place? I hope that’s not what people think of
my work.”

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14 Responses to “On The Edge in Malibu: Build Green or Let It Be?”

  1. jim smith

    10. Apr, 2010

    Mr. Evans had support when he first bought the property and it was thought that he would build his own home. When the scope of his development was revealed that support disappeared . What part of the mountain that will remain if his 5 houses are built will be provided water by his 1 1/2 mile water line and others will finish development of the entire mountain . He recognizes the special natural features of the land and his response is to maximize development of it . Not one person has said they support his 5 ridgeline houses with 1000′s of trucks carrying material back and forth . Hundreds of feet of high walls will be built on the 6,480 foot road . The opposition is not a small group . He is asking for approvals that would be denied to others . The opposition is not softening . There is no local support .

    Reply to this comment
  2. Pamela Campbell

    13. Apr, 2010


    Looks to me like another rich, famous individual expecting special consideration. Clearly Mr. Evans is NOT an environmentalist, but a developer and fraud who thinks he needs to chop down a mountain top for his elitist collection of 10,000 SQ houses, access road, water line, etc.
    Who needs a 10,000 SQ house? I mean, really!
    Conning and smoozing the neighbors early on only got him so far. However, his current obnoxious denegration compaign against the opposition will only make his lot worse when he goes in front the the Coastal Commission. Will he have the guts to attend or will he send in his paid sycophants?
    I bet Bono is a big phony as well.
    I really don’t want to hear any of these U2 rockers peep one more word about saving the environment.
    Practice what you preach.

    Disgusted at County Line

    Reply to this comment
  3. Steve Cahn

    22. Apr, 2010

    If anyone is wondering why Mr. Smith, who would be Edge’s nearest neighbor, continues to attack this project, here are some answers. The fact is that the access to these properties is over an easement that was involved in a lawsuit between a developer with whom Smith has long worked as a contractor, including on a project that ended up receiving the single-largest grading violation and fine leveled by the California Coastal Commission in its history. When these homes are approved, that developer will have to pay for the cost of part of the road.

    The homes Edge and his partners are proposing have been changed and improved based on feedback from numerous people, including other neighbors, Coastal Commission staff and noted environmentalists. To call them five ridgeline homes is just another misrepresentation, as is saying that development is maximized. 95% of the land will remain undeveloped. The proposed road follows the existing access road and will be as minimally impactful as possible. And there will be almost zero trucks going in and out; material is being re-used onsite, eliminating the need to remove it from the area.

    The biggest falsehood, however, involves the water line. Mr. Smith knows full well that land will be set aside that will make it impossible for further development to occur. That’s just a scare tactic from someone who cannot win the argument based on facts or merit.

    For those who would like to learn more, go to http://www.leavesinthewind.com.

    Reply to this comment
    • jim smith

      24. Apr, 2010

      The slick packaging of this project selectively promotes the houses and avoids the impact of the infrastructure . Story poles showing the location of each house were erected at the request of the Coastal Commission . All of them were clearly on ridgelines . The 1 1/2 mile water line from the top of the mountain traverses land owned by Steve Vernon and the easement #03 3721709 requires fire hydrants to be installed on the Vernon properties when the water line is built . The thousands of truckloads of dirt are shown on new plans marked “NOT FOR CONSTRUCTION” . This plan has the dirt placed on top of a deep landslide . Grading rules prohibit this surcharging of landslides . I was supportive of Edge’s house and told him so. When the magnitude of the spec portion of his plans became public opposition developed .

      Reply to this comment
  4. jim smith

    25. Apr, 2010

    Myth : The homes have been changed based on feedback from other neighbors .
    Fact : Only one neighbor was contacted by Mr. Evans .

    Myth : To say development is maximized is misrepresentation …95% will remain
    undeveloped .
    Fact : The roads , walls , graded slopes and required brush clearance will use over
    30 acres . This is about 20% of his 159 acres .

    Myth : There will be almost zero trucks going in and out !!!!!!!
    Fact : This one is over the top . Of the 1 1/4 mile long , twenty foot wide road , about
    1,800 feet is 12” thick structural concrete . Hundreds of concrete trucks will be
    needed . Add to that the wall material , steel rebar and other material , the
    number of trucks will be enormous .

    Myth : The water line is a falsehood and scare tactic .
    Fact : Mr. Vernon owns most of the remaining mountain side north of the Edge
    property . If the 1 1/2 mile long water line is brought to the Edge parcels it will
    come down an easement through the Vernon properties . The easement for
    the water line requires Edge to pay for and install hydrants on the Vernon
    properties . Mr. Evans can not set aside Mr. Vernon’s property . This is fact .

    Reply to this comment
  5. Kelly

    26. Apr, 2010

    Having read all the information provided by this great article and http://www.leavesinthewind.com my comments are directed to Jim Smith. Mr. Smith, you must pick your poison here. Mr. Evans is clearly making sure that the land is developed with the environment in mind. This beautiful land will be developed sooner or later Jim and you need to decide if a huge condo complex with more people in your face then you care to see or 5 GREEN homes that will house GREEN minded people is the right way to go. Geez the answer is clear to me!
    Dig deep Jim cause I see a Jiffy Lube in your future…

    Reply to this comment
  6. Kelly

    26. Apr, 2010

    Dear Pamela,
    You need to dig deep too because I see a Jiffy Lube and a 7/11 in your future!

    Reply to this comment
    • Pamela Campbell

      26. Apr, 2010

      City and county government permitting agencies dole out permits in the Coastal Zone all the time that are not in conformance with the Coastal Act, as their planners due to ignorance or by design, choose not to perform their jobs properly.
      Were the original entitlements/permits for the five homes in conformance with the Coastal Act? Were these entitlements issued after 1976?
      It seems to me that this is what this situation all comes down to.
      I live about 20+ miles west, (on the coast), from the proposed Evansville housing project.. No NIMBYISM here, just concern for the preservation of the remaining Santa Monica Mountain natural resource.
      Perhaps Mr. Evans would consider rethinking his plans and build only one house for himself and leave the rest of his property in it’s natural state-forever.

      Reply to this comment
  7. Jason Dean

    27. Apr, 2010

    A rather naive wish, Ms. Campbell. Oh if only nothing would ever change. The operative phrase is “his property.” I find it interesting that Edge’s aim to be upfront and responsive has made him the target for derision, whereas the truly unscrupulous will do everything possible to obscure their true intentions. There’s no smoke and mirrors here. If anything, Edge’s public image has put him under intense scrutiny that would garner a collective “ho-hum” if he were just another land owner who wanted to exercise his right to develop his property as he saw fit. Thank goodness Edge’s heart and head are in the right place.

    Reply to this comment
    • pamela campbell

      19. Jun, 2010

      News flash!
      Regardless if one is an ordinary citizen, or famous tax refugee rock star, one cannot do whatever one pleases with “his” property in the Coastal Zone. One must adhere to the laws of the Coastal Act.
      Who’s being naive now, Mr. Dean?

      Reply to this comment
  8. allen

    11. Oct, 2010

    Don’t let him build and ruin that land!

    Reply to this comment
  9. Jacky

    07. Nov, 2010

    The project does look like a beautiful housing idea for Malibu. I also agree with Mr. Smith that it looks like there will be a lot of trucks going in and out. It does beat the heck out of other things that could be done to the land and looks to be minimally invasive.

    I am curious if anyone knows if people can still put a home of up to 500 square feet on a piece of property in Malibu without having to get permits?

    Reply to this comment
  10. Pamela Campbell

    15. Jan, 2011

    Perhaps Mr. Evans, aka “The Edge”, would consider purchasing a home that has already been built and donate his land on Sweetwater Mesa to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

    Reply to this comment
  11. Bono

    02. Feb, 2011

    I love how Campbell and Smith pretend that they have some kind of moral ground here. They do not know the Edge and like one poster said his head and heart are in the right place. At least he is trying to build the houses with the environment in mind. If you ask me Smith and Campbell sound like precious old folks who dont want some rockstar moving in and disturbing their piece. Well newsflash folks, life and times move on..you cant have it your way forever! Dont pretend like you know about the Edge’s tax dealings and so forth, just makes you look pathetic…cheers. Oh and I hope those big mean trucks wake you up every night during development :) Thatll teach ya :)

    Reply to this comment

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