Caruso! Not the singing one. The talking one. Rick Caruso talks more L.A.
Developer Rick J. Caruso has a vision for retail/recreational Los Angeles, one he’s carried out by building and operating the Grove, along with the Americana in Glendale, the Commons in Calabasas and other "lifestyle" projects.
He also has a vision for civic Los Angeles, one that may soon put him on a similar track to his fellow moderate Republican, Richard Riordan: businessman, civic activist, philanthropist -- and ultimately mayor.
Here’s a bit more of my conversation with Rick Caruso about how he thinks his hometown works, and how it doesn’t. To read the original "Patt Morrison Asks" from Jan. 9’s opinion pages, click on the link at the bottom.
What is it about L.A. that you miss when you leave, and are glad to see when you come back?
There’s a great energy. There’s a great sense of freedom, a great sense of newness and opportunity. I love driving down San Vicente: The sun’s setting; you know the ocean’s down there; it’s beautiful. It’s not a New York sidewalk energy; it’s L.A. "I’m alive" energy. I love the diversity. I love that I can be in so many different places in 20 minutes. It’s Glendale, it’s Pasadena, I love Los Feliz and Hillhurst, that little street that all of a sudden has come alive -- that’s a great part of LA.
When you were president of the DWP commission, you disagreed with other board members and then-DWP chief S. David Freeman [who's also the DWP's current interim chief] over what to do with 1,300 acres of environmentally significant open land at the old Chatsworth reservoir. It was the last sizable natural oak flatlands in L.A.
David Freeman’s a whack job. The fact that he’s heading up the DWP again is a joke. The man is not qualified, nor was he at the time, to run that organization, and I was really happy to see him leave it. I think he has no managerial skills or the knowledge base to head up the DWP. Not at all. Someone needs to put him back on his horse and send him back out of town.
The Chatsworth thing -- there was a lot of land out there. I wanted to take a whole bunch of it and let it be a nature preserve, take a bunch of it and build some soccer fields, because we need more active parks in this city, and take some of it [for] development. There was a big open space, which is fine, but it’s not necessarily serving the needs of that community. You could have had something out there for everybody. Whether it was an active park or a passive park, that was as important, if not more important, than a space for the geese to land. There was enough land to accomplish everybody’s wish list out there. I love open space and I love the wilderness. But we also need to take care of the city that we live in.
People love California in part because of its beauty, and yet so much of that beauty has been encroached on and destroyed. Where do you draw the line?
You take a look at the [1991 DWP] settlement agreement with Inyo County [governing how much water L.A. can take out of the Owens Valley]. It’s my signature on it. [We] spent five years negotiating that settlement, which protected the watershed and the Sierras. And I’m very proud of that. That land will forever be protected because of the agreement.
You said at one point that the DWP is not an environmental agency. Has that changed?
Here was my comment on that, because I know that gets talked about. There was an argument with [DWP Commissioner] Mike Gage. Everything he was looking at was tested from an environmental standpoint, which is fine. [But] that’s one test; it wasn’t the only test. We built coal plants; we built a nuclear power plant down in Arizona; we retooled all the [L.A.-area] plants and converted them to gas. We did a lot of good things, but if you wanted to be environmentally correct, we wouldn’t have built the nuclear power plant. So my comment was, we’re not an environmental agency; there’s many different things you have to look at. Our job is to provide water and power, and we have to figure out how to do it in the most environmentally sensitive way we can. But you can’t say we’re not going to do anything.
How would you change the city's planning and permitting process?
You’ve got to streamline it. It’s ridiculously arduous right now. It’s too difficult and complicated. Many people avoid it because it’s just not worth it -- the time and effort, the money.
So how much business do you believe doesn't get done here because of regulatory matters?
I think there’s a lot of businesses that decide not to come to L.A., or people who decide not to develop, because it’s way too difficult and complicated and uncertain. There’s too many levels of authority. You’ve got a local neighborhood council, you’ve got a council office, you’ve got the planning department, the zoning department, the traffic department -- you’ve got so many damn departments, it’s crazy.
Are neighborhood councils a bad thing?
I think neighborhood councils are a good thing if they’re given the right amount of authority, and they understand what their role is. We had a really good experience on a project with a neighborhood council right outside of Beverly Hills. It was great. They became a big advocate for the project. But I’ve heard horror stories from people who are dealing with them. I think the role between the neighborhood council and the council office needs to be clearly defined. Is the council office deferring to the neighborhood council? Is the neighborhood council deferring to the council office? You get a lot of chefs in the kitchen there. You can get something resolved at the neighborhood council and then you go to your council office and it’s unwound. That’s just not good business.
How do you think Mayor Villaraigosa is doing?
I think he’s well intended, I think he’s probably a decent guy, but I don’t think he’s doing a very good job. And you see that in the energy of the city. I don’t think we’ve got a leader who inspires people or, frankly, that they take too seriously anymore, which is sad. I heard the mayor made a statement that he thought he had his best year ever. Where the hell did that come from? Is it delusional? I think there’s just this apathy because of public leadership. I‘d rather have somebody who was doing a lot, maybe none of which I agreed with, but it was causing people to talk about it and think about it and create some energy. At least you get pissed off at something.
If you hadn't gone into the business you're in, what do you think you'd want to do instead?
I would probably want to be somehow involved in education. I’d want to be a teacher, maybe at a university level. I went back for a couple of years to the [Harvard] Kennedy School and spoke, and I absolutely loved it. I love being on a university campus. I’m trustee at USC and I love when I go down there to those meetings because there’s that energy on campus.
-- Patt Morrison