By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Steve Soboroff may have done nothing improper, but one thing is certain: As a candidate for mayor, Soboroff unwittingly declared open season on himself when he brokered the sale of the old drive-in theater in Van Nuys.
The property at the corner of Roscoe Boulevard and Noble Avenue, in the San Fernando Valley, looks made to order for a middle school: good-sized -- about 13 acres; fairly clean land -- it was a movie house, not a factory; and a surrounding neighborhood teeming with students.
But the parcel also was tempting to developers, and Soboroff, a real estate broker by trade, arranged two separate sales of that property over the last three years. During that same period, Soboroff also served as chair of the oversight committee charged with reviewing projects funded by the local school bond, known as Proposition BB. These included the old drive-in. The second sale was especially galling to district officials because they were actively pursuing the site. A Soboroff spokesman could not confirm the amount of his commission, but industry sources say his brokerage firm probably made in excess of $300,000 on the transaction.
Soboroff‘s critics are not accusing him of violating any laws -- and the bare-bones details of the scenario emerged in the press months ago. But it doesn’t look good to make money hawking properties the school district wants, while at the same time chairing a committee tasked with helping build schools. The school district‘s inspector general declined to comment on the matter, but Soboroff’s dual role as broker and committee member appears to violate the literal wording of the district‘s conflict-of-interest policy.
The Weekly learned last week that the matter was being researched by campaign aides for mayoral rival Joel Wachs, the L.A. city councilman who represents that part of town. And almost on cue, Wachs brought up the deal in a later interview with the Weekly’s editorial board. Wachs and Soboroff, in particular, are battling for the votes of both Valley residents and city conservatives. Winning that war decisively could mean a spot in the runoff election for mayor.
Oddly enough, Wachs briefly enters the tale himself, in May 1998, when he helped negotiate conditions of operation for CarMax -- the first buyer -- that would be acceptable to concerned neighbors. Wachs also was instrumental in eliminating zoning restrictions that would have impeded the used-car chain. The Mayor‘s Office, where Soboroff was serving as senior adviser, readily approved the zoning changes.
”This is a win-win situation,“ Wachs told the Daily News at the time. ”This is a classic example of how, when a developer works harmoniously with the community and the local council office, a project can be very successful.“
When asked about his own role, Wachs said he didn’t know of any interest from the L.A. Unified School District in that site.
In fact, there wasn‘t. The school district declined to oppose the rezoning. Staffers from L.A. Unified’s environmental division testified only about the business‘ potential impact on a nearby elementary school, recalled Bob Niccum, who was the district’s director of real estate and asset management.
The problem, noted Niccum, was that the district was just then gearing up to scour the city for possible school sites. That process quickly led to the drive-in.
”It did happen within a month or two after the rezoning took place,“ said Niccum. ”I knew it would look funny for us not to have mentioned something earlier. But this drive-in was in just the right place for a school.“
Fast-forward two years from the CarMax purchase. Now it‘s CarMax’s turn to sell, not to the school district, but to Herbert Boeckmann II, the owner of nearby Galpin Ford, who wants to store and prep used cars there.
Here‘s how Soboroff explained things last fall to the Daily News. Soboroff, the paper duly reported, tried to work out a deal with the ”old regime“ of district property managers, and had even agreed to give up his commission. But then, in October 1999, real estate director Niccum -- and other top administrators -- were placed on a yearlong administrative leave pending a review of the scandal-plagued Belmont Learning Complex project. (Niccum has since returned to work as an upper-level business manager for the school district.) After Niccum’s departure, said Soboroff, he believed the district had no further interest in the site.
”We bent over backwards for them,“ Soboroff told the Daily News. ”They did nothing. We gave up with these guys.“ He added, ”We offered it to them on a silver platter.“
Soboroff also asserted that no documents reached him -- through the Proposition BB oversight committee or otherwise -- to suggest the LAUSD‘s desire for the property had ”revived,“ as the article put it.
”That’s their nature,“ Soboroff was quoted. ”It [the proposal] didn‘t go to BB. It doesn’t go anywhere. All they do is talk to each other . . . The district got nothing but preferential treatment. But they‘re so disorganized. That’s why they only do one school in 20 years.“