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Click here for Matthew Fleischer's Down and Out at the Americana.
It’s dusk in downtown Glendale, and as is quite often the case these days, the sound of Frank Sinatra echoes up and down Brand Boulevard. The music comes courtesy of billionaire developer and possible mayoral candidate Rick Caruso and his new mixed-use commercial and residential project, the Americana. In the four months since the mall opened, Frank Sinatra has yet to have a cold. On this particularly warm September evening, Ol’ Blue Eyes is serenading more than 50 members of the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, who have gathered in the park at the center of the Americana to meet Caruso for an exclusive tour. It’s an eclectic group, ranging from UCLA architecture students to established multimillionaire developers, all of whom seem a bit wide-eyed. If there’s such a thing as a rock star in the world of contemporary retail development, Caruso is unequivocally its Bono. The developer won the ULI’s Award of Excellence in 1999 for his Commons at Calabasas, and again in 2003 for the Grove at Third and Fairfax. If the chatter among the group — which reveals a regard for Caruso that hovers somewhere between glowing and idolatrous — is any indication, he can expect another one this year, for the Americana.
It’s a rare feat when expectation meets reality, but Rick Caruso comes as advertised. Perfect tan. Perfect shave. Not a hair out of place. He’s dressed in perfect keeping with his rock-star status, eschewing the more conservative black suits he usually wears for media appearances in favor a custom-tailored blue Brioni pinstripe number and a fashionable pair of specs — a masculine mutation of the Tina Fey variety that’s all the political rage this year.
But for all the trouble he appears to have gone through to impress, Caruso is surprisingly reserved, standing off to the side in a nook by an old-timey hamburger stand — chatting casually with his executive vice president of architecture, David Williams, and leaving other members of his staff to schmooze with his admirers. Nearby, a small circle of them gather around Caruso’s PR director, Jennifer Gordon, and his community-relations chief, Rick Lemmo, who are leading a discussion on — surprise — Caruso.
“Rick is absolutely wonderful,” says a glowing Gordon, before pausing to add, smiling, “except for the whole underwear thing.”
“What, you mean the pink thong?” Lemmo deadpans.
“Yeah, it’s a little strange, but we still love him.”
Gordon and Lemmo are kidding, of course, their lines delivered with a comfortable, practiced repartee that suggests Caruso would be in on the shtick if he were around. Nevertheless, considering Caruso has said that running for mayor of Los Angeles “isn’t a question of if, it’s when,” this standing by while others, no matter how well-intentioned, do the defining for you seems to be an apt metaphor for his political life.
Caruso has teased his impending mayoral candidacy off and on for nearly five years, yet he’s done little to formally promote a holistic vision for the city. He’s active in politics, donating time and money to several — mostly Republican — political candidates, including John McCain and George Bush. But aside from the occasional call for hiring more cops, Caruso has thus far declined to hop on a soapbox and use the bully pulpit to advocate any radical change in city government. In the absence of such a comprehensive civic blueprint, others have stepped in to fill the void.
Last July, writer Brad Dickson, pondering a Caruso mayoral run in the L.A. Times, envisioned a dystopia in which “Cheesecake Factories replace schools” and L.A. River revitalization would mean “51 miles of dancing waters” — a cutting reference to Caruso’s signature mall fountains. And when Arthur Magazine publisher and public-space advocate Jay Babcock, frustrated with the direction of urban planning in Los Angeles, recently said goodbye to L.A. for Brooklyn, his parting words were: “I don’t want to live anymore in the psychic death hole that is Carusoland.”
The underlying assumption behind these critiques, one the developer himself hasn’t publicly disputed, is that Caruso aspires to turn all of Los Angeles into one giant Sinatra-filled retail project — and that becoming mayor is but a steppingstone in this pursuit. This may be an extreme take, but for many in the city, Caruso’s perceived legitimacy as a potential mayoral candidate does boil down to their personal feelings about the Grove.
“I hadn’t heard that,” Caruso says with a laugh after the ULI event. “But, you know, to some degree I think it’s fair. My projects are clean, they’re safe, they’re family-friendly and they deliver an excellent quality of service. I have no problem being judged by those criteria. I do want to bring that to public service.”