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
In 1986, as the 27-year-old president of the DWP Board of Commissioners, Caruso led the charge to cut off water to a 24-unit apartment complex whose landlord was $15,000 in arrears to the department. It turned out that the landlord didn’t live in the building, and his debt was in connection with a different property entirely. After a week without water that forced residents to walk up and down the street with buckets to wash their dishes and flush their toilets — a scene that wound up replaying in the media — the department was forced to turn the water back on.
In 1990, in the fourth year of a severe drought, an audit blasted the Caruso-led DWP board for failing to forecast future water demands and for not adequately conserving resources. Months later, Mayor Bradley, under pressure for not doing enough to handle the drought, ordered mandatory water conservation without the DWP board’s consent, causing Caruso to lash out in the press: “We are not an environmental agency and we should not be. To say our purpose is the environment is malarkey. Our purpose is to provide water and power.”
These days, Caruso sings a slightly different tune.
“Nearly 50 percent of the water we use in this city goes toward lawn and yard maintenance. We need to do a better job of using recycled water for those purposes.”
Mention toilet-to-tap recycling for drinking water, though, and you can practically see Caruso’s gag reflex kick in.
“I think that’s probably a ways away,” he says, in one of the few moments of our conversation in which I feel like he’s being coy. “I think we’d need a massive public education program to make that happen.”
Don’t expect to see recycled water in Caruso’s dancing fountains anytime soon.
For a man renowned for reimagining the mall as Main Street meets Vegas — complete with fake snow and trolleys to nowhere — Caruso imagines a Los Angeles that, to hear him describe it, wouldn’t look a whole lot different from how it does now. His vision seems less about sweeping transformation than it does about eliminating the inconveniences that plague livability in this city — traffic, crime and, yes, a lack of cleanliness.
He criticizes proponents of smart growth for pushing density as the solution to the city’s livability problems. “You can’t just solve the traffic problem by saying we’re going to become denser, or have housing on top of retail, next to a bus stop or a subway. People still need to get around.”
It’s refreshing to hear that from someone who just built $400 million worth of housing on top of retail next to a bus stop. Instead of immediately transforming the DNA of the city, he argues, there are small steps that can be taken right away to make it more livable. “When the Olympics were in L.A., I remember getting around this city was a breeze, because they put in certain restrictions. One of the things was taking the trucks off the road by forcing them to drive early in the morning or late at night. That made a huge difference.”
Likewise, he says, development can play a role by making sure that each part of the city has adequate resources to meet its own basic needs. “Where I live in Brentwood, we don’t have really nice movie theaters to go to that are close to us. So if my kids want to see a movie, I have to drive them a half-hour away. That’s silly. Development can create traffic problems, but it can also solve them.”
Ultimately, though, Caruso says, a rail network is the only solution to the city’s transportation woes. But, he says, we need to rethink the way we approach that system. “Why is L.A. the only major city in the U.S. that doesn’t have a rail system? It’s been mismanaged. We spend a fortune in this city trying to build rapid transit underground. It’s 10, 20 times more expensive than building it above ground. Why are we doing that? How about elevated?”
As expected from a billionaire, Caruso is a bottom-line guy. If the numbers don’t crunch, it ain’t going to happen. This attitude has obviously made him successful, but has also prevented him from transcending his public image as a slick, wealthy developer into more of a civic figure along the lines of Eli Broad.
For all the thought and expense that went into the Americana, the project has no major solar-panel arrays — a somewhat surprising omission given Caruso’s DWP past.
“We tried to make solar panels work at the Americana,” Caruso explains, “but it just wasn’t cost-effective.”
That excuse falls a little flat when one takes a tour of the apartments at the Americana and sees yet another original Botero hanging above a fireplace in the common billiards room. If he can afford Botero, he can afford a solar panel or two.