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The one arena for which Caruso seems to throw aside his bean-counting ways is public space. “Every community in this city is entitled to beautiful parks and public space in their neighborhood,” he argues.
Antonio Villaraigosa, of course, made similar pronouncements when he ran for mayor in 2005, promising to help create an “emerald necklace” of parks throughout Los Angeles.
It hasn’t even come close to happening. And the prospect of someone like Caruso taking over that task is drawing unlikely support. Robert Garcia, of the public-space-advocacy group City Project, is extremely critical of the Villaraigosa administration: “We’ve had systemic management failures from the top down.”
Garcia, it should be noted, is not a Caruso fan and describes a Los Angeles filled with Grove-like public space as “a truly frightening vision.”
“But it certainly couldn’t be any worse than what we’ve had with Villaraigosa,” Garcia adds. “Our lack of parks is creating a public-health crisis in low-income parts of this city, and the mayor, despite his promises, has done nothing. Nothing is going to happen with his administration unless we bring a lawsuit. They seem incapable of acting.”
If there’s one thing Caruso can’t be accused of, it’s inaction. In trying economic times, the $400 million Americana had no outside capital investors, other than perhaps the city of Glendale, which secured and donated the land for the project. Even now, in the worst economic climate the United States has seen since the Great Depression, Caruso is still pushing ahead with two more developments. “We’re not scaling back anything,” he says. His proposed 85-acre retail project at the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia would be his largest and most expensive to date. And the Montecito planning commission has just green-lighted his controversial Miramar resort project south of Santa Barbara.
“I hate to see what’s going on with the economy, but you have to look at the opportunities a situation like this can provide. We’re going to be buying into this market.”
Caruso says the city needs to take advantage too.
“A lot of office space is going to be opening up. Rents are going to be lower, and we can use that to our advantage to create more jobs. Businesses are going to be able to relocate a lot less expensively, and now is the time to try to lure them in.”
The tanking real estate market should also allow the city to pick up cheap land for parks and civic space.
“Now isn’t the time to be afraid. It’s time to start looking at how we can turn things around.”
Love him or hate him, it’s hard to argue that Caruso isn’t uniquely suited for this exact moment in the city’s history — someone fiscally prudent in a time of budget crisis, yet also a builder in a city with massive infrastructure dilemmas. The situation calls to mind another urban master builder, Robert Moses, who rebuilt New York in the tumultuous ’30s and ’40s.
Could Caruso be L.A.’s Moses?
"Why [hasn’t] a single politician or potential candidate with the money to take Villaraigosa down challenged him?”
Ron Kaye, the former Daily News editor who’s made headlines with his vow to help “clean up” city government, recently posed this question on his blog — a prod seemingly directed at Caruso: “And if they don’t have the courage to do it now,” he went on, “should you really consider them for office in two years or four years when the city will be that much worse off?”
To which Caruso answers: “I’m only going to run if I think I can win.”
After his failed mayoral bid in 2001, Playa Vista developer Steven Soboroff said that there are two main problems a real estate mogul faces in hoping to win an election in Los Angeles: name recognition and the lack of a political base. In other words, you need to get your name out there, and you need to find a large block of people to help you do it.
While that still holds true today, a lot has changed in the seven years since Soboroff became the last wealthy entrepreneur to cast his lot in mayoral politics. For a white Republican like Caruso, a new hurdle has come into play — demographics. L.A. hasn’t had a Republican mayor since Richard Riordan, and, considering the city’s ever-growing Democratic leaning and increasingly influential Latino population, that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
“A Republican can win the mayor’s office in L.A.,” says longtime Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, who worked as a political adviser to Villaraigosa back when the mayor was speaker of the state Assembly. “But if you play the odds, the next mayor won’t be a white Republican male.”