The clock upon the bronze dome of the Abercrombie & Fitch building strikes six, the bells announcing that all the dirt and chaos and crime of Los Angeles are hereby suspended. Whatever befalls the city beyond, the Grove shopping center at 3rd and Fairfax will be a haven this spring evening—spotless, safe, and luxurious, a spawning ground for nothing but the fondest of memories.
Through hidden loudspeakers, Dean, Sammy, Frank, and Ella sing about the good life. Sycamores, aristocrat pear trees, and jacarandas rustle in the evening breeze. The streetlights throw daubs of soft buttermilk on the smooching teens, the slow-strolling grandparents, and the sated shoppers toting dresses from Banana Republic and MacBooks fresh from the Apple Store. The vast granite fountain erupts into a dance, to the tune of “That’s Amore.” On the Grove’s immaculate lawn, toddlers of seemingly every race and nationality turn somersaults. Moms and dads stand at the border of the grass, worlds more at ease than when their children play on city sidewalks and in public parks. In a region where so much history has been bulldozed away, the Grove has rewritten all our yesterdays. It immerses us in a more wholesome time where family is paramount and old age is to be respected, where the Golden Rule is not so much enforced as cheerfully abided by.
In his executive suite, floating above the Palm store and an olive oil shop, Rick J. Caruso, the CEO and sole stockholder of Caruso Affiliated Holdings, can look out onto the shopping center he has built and take pride in a magic kingdom as nostalgic as Walt Disney’s. “All of us as human beings think that somehow in the past things were simpler,” Caruso says, the sounds of Sinatra a distant murmur. “Maybe it’s a way that we keep our sanity. People, they generally say, ‘Gee, when I was a kid, things were simpler, my parents had a simpler life,’ and it’s true. I don’t think people pick an era, but I know today in my life—boy!—to have an opportunity to have things a little bit simpler is nice. All of us lead pretty hectic, complicated lives.”
Walt Disney was content playing a supporting role to Mickey House, but Caruso is always out front. Around his office is evidence of the rarefied Republican political circles in which he moves—a portrait of him and his wife with George and Laura Bush, a photo of a youthful Caruso meeting Ronald Reagan, a snapshot in which he’s joking around with his good friend Arnold Schwarzenegger and Vice President Dick Cheney. There are models of his yacht and his Gulfstream G4. He favors sartorial flash—custom-tailored pinstriped suits by Brioni, handmade striped ties, and polka-dot hankies in his breast pocket. The brass-buckle loafers are Gucci.
At 48, Caruso’s got game-show-host good looks. His deeply tanned face is free of worry lines. Not a strand of his auburn hair is ever out of place. He has waltzed into middle age with an assurance that few of his contemporaries could match; then again, their generation, youth obsessed and hard rocking, was never truly his. When he compares his memories of the early ’70s with the world today, he can say without any irony, “I grew up in an era that was much more formal and sophisticated, and I certainly respect it.” The only sense of unease you feel when spending time with Caruso, disarmed by his optimism and courtliness, is the same you feel after spending a couple of hours in the Grove: How could Los Angeles have nurtured anything or anybody so scrubbed clean of noir? Could all this be for real?
From the smallest details to the overarching themes of all Caruso’s shopping centers, he is the tastemaker and the idea man. He leads his staff around the world—to the Bahamas, old Savannah, the isle of Capri—seeking inspiration and cribbing motifs. Caruso Affiliated’s in-house architect, Dave Williams, says the design process begins by mining the intentions inside the CEO’s head. “The first step,” Williams says, “is really to draw out of Rick, ‘What are you thinking? Where do you want to go with the architecture? What do you want the place to feel like?’” At the Grove, Caruso selected the marble mosaics and the Murano glass. When he first brought up the notion of introducing a streetcar, Williams was worried that it would go over like a giant Tinkertoy. Designed by a retired Disney Imagineer, the trolley has become the Grove’s signature.
Once a month Caruso will stroll through four or five of his malls, praise the shopkeeps, pick up trash, and fire off notes about sidewalk cracks, faded awnings, or a badge that’s missing from a security guard’s hat. The property managers who follow him around survey the landscape with the same forensic precision. They’re just as gracious with the tenants. Their pin-striped suits don’t flatter like a Brioni, their pointy loafers lack Gucci buckles, but give them time.
Caruso Affiliated has coined a term for this sensibility: Equal parts breezy efficiency and blueprint for living, it’s called CarusoStyle. In the coming years, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of it, as the developer presses on with perhaps the most ambitious city-shaping campaign since the days of Isaac Lankershim and Harry Chandler. Already, on L.A. County’s northwest fringes, his Promenade at Westlake, his Commons at Calabasas, and his Village at Moorpark have taken on the significance of downtowns. His Playa Vista town center, slated to open in the fall of 2009, will define that nascent neighborhood. He’s soon to begin a makeover of Montecito’s Miramar beach resort, and next spring he’ll unveil the Americana at Brand, a 15.5-acre residential-retail project in Glendale. In Arcadia, he’s pursuing a 45-acre shopping center in what is now the parking lot of Santa Anita racetrack.
Constructed for the greater good of tenants like NikeWomen and the Gap, Caruso’s halcyon environments have made him a billionaire. The Grove’s Barnes & Noble has posted sales several times higher than the company’s store average. The 14-screen multiplex has been ranked among the five highest-grossing movie theaters in the United States. For some tenants, rents can be double those of other malls, but the revenues more than compensate. Last year the Grove—one of ten shopping centers Caruso Affiliated has built in Southern California—attracted more visitors than Disneyland.
Before the Grove’s grand opening in March 2002, Los Angeles hadn’t the palest equivalent of Times Square or the Champs-Elysees. There are critics who would say that with the Grove’s shallowness and emphasis on chain-store consumerism, L.A. has gotten the Champs-Elysees it deserves. Nevertheless, these 590,000 square feet of premium retail have done a better job of bringing the city’s scattered residents together than the Music Center or the Los Angeles Mall on Temple Street—or anything the city has managed to build on its own.
At the Grove, CarusoStyle is the standard to be upheld. In those communities where Caruso is seeking to build, it’s a charm offensive. Seldom will a town feel as good about itself as when Caruso Affiliated decides to become a part of it. Caruso bends over backward, be listens, he flies in experts, he hugs, he laughs, he flatters.
The approach was perfected as early as 1993, when Caruso purchased the future site of the Encino Marketplace, which had languished as a crater for three years as neighbors blocked construction and owners went bankrupt. Then Caruso took over. He recalls his reaction when residents asked what kind of trees he had in mind for the rear of the Marketplace: “I said, ‘What kind of trees do you want?’ They said, ‘Well, nobody’s ever asked us about that: So I said, ‘Why don’t we put everyone in a shuttle bus who wants to go, and let’s go to the tree farm and why don’t you pick the trees? You have to look at them every day—I don’t.’ And it was just really simple stuff in my opinion, and we got 100 percent support.”
It’s easy enough to find Caruso detractors—business rivals who don’t want him barging into their markets, public officials he clashed with when he headed the Department of Water and Power and the Los Angeles Police Commission. Likewise, plenty of home owners have opposed his entry into their neighborhoods and still do. More difficult to find are those who took him at his word and now believe they were sold a bill of goods. Some of his projects have been open five or ten years, and the home owner association leaders who went along with him speak more fondly of him today than they did then. Even those who feared that Caruso’s mall might hobble the Farmers Market had to concede that they were wrong. The market is more successful now than when he broke ground.
As a Republican, Caruso would probably shudder at any comparison with Bill Clinton. But like the former president, he can sit you down and in four minutes make you feel that you are the most important person he has ever met. Even so, there is a darkness to Clinton—those childhood wounds, that roiling libido, that trepidation lingering in the back of your mind that if you and he were both on a plane that was about to go down, he’d find a compassionate way to talk you out of the last parachute. Caruso has none of that. He is smooth, but dig as deeply as you’d like, and you’d be hard-pressed to strike a vein of insincerity.
At the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, CarusoStyle has evolved into a civic opera worthy of Verdi. For the past two and a half years, in the city of Arcadia, Caruso has been using all his powers of persuasion to win approval for the Shops at Santa Anita, an equestrian-themed retail and entertainment center beside the racetrack. The plan calls for a lake, gardens, patios, and promenades. A horse-drawn trolley will wend through the property. Caruso is promising Arcadia more than just a couple of million in additional tax revenue each year. He is offering the city the downtown it never had, and he vows he’ll reinvigorate its art deco crown jewel, which has faded with the sport of Thoroughbred racing.
Caruso hired Gail Marshall, the town’s former mayor, to do community outreach. He assembled a bilingual staff to talk up the project with Arcadia’s large Chinese American community and threw a “Year of the Pig” festival at the track. After attending hundreds of get-togethers and coffee klatches, he gained the support of all the major home owner groups surrounding his property as well as Arcadia’s chamber of commerce and the police and firefighters associations. More than 3,000 residents took up his invitation for date nights at the Grove—3,000 dinners, 3,000 movie tickets, parking for 1,500 vehicles—all on Caruso.
To alleviate concerns about gridlock, he retained former New York City traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz, the guy who is credited with coining the word gridlock, to help devise a mitigation plan that, Caruso claims, would actually make the commute faster than it is today (through street expansions and computer-controlled signaling). Even though it meant the loss of several million dollars, Caruso announced that he would ax the 300 luxury apartments he was planning to build when too many Arcadians, concerned with school overcrowding, told him they did not want them. He won the Arcadia Unified School District’s support after offering it a new 22,000-square-foot headquarters on the mall grounds—rent-free for 40 years. He’s throwing in an on-site community theater as well.
There is one major opponent to Caruso’s plan who won’t be won over. Across the street from the proposed site of the Shops at Santa Anita is a 1.3-million-square-foot enclosed mall that has dominated Arcadia retail since it opened in 1974. Nine years ago it was acquired by the U.S. branch of the Westfield Group, the largest mall operator in the world. So unhappy was Westfield about Caruso’s idea that it bankrolled a group called Arcadia First, which has mailed scores of jeremiads about the overtaxed services, congestion, and pollution that will surely follow if he gets his way. A local newspaper has likened Arcadia First’s brand of activism more to AstroTurf than to grass roots. Bernetta Reade, Arcadia First’s executive director, lives in Reseda, and she’s a paid consultant.
In April, when the city council convened to vote on the Shops at Santa Anita, Arcadia First set up a folding table to provide the evening’s audience bottled water and pizza. Caruso hired two baristas from Mocha Kiss Coffee, who dispensed the macchiatos and mocha lattes they usually serve on-set to movie and TV stars. The president of Westfield America skipped the night’s meeting, but Caruso arrived promptly with his well-dressed employees, shaking hands and greeting the television correspondents by their first names. Taking the dais, he begged the city council’s indulgence as he rebutted what he said were certain falsehoods spread by the other side. “It is unfortunate and, frankly, pathetic, in my opinion, that some people can boldly lie and deceive the very same people they count on for their customers,” he said. “As a man who believes strongly in free enterprise and in our system, I am very saddened to see that people are so concerned about their competition.” Not that he should have been all that surprised. General Growth Properties, the second-biggest shopping mall company in the United States, embarked on a similar PR campaign to prevent him from building his Americana at Brand across the street from its Glendale Galleria, and then tried to defeat him at the ballot box. The vote was a squeaker, but Caruso won.
Should the city council approve this project, Caruso said, Westfield would probably challenge the decision of Arcadia’s elected representatives by filing a lawsuit against the city and his company or by collecting signatures for a voter initiative. “I’d like to make an offer for the record,” Caruso told the council. “They have already spent about $4 million to try to stop this project. Based on our experience in Glendale, they will probably spend more than 5 million more dollars, and we will in turn have to spend at least that much. Well, I would offer that hopefully we can work together, that they could forgo challenging the project, and that we contribute $5 million each to make a community foundation governed by the city, and that the $10 million could then be used for really good purposes—that actually help the city.”
By a three-to-one margin, residents stepped up to praise Caruso and warn the council not to reject this gift the developer was giving them. Many were more florid in their praise than any Caruso press release, arguing that he will make the city come alive again, bringing the kind of class and beauty to Arcadia that it hasn’t seen since Seabiscuit, or at least Secretariat, won his last race there.
The vote for the Shops at Santa Anita was unanimous. None of Arcadia First’s leaders or Westfield’s PR people would talk about their displeasure. Within weeks Arcadia First announced that a lawsuit would be filed against Caruso and the city. Even if Westfield loses, its money will be well spent. Every season that Caruso’s project is delayed is another season with only one mall in Arcadia, a few more precious months without CarusoStyle.
In his imagination, Rick Caruso was a real estate mogul by his fifth birthday. In 1963, the family was living atop Trousdale Estates—the old Doheny property that was just being turned into wealthy subdivisions with sweeping views of Beverly Hills. His father talks about how the two of them would stand on a grassy lot beside their home, the office towers and residential midrises sprouting below. “This one time he looked out,” Hank Caruso remembers, “and he said, ‘Dad, see all these buildings there? I own all these buildings. These are all mine.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful, Rick.’ He said, ‘Yeah. See that big one over there, the real tall one? That’s mine, too. I’m going to give that to you one day.’”
Caruso hasn’t yet made good on that promise, but he did provide his father a palatial office at Caruso Affiliated not far from his own. Should you pass Hank Caruso in the hall and not know who he is, you might think you were staring at Rick, suddenly an 85-year-old man. Like his son, he’s tall and lean. He has the same finely tapered nose and bright eyes and is, of course, impeccably dressed. From his father Caruso would inherit his love of business and flair for Italian suits, his belief that family and loyalty take precedence over every other earthly consideration. As his own family’s patriarch, Caruso drops three of his four children, ages 7 to 17, off at school most mornings and makes it home in time for supper most nights.
“Rick’s a traditionalist, but he’s an independent thinker,” says Lew Horne, his best friend, who is executive managing director of CB Richard Ellis’s Southern California region. “Rick is a guy that will take in a lot of information, but he will always make his own decisions. I think a lot of it stems from an incredible closeness that he had with his dad. He loves his mom and dad, but he particularly loves his father.”
When Caruso was 13, the counterculture had a few years left, but he wasn’t about to be caught up in the spirit of rebellion. “He was a good kid,” says his sister, Christina. “He never did anything wrong. He did what he was supposed to do.” His youth was spent immersed in the popular culture of his parents’ generation as much as his own. He’d listen to Sinatra and Tony Bennett. At Harvard Prep, at the time the academy of choice for the sons of L.A’s conservative gentry, he wore a uniform, but even when he wasn’t at school he’d just as soon put on a sport coat and tie as jeans and a T-shirt. His sister compares the young Caruso to Alex Keaton, the precocious Reaganite Michael J. Fox portrayed in Family Ties.
Observing his father’s career, Caruso could see the steady rewards of hard work. In 1966, Hank Caruso opened a rental lot with a fleet of VW bugs, available for a dollar a day plus mileage costs. He built the business into Dollar Rent a Car, one of the world’s largest auto rental companies. While Rick was in high school, his father was taking on Hertz, Avis, and National through the same kind of David-and-Goliath combat that his son would someday wage against giant mall conglomerates.
It wasn’t Hank Caruso’s first taste of success. A decade before launching Dollar, he had, by age 35, become one of the leading auto dealers in Southern California. He was an innovator, selling on Sundays while competitors took the Sabbath off, sponsoring pro wrestling bouts, and appearing in his own television commercials, more polished than Cal worthington or “Madman” Muntz. A female vocal group crooned, “H.J. Caruso—he’s the greatest.”
It all collapsed in 1957, when Hank Caruso and several of his salespeople were indicted for fraud, forgery, and conspiracy. He believes well-connected business rivals were behind his prosecution, and to this day he denies wrongdoing. Initially, he pleaded not guilty, but he admitted to a handful of charges when one of his lawyers advised him that he could then walk away from public humiliation and possible financial ruin with a fine and no prison time. After most of his associates who went to trial were acquitted, Caruso spent two years trying to change his plea, but the judge ultimately sentenced him to 12 months at L.A. County Jail. The story made banner headlines and merited a piece in Time magazine. In 1970, having fulfilled the terms of his probation, he was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and enter a plea of not guilty, and the charges against him were dismissed.
Rick was a year old when his father went to jail. He says he was not aware of the case until it was mentioned in a Los Angeles Times profile about him a few years ago. Despite the family’s closeness, it is not a subject to be addressed. The Hank Caruso whom Rick and his siblings grew up with had become a different businessman from the dazzling, TV-ready pitchman who once sold more Dodges than any dealer in America. Asked to identify any distinctions between a father and son who have so much in common, Christina says Hank Caruso prefers working behind the scenes. “Dad wasn’t the type that really went out to the public to advertise,” she says. “I think that’s where Rick is so great—going out and talking to people and getting them involved in what he’s doing. He’s much more open, not about his personal life but about his business life.”
Like his father, Rick enrolled at USC. As president of his fraternity, he reintroduced lapsed traditions, including the ceremonial robes, and was welcomed into the institution’s corridors of power. “Even a lot of the executives of the university—the dean and the president—would always take Rick’s call,” says Lew Horne, who was Caruso’s pledge trainer. “He would give me a hard time for saying this, but in some ways he almost acted as a peer.”
After majoring in business, Caruso wanted to earn an M.B.A. and become a developer, but his father had other plans. “He thought very strongly that having a law degree and understanding the law was very important for business,” Caruso says. “It reflected whatever challenges he had and whatnot—and he was right. You know, I resisted it. I didn’t want to go, but he mandated it, and he was right. He made the right decision for me.” Caruso graduated from Pepperdine Law in 1983 and joined the L.A. office of Finley Kumble, then the fourth-biggest firm in the United States.
The job would never grow on him, but he used the time to establish political relationships that would help him when he finally did plunge into real estate. At 25, he became the youngest commissioner in the 80-year history of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. As he tells it, he was having lunch with a well-connected lawyer who had been on the alumni advisory committee of the frat when Caruso was president. “He was a fire commissioner,” Caruso says, “and he was close to Tom Bradley, and when he took out his wallet to pay the bill, I said, ‘Jeez, to be 25 and have a badge in L.A.—this would be a great thing.’ I’m looking at the social aspects of it. He said, ‘You know what, if you’re interested in doing it, I’ll introduce you to Tom Bradley.’” Within two years Caruso became DWP president.
As the executive in charge of the country’s largest municipal utility, Caruso didn’t endear himself to environmentalists. When then-general manager S. David Freeman and a conservation group came up with a proposal to protect 300,000 acres of DWP-owned land in the Eastern Sierra, Caruso derided their idea as “silly.” The plan was scuttled. Caruso likewise resisted setting aside the Chatsworth Reservoir as a 1,300-acre nature sanctuary; he wanted to build athletic fields and possibly housing there instead. He maintained that position even after the entire city council endorsed the project and only backed down when faced with enormous community opposition. “We saw the Chatsworth Reservoir as a treasure of the city, a pristine area that was the same as it had been a thousand years ago,” says Francine Oschin, who led the fight as West Valley councilman Hal Bernson’s assistant chief of staff. “And Rick saw the bottom line—how do we maximize the value of the property?” The reservoir, Oschin says, became today’s Chatsworth Nature Preserve “in spite of Rick Caruso—not because of him.”
In 1985, Caruso met his wife, Tina, a model who had appeared in Cosmopolitan. He also launched his real estate business as a side venture, with assistance from his father. As Dollar Rent a Car expanded into airports around the country, the company’s representatives would locate a choice plot of land nearby. A contract would be drawn up between Rick Caruso and Dollar, which committed itself to a long-term ground lease should he acquire a property. On the strength of this document, he had no problem qualifying for a loan. Dollar would do all the improvements, and he would collect rent. (He still owns many of these lots.) When Finley Kumble suffered a disastrous collapse in 1987, Caruso was free. He moved into Dollar’s headquarters by LAX with his legal secretary and became a fulltime developer.
In two years he had acquired a derelict disco not far from the Beverly Center, which he would raze to build a mall called Burton Place. “I don’t think going into shopping centers was a conscious decision,” Caruso says. “It was all driven by people. I love being around people. And shopping centers were the only place where you could have this constant mix of people and be a part of their lives. They’re full of life, and I love being in things that are full of life.”
Burton Place would provide him with a first encounter with irate home owners. “He was good-looking, young, gung ho, a little bit of a know-it-all developer,” says Harald Hahn, then, as now, the president of the Burton Way Homeowners Association. “But he wasn’t a developer. He was much more educated than that, much more intelligent than that. He knew what he wanted and was going to get it.” Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Association, had a similar impression. “He was very young, in his twenties,” she says. “And you know what you’re like in your twenties. You know everything, and you don’t have to answer to anyone.”
According to Hahn, Caruso and the activists had a meeting in the office of Zev Yaroslavsky, then the councilman for the district. “Rick breezed into that first meeting, and we were told, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’ I thought to myself, ‘In a pig’s eye.’ His analysis of the project I didn’t think was so terrible, but I didn’t want to be told.” The room devolved into anarchy. “Rick was yelling,” Hahn recalls. “We were yelling. We were throwing paper clips. Zev wasn’t throwing paper clips. He was just sitting behind his desk and rolling his eyes.” (Caruso has no recollection of throwing a paper clip, nor in hindsight can he conceive why he would, because “there’s no upside to that.”)
Hahn and Plotkin were able to straighten Caruso out. He began listening instead of telling, and he expanded the parking and improved traffic flow. “There were seven or eight coral trees on the property,” Hahn says. “At great expense he transplanted them, and by God, many of them are still there.” Fifteen years have passed since Burton Place opened, and Hahn has yet to suffer buyer’s remorse. In fact, he’d give Caruso his vote, if he would let him. “He’s someone who can and hopefully will make contributions for the life of the city,” says Hahn. “If he ever decides to run for mayor, and I hope that he will—well, we could certainly use some good management.”
One afternoon I ask Caruso why he happens to love Los Angeles so much. His answer has all the elements of a stump speech. “Oh God, how could you not love L.A.?” he says. “I love the weather, the ocean, and diversity. Within 30 minutes, you’re in entirely different worlds within the same city. I love the fact that it’s an eclectic landscape, with its own rhythm and heartbeat. It’s about a lifestyle. There’s an optimism. There’s a sense of being young and energetic. It’s a young city that’s forever changing.”
Over the years Caruso and those around him have hinted at an eventual mayoral candidacy. (One exception is his father. “I don’t think it’s in his best interest,” Hank Caruso says, “or, frankly, his family’s interest.”) He still says he might run someday. “Yeah, I would,” he says, “given the right timing and circumstances, and if I really felt I could make a difference. I know that sounds sort of corny, but it’s true. I’m a great fan of public service. I think being an elected official is a great, honorable job.” Caruso recently succeeded in lobbying the State of California to help fund a comprehensive mitigation plan for Hollywood gridlock. “The problem with the City of L.A.,” he says, “is that it tries to solve problems block by block. That’s why traffic is so lousy.”
When Mayor James Hahn asked Caruso to be president of the Los Angeles Police Commission in August 2001, he didn’t want the job. “It took a lot of arm-twisting on my part,” Hahn says. “It’s not something that Rick sought. He was someone I was enormously impressed with, and I really thought that on the police commission, we really needed someone who came in from a management perspective.” The department was reeling from the Rampart corruption scandal and in eight months was going to vote on whether to grant Chief Bernard Parks a second term. Although Caruso says he knew little about police work when he took the job, he soon judged Parks a failure. “He didn’t know how to run the department,” Caruso says. “And it was clear after me being there for a few months that that was the case. I called Jim after about four months, and I said, ‘If you want my opinion, he’s got to go.’”
Hahn had become mayor in large part because of the support he drew from L.A.’s African American voters. Now, as Caruso and Hahn’s leanings on Parks became clear, some black leaders felt betrayed. Activists like Danny Bakewell of the Brotherhood Crusade and politicians such as U.S. Representative Maxine Waters and councilmembers Nate Holden and Jan Perry rallied to Parks’s cause. The chief’s supporters planned a demonstration at the Grove’s March 2002 grand opening, then thought better of it. But later that same month, Holden and Perry cited an anonymous letter divulging that at a meeting with police officers about construction noise at the Grove, Caruso had referred to the congresswoman as “the bitch Waters.” They demanded his resignation.
Caruso, who has never confirmed or denied the slur, maintains that the leak was intended to topple him from the commission and ensure the chief’s survival. Parks, he says, “made it a political thing and ignited the African American community and the Maxine Waterses and the Danny Bakewells, knowing that if they could force me to resign, he would probably end up being reappointed, or the commission would be split, in which case by law it would have been diverted to the city council. The council, being an elected body, a political body, would never refuse the reappointment.”
Caruso stayed on, and the commission voted four to one to remove Parks. Eight months later it endorsed former New York police chief William Bratton as his replacement. Abandoned by many black voters, Hahn doomed his chances for a second term. “The irony is,” Caruso says, “in an unprecedented way crime has gone down because of the courage of Jim Hahn, but it also cost him the election.”
Within chambers, Caruso had a reputation for keeping matters cordial. Attorney David Cunningham III was the panel’s lone African American and the only commissioner who voted in favor of Parks. “I took a risk in breaking ranks with the commission and in breaking ranks with the mayor,” Cunningham says. “I did have discussions with Rick that day, that we were not on the same page on this. With other people, if they don’t agree with you, they take it personally. But we went out, announced our decision, and he never alluded to it again. I felt at that point, it really did demonstrate his character. There was never any ostracism, and I appreciated that.”
From his offices in City Hall, Bernard Parks, now councilman for the district that includes part of South L.A., talks about his ouster being the result of a sordid pact between Hahn and the police union. Parks’s chief of staff, his son Bernard Parks Jr., steps into the conversation and explains that all of Hahn and Caruso’s stated concerns—officer retention, rising crime, a failure to fully implement community policing, opposition to a shortened workweek for the force—were pretexts. “What’s been hidden in all their criticisms,” Bernard Parks Jr. says, “is that they’re doing this for the union. That’s who all their moves were done for … and it’s slowly coming back to bite them in the ass, because everything that they said, we have an answer for.”
The councilman paints a grim picture of the LAPD in the wake of his departure. “It’s kind of remarkable,” Parks says, “that the first [full] year that the three-day workweek was in place, in 2002, the city of L.A. was deemed the murder capital of the world.” (He means the United States, although the murder rate has declined every year since Bratton’s arrival.) Parks ticks off details from a recent City Administrative Officer’s report: Crime? Up. Sick time? Up. Patrol units? Down 35 percent. He ridicules the department’s current inspector general. “Guess what?” Parks says. “He has a telephone for community complaints that he didn’t even know wasn’t working for five months. So if that was the goal—to dilute the discipline system—they have one success.”
When the prospect of Caruso running for mayor is raised, Parks lets out a guffaw. “You know what?” he says. “That would be one of the few people I’d actually campaign against.”
Parks departs for the city council chambers. Remaining behind, his son asks whether I intend to look into Caruso’s father’s background and, unsolicited, offers to send over a copy of Hank Caruso’s perp-walk photo.
By themselves, such strategic airings of Caruso’s family background aren’t likely to mar his civic reputation or his political future. Antonio villaraigosa’s father was an alcoholic who beat his wife. Rudy Giuliani’s father was a convicted armed robber with mob connections. Hank Caruso, for his part, paid his debt to society after admitting to a small amount of illegal activity half a century ago. Harder to gauge is whether a son as fiercely loyal and protective as Rick Caruso would be able to withstand attacks on his father. Only once during my time with the developer did he become agitated and adversarial. That was when I called to let him know that his father had phoned me, saying he’d regretted discussing his case with me. Caruso said that he would consider ceasing cooperation for this article if I made any mention of his father’s past. He later relented, but the subject still rankled.
Though Caruso was one of the earliest contributors to Gray Davis’s first campaign for governor and helped raise money for James Hahn’s mayoral bids, his support has mostly gone to fellow Republicans. In a city as Democratic as Los Angeles, most voters probably wouldn’t be too upset about the support he gave Schwarzenegger for his gubernatorial runs, but they might not be excited about the major fund-raiser he held at his home on behalf of George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. Dick Cheney was the guest of honor.
The leading Republican presidential contenders—Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney—have sought Caruso’s blessing. Romney was invited to breakfast at the developer’s West L.A. estate; McCain came over for coffee. Caruso decided to back the former Massachusetts governor for president, in part, perhaps, because he recognized a kindred spirit. “I just think he has a stature to him,” Caruso says. “He’s well put together. I like people who take care of themselves and know how to present themselves, but more importantly he’s had a history of making tough decisions, whether it’s in business—and he developed a hell of a company—or the Winter Olympics, turning that around. And his governorship in Massachusetts, I think he handled himself well, especially in a heavily Democratic state. And he has an impressive family. His wife, Ann, is terrific, and his kids are great.”
Though a fiscal conservative, Caruso describes himself as a social moderate. “I believe the government should not be in everybody’s lives to a great degree unless they need to be,” he says. “I’m not a big promoter of increasing taxes—I think the tax structure is cockeyed in this country as it is.” He says he opposes abortion in most cases but would support some stem cell research. “I’m not a real conservative Republican,” he says. “I’m more middle of the road. If I had to identify with anybody, it would be more with Schwarzenegger, who I think has a good sense of balance.”
Caruso has an idea of how the debate might unfold if he were to run for mayor—his opponent assailing him for trying to make L.A. more like one of his shopping centers. “It would be an interesting discussion,” Caruso says, “because they would say, ‘You just want to create Disneyland. It’s not real.’”
His response: “I want to make L.A. more livable,” he says, “and ‘livable’ would certainly encompass some of the things the Grove has. It’s clean, it has the safety, it’s a friendly place, and it’s eclectic, with everyone from all walks of life.”
The most durable sales force at the Grove happens to be cast in bronze. Between the dancing fountain and Crate & Barrel, you can see the four of them going cheerfully about their labors—the eldest boy wiping a cup squeaky-clean, one of his brothers counting change on an upturned crate, the other hawking a cool beverage. A little girl hardly out of toddlerhood aims a hose to give her puppy a drink. Their faces would be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s been invited over for a family dinner at the Caruso home. The plaque for this Norman Rockwellesque tableau reads “THE LEMONADE STAND” FUTURE ENTREPRENEURS OF AMERICA. For more than a decade, Caruso has commissioned an artist based in Westlake Village named De L’Esprie to make sculptures of his children for every new shopping center. Caruso’s kids are residents at the Grove, just as they will be at Glendale’s Americana and, if he gets it built, the Shops at Santa Anita, captured as they looked at the time of each opening.
When he pitches a development, Caruso likes to reassure home owners that once he is admitted into their community, he has no intention of selling what he’s created. “Most people who are building shopping centers are building them just with an eye to flip them,” he says. “You build it, you take your profit and go on to the next space.” He can’t imagine a situation in which he’d sell any of his properties because, he says, “you can’t replace what we own.”
Besides, all his kids are there, and there they will remain. Caruso believes the Grove and many of his other works may endure for SO or even 100 years. “As long as after I’m gone they end up in the right hands, absolutely,” he says. “They’re great properties. They’re great buildings. They’re built and designed with the idea of being timeless. Now, things change—the area may change, who knows?” On the other hand, if the city does continue on its current trajectory—if decades from now, even after two terms of Caruso in the mayor’s office, it becomes ever more crowded and unmanageable—the Grove’s retrograde vision might become more of a refuge than it is today.
He can picture the scene a couple of generations hence. His children have children of their own, and they make a pilgrimage to 3rd and Fairfax. “They could walk with their kids,” Caruso says, “and say, ‘You know, this is what your grandfather built for us when we were young.’” The fountain will erupt into its dance, Dean Martin will croon “That’s Amore,” and Caruso’s grandchildren will see the smiling bronze faces of their parents in the bloom of youth—a monument to CarusoStyle for all posterity to behold.