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'The last thing we wanted to do was start a war with the council.'

December 11, 1986|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

Never before, not during 12 years on the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency board, had Chairman Robert Calhoun been forced into such a corner.

The agency had always conducted its business much like a private company--analyzing in closed sessions the credentials of builders with plans for hotels, office buildings and shopping malls.

Final decisions were made twice a month at quick, early morning public meetings in a tiny conference room on the third floor of city hall.

"We'd get our packets, we'd study them, then we'd come in and we were ready for action," said Calhoun, a gentlemanly 59-year-old dentist, who together with a Roman Catholic priest, an attorney, an insurance broker and a high school math teacher comprise the agency's board of directors.

The City Council, which appoints the board, had always stayed out of redevelopment, thinking that the process worked best when removed from politics.

But on a Tuesday evening in late October, a divided council intervened, making an unprecedented request that was handed to a startled Calhoun early the next morning. Would the agency wait two weeks to select a builder for the prime Landmark site at Ocean Boulevard and Pine Avenue?

The board refused. And the resulting fury has hastened the departure of Calhoun, chairman of the redevelopment board since 1977. By February, as his 13th agency anniversary approaches, Calhoun will be off the board, Mayor Ernie Kell said.

"It's regrettable to leave in anything other than favorable circumstances," Calhoun said recently, measuring each word. "But I don't want to reflect any bitterness or antagonistic feelings of any kind. I still live here and I'm going to live here for a long time. Life is too short for hard feelings."

But, even in hindsight, he does not see that he and his colleagues had much choice in refusing to go along with the council's unexpected request, which was sparked by complaints from a disgruntled developer.

"The last thing we wanted to do was start a war with the council. . . .(But) we felt we had to maintain the integrity of the process. We did not want the developer world to think we could be pressured by lobbying through the council," he said.

Builder John Kilroy Jr. of El Segundo had placed calls to each council member after learning that he would not get the Landmark contract, Calhoun said.

"(Kilroy) felt the rules had been changed during the selection process. . . . He implied that the city manager had stated a preference and that there wasn't any real competition."

But in a discussion with Calhoun the developer could offer no proof, Calhoun said. And after two colleagues who had served on the Landmark selection committee said they had detected no staff favoritism, the board decided not to delay.

Its vote infuriated the council majority and sparked debate about whether the council should start making the redevelopment decisions. No changes were made.

But as the situation simmered, Kell announced that he would promptly replace Calhoun, who had served at the mayor's pleasure since his last term expired in March, 1985. Two other members, in accordance with city policy, will also be replaced when their second terms expire in March, the mayor said.

While the Landmark controversy was fleeting, it again raised questions about the way veteran officials like Calhoun have handled redevelopment. They were the people who had pulled together to nurture the downtown revival through its formative years, securing commitments for $1.5 billion in new development in the last decade.

But their efforts have also prompted complaints that board decisions were unimaginative and in lock-step with the recommendations of staff professionals.

"Some people say that the Redevelopment Agency board tends to rubber-stamp staff recommendations," said Richard Gaylord, chairman of the city Planning Commission.

And a businessman involved in redevelopment said: "They approve projects that are most like those you see in other cities. They look at the Hyatt Hotel and they say, 'Gosh, it's as nice as you see in the big city.' We have not looked at establishing our own identity."

But others say the success of Long Beach redevelopment, and of chairman Calhoun, cannot be denied.

"The city has had a good reputation for being able to evaluate proposals away from the political process," said developer Stanley Cohen of Newport Beach.

Though angered briefly in October, Kell said, "I think the system has basically served the city well. . . . (and) 95% of the credit goes to the board." Calhoun, despite his tenure, has not been seen as the dominant force in redevelopment, associates say. Msgr. Ernest Gualderon, on the board himself for nine years, described Calhoun as congenial, outgoing and helpful. The board trusts its staff and "we pretty much go along" with it, said Gualderon.

Only the board's junior member, attorney Noel Gould, has publicly asked many questions of a staff which he says "has not aggressively sought comment of all interested parties" before making important decisions.

"Bob's style as chairman has been as one who defers to executive staff policy recommendations and does not question (their) implementation," Gould said.

But Gould characterized Calhoun as a gentleman committed to public service who has been a "consistent, stable leader" during several changes in staff, and who has ably defended the agency to disgruntled developers.

Calhoun himself said he takes great pride in what the board and "an outstanding staff" have accomplished together.

"When I stand in the downtown now, it's very gratifying. You see new buildings teeming with people where there had been broken-down buildings and vacant lots," he said.

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