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For Oral History Project : L.A. Developers Recall Early Days

March 22, 1987|EVELYN De WOLFE | Times Staff Writer

Five leading developers who helped create the Los Angeles of today reminisced about their activities in a discussion sponsored by the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group and the Huntington Library, with the cooperation of the oral history department of UCLA.

The objective was to record recollections of the building, planning, development and design of the Los Angeles region from the perspective of Ray Watt, Joseph Leggett, Walter H. Leimert Jr., Fred Marlow and John D. Lusk. Calvin S. Hamilton, former Los Angeles planning director, was the moderator.

Now 88, Marlow became a licensed real estate broker in 1924. He developed his first subdivision in Owensmouth (known today as Canoga Park), and later developed Windsor Hills on the south edge of Baldwin Hills; Westchester, where he built 2,000 homes for war workers and later, World War II veterans, and the Hollywood Riviera, 600 acres of ocean front between Redondo Beach and Palos Verdes Estates.

"When we began developing, we practiced the old-time, high-pressure lunch-and-lecture salesmanship," Marlow recalled. "In those days there was no control by any planning or zoning agency and all we did was file a record of the survey map, crown up the streets with a blade pulled by mules and sprinkled a little decomposed granite on the roads.

No Parking Considerations

"The land boom was on, and we were out to make a profit. It was a seller's market and none of us bothered to put in any curbs, or gutters or sewers.

"We never thought about parking needs in those days. That's why so many hundreds of 25-by-100 commercial lots exist today in the San Fernando Valley. I am probably responsible for most of them."

In the years since 1941, when he founded Watt Industries, Ray Watt's firm has grown from a small family building business to a multifaceted development firm with more than $6 billion in completed projects.

With 1985 residential sales of $283.5 million, Watt Industries ranked No.1 in the Los Angeles Times' 15th annual survey of residential constructions and sales activity in Southern California.

Need for Marketing

With a history of more than 40 years in the business, Watt remembers when it used to take 13 points to finance a project in the '50s. Comparing the approach of earlier developers versus those in today's highly competitive market, he emphasized the importance of marketing.

"Developers thought that simply by adding golf courses and lakes, a project would be more successful than one that didn't. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, 90% of the focus was on the brick and mortar," Watt said. "Today, 70% of a project's success is tied to financial management."

Leimert, a third-generation developer in California, reviewed some of the projects of the pioneer Walter H. Leimert Co. that included Beverlywood, Beverly Highlands, Cheviot Hills and Leimert Park in Los Angeles County, Saint Hubert Wood and Sierra Park in Orange County, as well as Cambria Pines in San Luis Obispo County and Piedmont in Oakland.

"Leimert Park was not a financial success because its sales suffered during the Depression years, but it rated a banner story in Life magazine, which hailed it as the 'Community of the Future.'

Novel Concept

"It was master-planned by Olmstead & Olmstead, the firm that laid out Central Park in New York, and its mixed-use concept was quite novel then. It included its own shops and its own park, later donated to the city."

Leimert said his father introduced the first "community homes association" in the Southland at the Beverlywood residential development.

Leggett heads the Janss Investment Corp., which developed Thousand Oaks in Ventura County in the mid-1950s. It included about 1,000 custom home lots, 2,000 single-family residences, regional shopping center, 200-acre industrial park and several neighborhood shopping centers.

"Our objective was to create an integrated community with a balance of residential, commercial and industrial uses. We perceived Thousand Oaks as a self-contained community where residents could work, live and shop."

Leggett recalled the early days when the Janss family, now in its fourth generation of developers, attracted regents and others responsible for choosing a new university site, later UCLA, in Westwood.

Inspection Drive

"Several of Janss' middle-management employees were dressed as chauffeurs and assigned to drive the selecting committee around the future campus area. The drivers knew exactly how to point out the attributes of the area, and of course the Janss brothers justified this bit of connivance as being very helpful."

Lusk started his career as a developer by building custom homes in the Brentwood-Bel-Air area in 1946. Since then, the Lusk Co. has built 30,000 homes and developed more than 2,800 acres of industrial sites. The firm's residential projects span the spectrum from luxury to manufactured housing, and for the high- and low-income buyer, and is involved in interior design as well.

A past president of the Building Contractors Assn. and a recipient of the BCA Builder of the Year award, Lusk is a trustee of the Mead Housing Trust dedicated to developing housing for low-income families.

"My concerns lie with the growing inability for young people to purchase their own homes. You can't sell a Rolls Royce to a person making $1500 a month when that Rolls Royce costs $125,000. It's a big issue that must become a priority for the building industry. Public housing is coming back again and I don't think people want this," Lusk stated.

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