At an age when most men think about retiring, former San Diego Chargers owner Eugene V. Klein has traded his football helmet for a hard hat.
He is developing 150 of the 420 acres he owns in the San Dieguito River Valley, and part of his development, a residential community, is previewing this month, starting today.
The grand opening will continue throughout the month, culminating--appropriately--with Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 31. As Joan Reid, vice president of marketing for Del Rayo Downs, pointed out, "Gene Klein was instrumental in bringing the Super Bowl to San Diego."
Focusing on Development
However, Klein isn't focusing anymore on football.
His eye is on his Del Rayo Downs--65 one- and two-story, gated and guarded 2,500- to 4,080-square-foot homes priced from $545,000 to $775,000--and his Del Rayo Estates--23 1.6- to 13.2-acre estate sites, which are priced from $575,000 to $2 million. Klein is planning to build a $3-million spec home there.
He is also planning a five-acre commercial project to service the residences. Construction is due to begin there early next year.
"Del Rayo is a very exciting project for me," the 66-year-old Klein said at his offices there, "but it is a one-time thing. I'm not a developer per se."
Klein, who made a fortune as a San Fernando Valley Volkswagen/Volvo dealer and then as head of National General Corp. (formerly National Theatres and Television) before he bought and sold his major interest in the football club, considers himself more of a horse breeder/racer and art collector than a developer.
When he talks about his development, though, he expresses the same zeal that made him a success even as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman during the Great Depression when he was a teen-ager in New York.
"When you can wake up every morning and have breakfast while you watch the horses train and their babies learning to run, well. . . ." He took a breath and smiled. "That has to be the most unusual real estate development I know." A thoroughbred training center owned by Klein and famous horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas is the focal point of Del Rayo.
Klein bought the property in 1984, the same year the Olympic Equestrian Endurance Event was held at Fairbanks Ranch Country Club. Klein's 420 acres abut Fairbanks Ranch, a nearly 10-year-old, 1,237-acre luxury residential community.
Looking down from his twin-turbine Sikorsky S-76, a $4.5-million helicopter, Klein described Fairbanks Ranch as "one of the most successful developments ever."
From the air, Stephen Games, president of Pickford Realty (named for Mary Pickford), gestured toward the ranch, noting that it was once owned by actor Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. "Del Mar was founded in part by Bing Crosby," he added. The famous crooner once owned the Osuna Ranch there.
More recently, the San Dieguito River Valley has seen the development of golf, tennis and polo facilities as well as homes that appeal to what Games termed "world-class executives and successful doctors and lawyers." Many fly their own planes into Palomar Airport, a few miles away.
'Values Have Skyrocketed'
"There's probably $100 million in estates under construction in the San Dieguito Valley," he said. "And values have skyrocketed. A house that sold recently for $529,000 would be considered a steal for that now. So Mr. Klein had vision when he purchased his property."
Yet, Klein didn't buy his 420 acres to develop. He bought them for horse training and breeding after his interest in thoroughbreds outgrew his 18-acre horse farm next to his home in Rancho Santa Fe.
Klein now has 250 thoroughbreds, including Tank's Prospect, winner of the Preakness (one of America's three classic races).
Klein became intrigued with horses when he was still majority owner, general partner and president of the Chargers.
"When I still owned the ballclub, a lot of the fun had gone out of it for me, and I knew I would get out," he remembered. So, in 1984, after spending 18 years with the Chargers and writing his best-seller "First Down and a Billion," he sold his interest in the club to Alex Spanos, builder of 60,000 apartments.
'Pride Motivated Me'
"Alex is a pro at real estate, and I'm not," Klein quickly noted. "I'm only developing because I accidentally had 150 acres across the street (from the rest of the 420 acres, which he uses for his horses).
"I could have sold the land and had some ordinary project built there, but I didn't want that across from my horse ranch. Pride motivated me. Then, I thought, wouldn't it be interesting and fun to develop?"
For expertise on the 65 clustered but customized houses, Klein teamed up with Guy S. Gardner of Fresno, who had developed and directed the design and construc tion of more than 600 single-family homes and planned-commmunity residences as well as more than 300,000 square feet of offices and 200,000 square feet of retail space.