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Around the Foothills

'I could never say no to Mrs. Dubinin.'

August 03, 1989|DOUG SMITH

The figure of Haik Vartanian, tall, bearlike and yet characteristically softened by a self-effacing smile, has become a regular sight in Glendale City Hall.

Vartanian has attended nearly every City Council meeting since last September, assuming that familiar posture of government critic.

Unlike the usual ilk of City Council watcher, the newcomer Vartanian has an immediate, measurable stake in the council's decisions. He is chairman and co-owner of the Tensor Group, a Glendale real estate development company that, by his estimate, is working on about $30 million worth of commercial and residential structures.

Nothing in Vartanian's increasingly forward persona gave a hint of the delicious subplot developing behind the scenes. He just appeared to be another hard-nosed businessman fighting rather unconventionally for what he thinks is his.

Among his plans at one time were four large apartment projects in Glendale. All were submitted to the city and were nearly ready for building permits when the council declared a moratorium on high-density apartment buildings Sept. 28.

Since then, the rolled-up blueprints have languished in Vartanian's cramped office in a red-tiled building on West Broadway. In trying to revive them, Vartanian has been getting an education in public policy.

First he joined a coalition of builders against the moratorium and emerged as the group's leader. He appealed to the council's sense of fair play, asking that projects close to completion, such as his, be released from the moratorium.

When that failed, Vartanian and a few others hired an attorney and sued. A judge ruled in their favor. The city appealed. All parties now await a hearing before the appeals court, leaving the situation in somewhat of a showdown.

To make sure the pressure didn't slacken, Vartanian has maintained something of a vigil in the City Council. Three or four times he even took the public microphone to remind the five elected leaders that he considers them precipitous, unfair and, to get right down to it, uncapitalistic.

All of which comes merely as a prelude to the extraordinary new event that has swept Vartanian's path, causing him to miss his appointment in City Hall this Tuesday.

To understand, it would help to know a little about the 27-year-old builder-turned-political-scientist. His father, a native of Aleppo, Syria, and mother, a native of Beirut, brought 9-year-old Haik to a better life in Montebello back in 1971.

They sent him to USC, from which he graduated in 1985, having studied engineering and chemistry en route to medical school.

He is poetically vague about what swayed him from medicine to construction and finance.

"Some different doors opened, and I went through those doors, and I was in a totally different room," he said.

Almost imperceptibly, another door opened for Vartanian in January when he went on business to Washington and crossed paths with an overseas traveler who offered him a fairly decent introduction.

The traveler--who remains poetically anonymous--took Vartanian along when he called on the Soviet Embassy to visit with Mrs. Yuri Dubinin, wife of the ambassador.

As Vartanian recalls, the effect of their brief conversation was remarkable.

"We just came to have a compatible exchange of each other's thoughts," he said. "We became very receptive to each other's ideas."

In parting, he offered her his assistance if she ever needed it, and she returned the gesture.

Vartanian hardly knew he had entered a different room until he had need to test her promise a couple of weeks ago. He had become a soldier in the Armenian earthquake relief effort. He was looking for a suitable public figure to grace a September kickoff of a benefit recording by French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour.

He called the Soviet Embassy. Mrs. Dubinin remembered him and proposed a juggling of dates. He was able to accommodate.

"After she gracefully accepted, she said, 'By the way, I need your assistance,' " Vartanian said.

Mrs. Dubinin had recently formed Children in Crisis Foundation, a charity to help children in the Soviet Union and United States. Its first event would be combined with the appearance of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy tonight in the Pantages Theatre. At her request, the sponsor of the company's tour set aside 500 tickets to be sold at $250 each to raise money for Armenian orphans. Mrs. Dubinin said she could use help in selling the tickets.

On such short notice, it was a treacherous assignment. Vartanian jumped right in.

"I could never say no to Mrs. Dubinin," he said.

Every day since then, he has labored on the phone, stirring up lists of corporate heads, providing entree to Armenian leaders of Glendale, poring over logistics of invitations.

By Friday, sales were well less than halfway to the goal.

Vartanian stayed cool. In his unpretentious office, Vartanian pointed across his semi-cluttered desk to the plaque of The Optimist Creed.

"I'm a true Optimist," he said.

No matter how the event turns out, this pugnacious young Optimist from Glendale has already charted an impertinently fresh crossing of old political and social barriers.

But he'll probably build four apartment houses in Glendale before he dares address Mrs. Yuri Dubinin as Liana.

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