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Changing Times Challenge Segerstrom : Profile: Costa Mesa's prolific developer shows no signs of stopping, but new climate challenges Bristol Street dream.

March 15, 1992|DAN WEIKEL and CHRIS WOODYARD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

COSTA MESA — Hidden behind tree-covered berms, the Fairview Road headquarters of C. J. Segerstrom & Sons is both barnyard and corporate office. It is a place where sophisticated talk about development and fine art mixes with the drone of tractors and the pungent scent of fertilizer from the family farm out back.

The grounds befit the enigmatic man who runs the place--Henry T. Segerstrom, the lima bean scion turned real estate visionary, patron of the arts and leading purveyor of the notion that a shopping mall can be a center of culture.

For almost three decades, the slender 68-year-old has led a vast retail and commercial enterprise responsible for South Coast Plaza and the Orange County Performing Arts Center, which he worked tirelessly to build in a once obscure suburb known as Goat Hill to the upper crust of Newport Beach.

Recognizing early that urban decay would drive retailing centers from the major cities, Segerstrom had the foresight to turn much of the family farm into one of the premier business and cultural locations in the nation. The result has become such a powerful magnet that it draws from a potential market of 8 million people from San Diego to the mansion-lined streets of Pasadena.

"He has a very unusual ability to see the large picture and the small detail," said Thomas R. Kendrick, president of the Performing Arts Center. "He focuses on excellence and has an uncanny ability to enlist others in his vision. He sees beyond bricks and mortar to what it all can represent."

Beyond Southern California, Segerstrom has helped set in motion a national trend toward urban-village complexes, which contain business, retail, housing and entertainment focal points amid low-density cityscapes that surround metropolitan areas. "Edge cities" are what one author calls them.

Segerstrom, who apparently has no plans to retire soon, has gone about building his dreams with single-mindedness and enormous personal involvement, often selecting architects and building materials himself. He even persuaded the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu to loan ancient Roman mosaics on a long-term basis to enhance the tone of the posh Center Club, which he founded across from the Performing Arts Center.

But acquaintances who requested anonymity say Segerstrom has at times been uncompromising and imperious in the quest to fulfill his goals. In contrast to his graciousness and courtesy at public appearances, some have found him so reticent and distant that he seems bloodless.

His empire, too, has had its share of controversy over the years. During the 1960s, he became embroiled in a dispute with his relatives over inheritance of the family fortune. In the 1970s and 1980s, unhappy tenants filed two rounds of lawsuits against his company, alleging misrepresentation and breach of contract at South Coast Plaza Village, an open-air shopping center across from South Coast Plaza. One disgruntled shopkeeper mocked the location by putting up a banner reading "South Ghost Village."

Last year, a company memo surfaced suggesting that it was looking for ways to avoid hiring or promoting homosexuals, creating a furor and threats of a boycott.

And, as he heads into the anniversary celebration of South Coast Plaza, which opened 25 years ago today, Segerstrom faces substantial challenges to his vision of turning Bristol Street into the rival of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles and Park Avenue in New York.

While Segerstrom developments have made their mark on the Costa Mesa skyline, they also have brought the city a host of urban problems, which have not sat well with voters or some current political leaders.

"People all agree that Segerstrom puts out a quality development," said Councilman Jay Humphrey. "The question is how dense and intense. The community does not want to see any more of the kind of density he has built in the past."

Segerstrom, who lives in a bay-front home in Newport Beach, declined to talk specifically about the future of his business ventures, Costa Mesa politics or himself, except to say that development of his family's land will eventually occur. In an interview with The Times, he also expressed his desire not to be the subject of a story. Friends, co-workers and relatives explain that he is an intensely private and modest man who does not like to call attention to himself.

"He makes few public statements," said Costa Mesa Councilman Peter F. Buffa. "His is not the Donald Trump style. You know, 'How much press can I get personally?' That is not Henry."

Segerstrom, however, is not so reluctant to seek publicity for his latest project or a new retailer he has recruited for South Coast Plaza. Even then, he prefers to release information through prepared statements, underlings or choreographed appearances at which he speaks carefully, as if every word takes a trip around his brain before he utters it.

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