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Last Rites for the Groundbreaking Tradition?

Development: Builders are exploring new ways to try to draw attention to their projects.


When Arden Realty Inc. began building a 10-story office tower in Westchester in January, there were no gold-plated shovels, dignitaries wearing hard hats or speeches to mark the occasion.

Like many other builders, Arden has ditched the groundbreaking ceremony, perhaps one of the most time-honored traditions in the real estate business and, some would say, one of the tackiest.

Instead, builders and their publicity people are trying to come up with new events and stunts designed to draw media attention and tenants. The construction ceremony has received more scrutiny as development in Southern California has picked up following a deep slump that saw little new construction and little need for groundbreakings.

In downtown Los Angeles, for example, developer Lowe Enterprises hosted a "wall raising" in 1997 that featured a giant crane lifting a concrete wall panel into place.

In Santa Monica, a developer hosted a "bottoming out" party when the lowest level of a parking garage was completed.

Other builders are simply shifting their marketing money to grand openings instead of groundbreakings.

"All of us are looking for new ideas on how to do this groundbreaking thing," said public relations consultant Clive Hoffman, who works for Arden. "People are trying other ways to get noticed."

But the venerable groundbreaking ceremony--part publicity stunt, part pep rally--is not expected to disappear any time soon. It is regarded by many as an important tool--especially in smaller communities--to thank government officials and signal the progress of a development.

"It's a ritual, and it's a little silly sometimes," said Andy Fishburn, senior vice president at El Segundo-based developer Kilroy Realty Corp. "But people really want to see that the project is going through."

Nearly everyone in the real estate business has attended a groundbreaking, despite misgivings about the significance of such events.

At a typical event, guests--ranging from the developer to investors to politicians--dressed in business attire don hard hats and take turns scooping mounds of dirt with a ceremonial shovels. Photographers record every turn of the spade.

"Every once in a while I find an old picture of myself with a shovel," said longtime developer Jerry Snyder, who estimates he has attended or hosted as many as 40 groundbreakings. But as a marketing tool, he says, the ritual "is worth zero."

Recent efforts to remake the groundbreaking ceremony are not the first. Shinto priests have been hired to purify, sanctify and bless building sites. Skydivers bearing gold shovels have descended on unsuspecting guests. In Orange County, a two-story replica of a personal computer emerged from the ground in a high-tech industrial park.

However, with the exception of a few major projects, groundbreakings as media events often fail to attract much attention outside a small circle of developers and public officials. At best, most groundbreakings generate a photo and a few paragraphs in a trade publication.

Hoffman, for example, was involved in organizing a groundbreaking in Culver City for construction of a nonprofit center for disabled children. About 300 people showed up, including basketball player Kobe Bryant of the Lakers and U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. But no reporters or camera crews showed up.

"They had the secretary of defense there and nobody covered it," Hoffman said.

Sometimes groundbreaking events even turn out to be premature, undermining the credibility of developers and public officials. In January 1998, Snyder's company hosted a public groundbreaking for a long-awaited Burbank office project. But 15 months later, construction still has not started.

"We are on hold on that job," Snyder said.

Delays and other problems have persuaded more and more builders to give up on the traditional groundbreaking.

In Hollywood last fall, developer TrizecHahn hosted a costly event to kick off construction of the $350-million Hollywood & Highland entertainment-retail project. Music producer Quincy Jones served as master of ceremonies and famed chef Wolfgang Puck catered lunch for about 1,000 people. The ceremony climaxed with daytime fireworks and an explosion of gold confetti raining down on the crowd.

But the ceremonial shovels and hard hats were nowhere to be seen.

"Nobody wants to come out for the shovel," said Hollywood & Highland spokeswoman Barbara Casey.

Mall developer Rick Caruso has never staged a groundbreaking, preferring instead to host often lavish grand opening parties. Last year, his Los Angeles-based company hosted a party for 1,000 people that featured fireworks and an orchestra to mark the opening of the upscale Commons at Calabasas.

"There is a lot more to celebrate once you're open," Caruso said. "I think it looks silly to be out there in a suit with a shovel and hard hat."

Last fall in Brea, people may have been wishing they'd stayed with the shovels and hard hats.

Then-Mayor Lynn Daucher hopped aboard a backhoe to scoop up a load of dirt to mark the start of a major downtown Brea redevelopment project. But with Daucher at the controls, the giant machine lurched wildly back and forth, giving onlookers a jolt.

"When I jerked it the first time, people dodged out of the way," said Daucher, who still serves on the Brea City Council. "The dignitaries were the closest, and they were running the fastest."

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