THOUSAND OAKS — Like the upscale suburban retail centers on which he's built his reputation, developer Rick Caruso is colorful but respectable. Elite but inclusive. Modern but rooted in tradition. European--in an American way.
At 42, this lawyer turned deal maker sports an August tan in winter, wears expensive suits and can chat effortlessly about subjects from French chateaux to boating to suburban shopping patterns.
He wears a look of calm and control. And a smile that seems to say: I'm suave. And if you're shopping here, you must be too.
"If I can get you here just to hang out," he said during a recent interview at his Promenade at Westlake center in Thousand Oaks, "I'm going to get you here as a customer."
In the last five years, Caruso has earned the trust of Thousand Oaks officials with two popular shopping centers on Thousand Oaks Boulevard: the Village at Moorpark near the west end of the boulevard, and the Promenade at Westlake.
Caruso's newest challenge in town lies squarely between the two. The City Council has asked him to develop a stylish retail and office center on the boulevard to anchor a pedestrian-friendly downtown in a city that wasn't designed with one. Work has not begun on what's been dubbed Discovery Park, but it could be completed as early as the end of the year, he said.
Deputy City Manager Jim Friedl said Caruso was chosen to tie together a downtown because "his projects end up feeling like warm, friendly 'people places.' And that's the feeling we want to bring to the property."
As an Angeleno of Italian American descent, Caruso spent his formative years walking hip Westwood neighborhoods and vacationing with his parents in Europe.
He developed a taste for the energy and flair of urban meccas: Pockets of colorful architecture. Stylish stores and bistros. A buzz that creates a shared sense of belonging among people who might otherwise remain strangers.
The son of a successful businessman, Caruso learned the rule "know your customer." As a developer he has bet that most well-off suburbanites settled where they did for safe neighborhoods and good schools. He also bet they longed for some of the chic they'd seen on their own European vacations but lacked at home.
In several projects around Southern California, the president of Santa Monica-based Caruso Affiliated Holdings has sought to manufacture that vibe--something between the Westwood Village of his youth and Rome's Campo dei Fiori, but more sanitized than either--and impart it on suburban intersections.
Ambience Important to His Projects
Not everyone in this slow-growth city is a fan of Caruso's Discovery Park plans. Some think Thousand Oaks is becoming too glamour-obsessed and materialistic. Others take issue with the $12.2 million in redevelopment funds the city will contribute. And there are those who oppose any more development here, period.
But as a rule, project opponents say they like Caruso personally--even admire him.
"He's a decent developer and a smart, shrewd man," said one project critic, local slow-growth advocate Joy Meade. "He's a very nice man."
One afternoon last month, Caruso discussed his design philosophy as he sipped a decaf latte near a 68 1/2-foot, $39,000 Christmas tree at the Promenade.
"Our corny little token term is 'an entertainment and shopping resort,' " he said of the atmosphere he tries to give his projects.
"I really do try to think of things that would enrich people's lives in an otherwise ordinary setting," he said.
His friend James Ashton of Westlake Village, a broker who has represented him on several retail centers, said Caruso's charm belies a serious businessman interested in the technical aspects of each project.
"I've worked with a lot of landowners, and rarely are they as interested in projects as he is," Ashton said. "When they built the Promenade, he literally stood out there and watched them put every stone in. He takes an interest in every aspect of the project."
In addition to the Thousand Oaks centers, Caruso's projects include the Commons at Calabasas and Encino Marketplace. The Grove at Farmers Market in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles is now underway and will have its own trolley system. Caruso also will develop a 23-acre town center at Playa Vista near Marina del Rey.
Caruso typically invites residents of a neighborhood where he's building to public meetings before his projects get underway. He asks them what stores they do or don't want, what concerns they have and what he can do to win their approval.
This approach has made him popular with many officials and residents in Thousand Oaks. It's what enabled him to sell city residents on the Promenade in 1997 after other developers had failed.
Shops there include a Bristol Farms market, Restoration Hardware, an eight-screen movie theater, bookstore, and restaurants and coffeehouses mixed together in a tree-lined, pastel Mediterranean-style enclave.