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Old-World Charm Is Developer's Magic Touch

VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

PROFILE: Rick Caruso's projects are known for a European-style ambience that appeals to upscale shoppers.

January 16, 2001|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stores at the Promenade are laid out in a crescent rather than linear pattern. The storefronts are set off by cozy outdoor seating, stone fountains, stained-glass lighting and intricately paved walkways. The parking lot is usually packed.

Such a retail center won't succeed everywhere, Caruso said. But in a place with upscale demographics like Thousand Oaks, customers can afford to sustain high-end stores that, in turn, can afford to pay him enough to make this sort of development profitable.

Not all tenants succeed, however. The former Club Disney store has been vacant since it folded nearly two years ago. But lease payments on the 25,000-square-foot space are still being made by the store's parent company, Caruso said, and a new tenant could be announced this month.

Caruso says he didn't always know he wanted to be a developer. But he knew he wanted to work with land.

Life as Lawyer Was Not Proactive Enough

His father, Henry Caruso, started as a car salesman, went on to open dealerships in the Long Beach area and eventually built Dollar Rent-A-Car into the largest privately owned rental car company in the United States before selling it to Chrysler in 1990.

"Being raised with an executive and going to work with him on the weekends was a big influence," Rick Caruso said. "But I never had any inclination to get into the car business. I always had a passion for real estate, not for cars. And I wasn't real enamored with being a second generation in a business."

After his graduation from USC, Caruso earned a law degree from Pepperdine University and went to work as a real estate lawyer in 1983. But he said he quickly found he was more interested in making things happen than in doing paperwork for the people who made things happen.

His father helped guide him. "I still go to Dad for advice," Caruso said. "He's one of my closest advisors."

Caruso said his average workday runs 12 to 15 hours, though he tries to avoid weekends. He describes himself as a night owl, whose best ideas for project details often come to him at home--a custom-built, five-bedroom southern France-inspired house on Los Angeles' Westside--after his wife, three sons and baby daughter have gone to sleep.

In addition to running his business, he has served for years as a commissioner on the board of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He also serves on the board for USC's School of Planning, Policy and Development.

Last year, Caruso's name was entered into nomination for a seat on the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, but he was rejected by council members in the midst of a political squabble with Mayor Richard Riordan. Los Angeles Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who serves with Caruso on the USC board and was one of the council members who voted against his Harbor Commission nomination, said he doesn't always agree with Caruso politically but considers him "a straight shooter."

"He's a creature of the private sector and argues from that vantage point," Ridley-Thomas said. At the same time, the councilman said Caruso "prides himself on professionalism and candor. He's civic-minded."

Caruso has contributed to several political campaigns in the last decade. He counts Riordan and Gov. Gray Davis among his friends. Regarding politics, he said he tends to prefer Republican candidates to Democrats, and describes his own ideology as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

Family Members Are His Consultants

Caruso likes being a mover and shaker. He also admits a penchant for the finer things. Much of his home's interior, including floors, furniture and the fireplace, were imported from a demolished chateau in France that his decorator discovered. He likes single-malt Scotch, golfing around Los Angeles, snow- and water-skiing. He owns a racing boat and a motorboat.

But Caruso said above all he considers himself a family man. He spends weekends playing sports with his boys, ages 5, 9 and 11. Parenthood, he said, influences how he shapes his projects.

After all, the people who shop in upscale suburbs are largely mothers and fathers, who usually have kids in tow.

"What motivates me is: Is it a place where someone would want to load up their family and go hang out on a Friday or Saturday night?" he said.

He admits his schedule doesn't leave him much time to go shopping at his own centers, or anywhere else for that matter. But Caruso said he asks his wife and their kids what they like and don't like about malls, and he factors their opinions into his projects.

In Thousand Oaks, his Discovery Park project is still just a big dirt lot. But, he said, it could be built within months, with a $40-million mix of retail shops, restaurants, office space, a 14-screen movie theater with stadium seating, a seven-level parking structure and family-friendly grounds, including a man-made pond that can be frozen over for ice skating in winter.

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