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His way to give back to L.A.

June 30, 2003|Mitchell Landsberg and Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

In the 2 1/2 years since he stepped down as top executive of the financial services company SunAmerica and turned to full-time philanthropy, Eli Broad has given away hundreds of millions of dollars. Most has gone to the arts, medical science and, above all, to improve the leadership in schools from kindergarten through 12th grade -- a cause to which he and his wife, Edythe, have donated more than $400 million.

Last week, Broad sat down for a question-and-answer session in his offices, which fill the 12th floor of SunAmerica's Westwood headquarters. This is a literal comedown from his former digs as chief executive above the 35th floor, Broad notes in jest, but the room he chooses to talk in is a step up from the average workplace: Through the window, there's a view north to the Santa Monica Mountains. On one wall hangs a series of Jasper Johns artworks; nearby leans a 3-by-6-foot artist's projection, now outdated, of Disney Hall with a stone exterior instead of the more affordable stainless steel cladding now nearing completion downtown. Excerpts follow.

Broad: People ask me, "Why are you doing all this?" And let me give you a broad answer. One, here I am a kid of Lithuanian immigrants, and I've really lived the American dream. I came to Los Angeles 40 years ago and have been accepted. It's a meritocracy, unlike a lot of other cities in America and other places in the world.

Q: How did you get interested in education?

A: We went from an industrial economy to an information economy and society. That meant you had two types of workers: knowledge workers in high demand or service workers in low demand, with knowledge workers earning maybe four times as much. Which meant that the gap between the poor and the middle class keeps widening. So [my wife and I] became interested in education, because the only way to solve these problems is to give all children the opportunity to become knowledge workers.

Q: And your interest in downtown?

A: I love this city, and I believe every city needs a vital center. And it's happening downtown. You've got Staples, which has been a big contributor. You've got the cathedral. We're going to have Disney Hall. There is a plan for Grand Avenue that will include a civic center park, or a mall, or a common, whatever you want to call it, from the Department of Water and Power all the way down to City Hall. That's in the process of happening.

Q: One of the reasons that Los Angeles has not had a vital core has been the suburban sprawl. And your home-building company is partly responsible for that. If you could do it over again, would you build in the same way?

A: I think I would. This is not penance. I started in Michigan a home-building company with Donald Kaufman, who was 10 years my senior. And we built entry-level housing -- in other words, for people who were living in essentially garden apartments who had one child going on two. And we created low-cost homes that they could buy at monthly payments not different from what they were paying and get the tax advantage. And I always felt good about that. And we found land in suburbia. And we did it in many cities, and I feel good about it. Now, having said that, I think a lot more could have been done in the last five decades in land planning to avoid some of that sprawl.

I think you need one place where people from all communities will come together. And there's only one place to do it. Downtown. And I think the Music Center and other public institutions are becoming far more aware of their responsibilities to cater to a much broader audience, a younger audience. Right now, you get, all too often, a graying, Caucasian audience. And I think they're beginning to realize that they've got to do things to attract a younger audience and a different ethnic mix.

Q: How do you go about balancing your local interests with broader national interests, like the research grant just made to Massachusetts?

A: Well, let me answer it this way: Los Angeles and Southern California win all ties. Let's start there. What have I done out of state? My alma mater [Michigan State University], we endowed it, they named the business school after me, that's fine. In New York City, where we have an apartment, where I was born, we haven't done much other than, you know, make some contributions that were not very significant to art institutions there. I think what we're doing in Cambridge is unique. I would have preferred to do it here, between Caltech, USC and UCLA, but you got down to an issue of what's more important, the geography or the science.

Q: Have you ever run for any office?

A: No.

Q: College? High school?

A: No.

Q: Elementary school?

A: No.

Q: How come?

A: I don't know how come.

Q: You must have been approached at one time or another by someone saying, "Look, you're passionate about these things. Why not enter this arena?"

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