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L.A. Developer Clashes but Keeps On Building

Alan Casden, known for his aggressive style, has been in several legal battles -- including against his brother -- but that hasn't stopped his projects from going up

August 08, 2004|Roger Vincent and Martha Groves | Times Staff Writers

Alan Casden is not one to back down.

Over the years, the multimillionaire developer has sued a raft of business associates who have displeased him. One business partner -- who happens to be his brother -- says Casden openly mocked him. At a bar mitzvah party for oil tycoon Marvin Davis' grandson, Casden shoved his wife as worried guests looked on, she has said in court papers.

Now, Casden is pushing again -- in this case, a controversial $100-million real estate project through the Los Angeles City Council.

Last week, the council took a preliminary step toward approval of Casden's Palazzo Westwood, a Mediterranean-style apartment and retail complex, to be built on two long-vacant lots near UCLA. Final passage is expected this month.

It wasn't long ago that things looked bleak for the 58-year-old Casden and his latest dream.

In November, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley filed felony charges against a vice president at Casden's development firm, Casden Properties Inc., accusing him of trying to get around campaign finance limits by soliciting donations from friends and relatives of more than a dozen subcontractors and then illegally reimbursing them.

On the day of the indictment, Cooley said that Casden himself was a target of the inquiry, describing him as "a person used to manipulating the system."

More than eight months later, no charges have been filed against Casden, who has denied any wrongdoing. But in January, in the wake of Cooley's comments, City Councilman Jack Weiss vowed to get in the developer's way.

(Over the last four years, Weiss has received contributions totaling at least $34,000 from Casden associates, according to campaign-finance reports. Weiss said he believed that those contributions were appropriate. The district attorney's office has said that Weiss was not a target of its investigation.)

"I'm going to stop Casden," Weiss told a group of angry Westwood property owners, saying that he was concerned about the district's probe, among other things. The audience burst into applause.

Now, though, Weiss has changed his mind about the Palazzo Westwood.

A couple of weeks ago, a City Council planning committee that includes Weiss unanimously approved the project, sending it on to the full council, even though some neighborhood residents still object to certain design aspects of the complex.

Weiss said he came around after Casden began working with the community and compromised on several key issues, including agreeing to keep busy Glendon Avenue open during construction.

Those who know Casden say they aren't surprised that he appears to have triumphed. "Alan is aggressive and focused, and he tends to get things done," said Larry Kosmont, a Los Angeles real estate consultant.

Baseball Bid Strikes Out

Most Angelenos first heard of Casden last summer, when the lifelong baseball fan attempted to buy his beloved Los Angeles Dodgers from then-owner News Corp. He came to the party not only with a fat checkbook but with a grand vision to move the Dodgers into a new stadium downtown and to build thousands of houses and apartments at Chavez Ravine. At one point, he had the highest offer on the table: $400 million. But Casden's prickly style and some lingering legal problems turned off those at News Corp., a company executive said. Eventually, the team was sold to another real estate mogul, Boston's Frank McCourt.

The ill-fated bid for the Dodgers marked one of Casden's few failures in a career spanning three decades.

In all, he has created 40,000 apartment units throughout Southern California, many of them for low-income tenants. He has scored on the high end, too, including in L.A. with the Broadcast Center and Hillcreste apartments, as well as the Palazzo at Park La Brea, a luxury apartment complex built on Third Street across from the Grove shopping mall.

Casden is a detail man, right down to picking the trim in individual apartment units. On a tour of the Palazzo at Park La Brea last year, he stopped in mid-sentence when he spotted a small impression of a boot heel frozen in the concrete of a hallway floor -- a blemish left behind by a careless worker. With a wag of his finger, Casden summoned an underling and instructed him to remove "that hoof print" right away.

Casden declined to be interviewed for this story. But in an interview last year, he described real estate development as "a very difficult, arduous business to be in, with great risk and not always good rewards."

"It's not selling movie tickets," he said, suggesting that succeeding in his industry requires a particularly firm hand. "Ask anybody who has ever remodeled their house. There's always problems. They open up walls, they find this, they find that. There is always something. I'm in a business where you have to control those variables."

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