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Alternate reality

Rick Caruso's outdoor malls are a cleaned-up facsimile of city life.

December 01, 2004|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

New Orleans — Multimillionare developer Rick Caruso is walking past the shops on Royal Street in the heart of the French Quarter, surveying the streetscape with all its architectural elegance and decay.

Little escapes the notice of the Los Angeles businessman: the ornately carved crown moldings, the wrought iron balconies, sizzling gas lanterns, cypress shutters, cracked sidewalks, leaning walls, bare wires. The place is beautiful but worn out. To Caruso, it looks like a dump.

"They certainly haven't spent any money on maintenance," he says. "I don't see any reason to ever come back here again."

As Caruso walks, his cellphone and BlackBerry buzz constantly with messages that tether him to Los Angeles. Mayor James Hahn wants to meet with him. So does City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who wants Hahn's job. A reporter calls to discuss his latest project, an outdoor shopping center in Glendale. His office is trying to reach Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a close friend. The White House wants to know if he's interested in a commission position. (He is, but only in his spare time.) His wife wants to talk to him about the Christmas lights on their Brentwood mansion.

Impeccably dressed in a $6,000 Brioni suit and square-toed Dolce & Gabbana oxfords, Caruso, appointed by Hahn to the Los Angeles Police Commission, takes calls and keeps moving. His entourage -- among them a former amusement park architect, a Hollywood-style marketing specialist and a financier -- are following close behind, watching their boss scrutinize the scenery while performing his daily ballet of multi-tasking.

At 45, Caruso is dashing, fabulously rich, politically connected and determined to reinvent one of the country's most ubiquitous cultural icons -- the mall. He has more than $1 billion in projects in the works in California and half a dozen other malls completed , including the Grove, a wildly popular amusement park-like shopping center next to the Farmers Market at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue. Caruso fought, and won, a bitter $2-million battle in September to build a similar project on Brand Boulevard near the Glendale Galleria.

These days, he's gearing up for another fight, this time to build an outdoor mall and residential complex at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, not far from an enclosed mall owned by Westfield Group.

On a warm November afternoon, Caruso and the top members of his staff flew by private jet to New Orleans specifically to get ideas for the developer's Santa Anita project, which he plans to model after the French Quarter. Caruso loves the concept of incorporating the charm of old buildings into his new developments and he has a great appreciation for vintage architectural details, notably stained glass and antique fountains. But it's clear as he walks down Royal Street that he doesn't like the real old buildings, with their musty odors, battered floors and peeling paint. (He later declares that Bourbon Street "smells like my college fraternity house.")

Admirers and critics

To Caruso, who grew up rich in Los Angeles, shabby is certainly not chic. Forget about weathered and funky. He wants things neat, clean and new. And to many people, there's nothing wrong with that.

His vision of his so-called "lifestyle center" is becoming increasingly popular among developers, who are building faux street-scene-type malls all over the country. The Grove, which launched Caruso's career as one of the most influential outdoor mall builders in America, was successful from the day it opened nearly 2 1/2 years ago.

"As the world becomes more complicated and people have less time in their lives, these kinds of places become retreats for people," says Caruso, whose father founded Dollar Rent a Car, giving him the seed money he needed to start his development firm. "The property has the ability to transport people to a better time."

With the help of Hollywood set designers and a team of architects, the developer has mastered the art of making things deliberately fake. His malls are facsimiles of city life, seeking to capture the well-moneyed baby boomers' gauzy memories of their youth.

But Caruso's is a style not everyone likes, whether it's his malls, his politics or his personality.

The developer -- who walks with a swagger and talks with a voice that cuts through a crowd -- has been called arrogant and cavalierly confrontational. His critics complain that his projects are as hollow as the facades on a Hollywood set, that he replicates the past while discarding the grittiness that gives old buildings their soul.

"He is a very slick, smart, clever guy," says Arlene Vidor, the president of the Glendale Historical Society, which is fighting Caruso on his efforts to demolish an old fire station and another building to make way for his Brand Boulevard development.

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