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Developer thinks big to keep pace with growth

Jim Thomas is leading a massive proposal for Universal City, a plan that could serve expanding real estate needs.

December 29, 2006|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

Jim Thomas is one of Southern California's most influential developers and civic leaders, helping to build some of the region's most recognizable skyscrapers and co-leading the launch of the ambitious Grand Avenue project in downtown Los Angeles.

Yet he has remained largely unknown.

Now, Los Angeles County's latest large-scale real estate project, a proposed $3-billion addition to Universal City, has thrust Thomas into the spotlight.

Thomas' company, Thomas Properties Group, is the key developer in a team looking for city approval to add nearly 3,000 residences, two large office buildings and numerous other structures, including stores and movie production facilities.

The project at the nation's largest movie studio lot will be a crucial test of increasingly popular urban planning theories that Thomas champions, calling for dense development around mass transit and using ecologically friendly building methods.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the Universal proposal "a transformative project, a city-making project" that should be "the epicenter of smart growth in the 21st century."

Thomas is expected to play a crucial role in building support for the massive development that proponents hope will serve as an example of effective growth to serve the city's expanding housing and business needs.

By building housing close to offices, cutting a new street through the studio's back lot and improving nearby streets, supporters hope to minimize its effect on the surrounding community.

But many neighbors are aghast at the scope of the Universal proposal, alarmed about the potential effect on traffic of such a large project.

Thomas, 70, shares their sense of fear about what is happening on local roadways. Traffic congestion, he says, is going to jump out in the years ahead as the No. 1 issue people want their politicians to address as the region's roads grow ever more unbearable.

He even predicts that on a not-too-distant day, an accident or incident on the Westside is going to cause true gridlock, in which cars won't be able to move. Frustrated drivers will give up and abandon their vehicles.

"I wanted to be the first one to call it," he joked.

But stopping all development is not an option, Thomas said. With more than 100,000 people coming to Los Angeles County every year, growth is an unstoppable force that must be addressed with big measures such as the Universal project, Thomas said.

"This isn't something you can fine-tune," said Thomas, president of his namesake company.

Such bold and decisive approaches have become a trademark for Thomas, who has emerged in recent years as a business and civic leader with a reputation for taking on tough, big-scale projects that change Los Angeles.

Universal Studios President Ron Meyer said he wanted Thomas to handle the office portion of the project because Thomas had a reputation for completing big tasks.

"He is just such a solid guy that you feel very comfortable being in his hands," Meyer said.

To avoid traffic himself, Thomas leaves his Brentwood home at around 6 a.m., when roads are mostly clear, for his trip to company headquarters downtown. He had a driver for a while but found the personal service to be "a nuisance," he said.

"Jim is a Warren Buffett-type," said Stan Ross, chairman of the Lusk Center for Real Estate at USC. "He's fiscally conscious, family oriented and he's not overly aggressive with people."

The comparison with the folksy Nebraska billionaire is a measure of how far Thomas has come since he was born in 1936 in Pembroke, the North Carolina hometown of the Lumbee Indian tribe. Thomas was the oldest of three children.

When Thomas was in high school, the Native American family moved to Cleveland, where his father found a factory job. Thomas briefly returned to North Carolina on a basketball scholarship to Catawba College. After just a year, Thomas had to return to Cleveland to help care for his ailing father.

"Jim really pulled himself up by the bootstraps," said longtime business partner Ned Fox, president of Vantage Investment Properties. "He's been highly motivated" to succeed.

Thomas went back to school in Cleveland and went on to become a federal tax lawyer, trying cases for the Internal Revenue Service. In 1966, he was transferred to Los Angeles, where he later went into private practice.

A young developer with tax problems named Robert F. Maguire was referred to Thomas, and by the early 1970s, the two became partners on some real estate developments. By 1983, Thomas left law to work full time with Maguire.

Together they built housing, shopping centers and some of the city's most recognizable offices, including the U.S. Bank Tower in downtown Los Angeles, the tallest building in the West.

Maguire, who is more flamboyant, got most of the media attention in the partnership that lasted until 1996, when Thomas left to start his own company.

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