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A Man of the Street

Rick Caruso got us walking and communing at the Grove. Why has his Disney-esque vision proven so successful?

June 03, 2007|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times, and the author of "The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith."

Rick Caruso's office is palatial--that's the only way to describe it. Walk in and it stretches before you like a stage set: one vast room, subdivided into areas (a bar, a desk, spaces for conversation), with framed family photos on nearly every surface and a conference/dining room off to one side through a set of double doors. Outside Caruso's third-floor windows, the Grove stretches like the boulevard he means for it to be; noise drifts up from the sidewalk, a low-grade conversational buzz. Across the street, Barnes & Noble and Victoria's Secret feel so close they're almost part of the decor here, making for an odd dichotomy. The Grove, after all, is planned, designed, controlled down to the smallest detail; it is a development with a motif.

"The premise has always been," Caruso explains, "that we are building a great street." To pull that off, not only is it essential to replicate, in some sense, the dynamic of an urban pedestrian environment--curbs and gutters, street lights, a variety of storefronts--but also to build on a distinctly human scale. "The dimension of that building across the way," Caruso says, "was driven by King Street in Charleston. Charleston, I just felt, had a great sense of scale to it."

At 48, Caruso may be the Donald Trump of Los Angeles, a developer who defines not just his city but his time. There's a lot less glitz and bluster here, but the comparison seems apt. Like Trump, whose father was also a developer and gave him a leg up, Caruso has business in his bloodlines; his father founded Dollar Rent-a-Car in the 1960s and has influenced his career in many ways. In the late 1990s, when Caruso was seeking approval for the Grove, it was then-City Councilman John Ferarro, a longtime friend of his father, who came to the council chambers in a wheelchair and helped to push through the project. Like Trump, Caruso has surpassed his father, yet his presence continues to linger, a shadow he can't quite get beyond.

Caruso and Trump do differ in terms of style. It's hard to imagine Caruso having a TV show or engaging in public sniping with celebrities such as Rosie O'Donnell; that would be a waste of time. Confident, measured in his conversation, immaculately coiffed and dressed in silk ties and expensive suits, Caruso exudes a different kind of power, an air of focused grace. Perhaps the easiest way to explain it is that for Trump, it's always about . . . well, Trump, while Caruso has a bigger vision in mind.

Part of that vision is civic. Caruso is certainly politically connected, with strong ties to Gov. Schwarzenegger and former Mayor James Hahn. This is not just window dressing--in 1984, at age 25, he was appointed a Department of Water and Power commissioner by then-Mayor Tom Bradley, a post he held for a decade and a half. In 2002, as president of the Police Commission, he led efforts to remove Chief Bernard Parks and was instrumental in bringing William Bratton to the job. It's not the standard resume for a developer, but that, Caruso emphasizes, is precisely the point.

"I didn't grow up in the real estate industry," he says. "I didn't grow up in the mall industry. So the greatest gift I had when I got into this business is that I had no clue what the rules were. I was building things I thought I would enjoy and that other people would enjoy. I love hanging out and people-watching and feeling like you're in a mix of things going on. You go to New York and you feel like you're in the right place. That's what I was trying to tap into on these properties. I'm much more driven not by creating great retail space but by creating great civic space."

The question, though, is how great civic space is created: Can it be invented whole or does it need to evolve? What happens when a shopping center becomes a magnet for the community? What does it say about Los Angeles if the town square is a mall? Such an issue may seem simple on the surface, but it becomes increasingly nuanced the more you turn it over in your mind.

The Grove, after all, is what CalArts professor Norman M. Klein calls, in his book "The Vatican to Vegas," a "scripted space": "a walk-through or click-through environment (a mall, a church, a casino, a theme park, a computer game) . . . designed to emphasize the viewer's journey--the space between--rather than the gimmicks on the wall." In a scripted space, Klein argues, "[t]he audience walks into the story"; in a scripted space, "gentle repression [poses] as free will." Caruso might not use Klein's terminology, but he proudly admits that the Grove, like all his properties, is a mediated environment.

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