Brentwood neighborhood transformed by L.A. billionaire's building project

Patrick Soon-Shiong, biotech entrepreneur and philanthropist, slowly bought up three acres in the former Westgate Acres neighborhood. Residents have mixed feelings about the ongoing construction.

July 06, 2010|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times

Tucked between Sunset and San Vicente boulevards lies a leafy Brentwood neighborhood whose ranch homes, driveway basketball hoops and occasional picket fence are a far cry from the nearby luxe enclaves of Bel-Air and Beverly Park.

Yet this tract of upper-middle-class Los Angeles is in the midst of a change — a heightened version of the transformation that has turned other parts of the Westside from neighborhoods that were once merely prosperous into playgrounds for the superrich.

The first sign came in 2006, when a ranch house that had belonged to the late Ernest Lehman, the screenwriter of "North by Northwest" and other classics, sold for $4.9 million.

About a year later, the house next door traded hands. Then, in a steady stream, came the sales of five more parcels in the immediate area, several for prices that appeared to neighbors to be over the prevailing market price. Together, they cost about $29 million and established a tract that, at last count, totaled just under three acres — roughly the size of three football fields. Chain-link fences covered tightly with green netting keep the curious guessing.

On the expanding site, crews have been moving dirt, filling in pools and erecting building frames. Trees have been uprooted and moved to other locations. One immense wood-sided hole appears to reflect the footprint of a planned 3,300-square- foot basement — part of an addition to an existing single-family home that would grow to 18,000 square feet.

Although each of the sales was handled through an attorney, disguising the true owner, it did not take long for neighbors to figure out the buyer's identity: Patrick Soon-Shiong, a South Africa-born entrepreneur who has lived in the neighborhood, originally known as Westgate Acres, since before he vaulted into the ranks of the nation's billionaires.

The son of a practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine, Soon-Shiong, 57, joined UCLA as a surgeon and medical professor at age 31 and went on to head Abraxis BioScience, a drug development company best known for Abraxane, a blockbuster breast cancer treatment drug he helped develop.

Outside of Soon-Shiong's neighborhood, he is known mostly for his philanthropy and great wealth, which the Los Angeles Business Journal pegged in May at $6 billion. Among his charitable efforts is a $135-million donation to renovate St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica and a $100-million guarantee he provided to University of California regents to underwrite efforts to reopen Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital.

Throughout his career, Soon-Shiong has clashed with business partners, including his brother Terrence Soon-Shiong, who sided with an investor in a lawsuit over a diabetes research firm. Patrick Soon-Shiong said he won an arbitrator's award, but in the end he settled the dispute by paying investors $37 million, including $32 million to his brother, and walking away from the diabetes company.

Within the neighborhood, however, it is the building project that has defined Soon-Shiong's identity. Contracting companies and architects have been hired and fired. Construction trucks have sometimes brought traffic on local streets to a halt while security cameras posted near chain-link fences kept watch on comings and goings. The work is expected to take several more years.

Such extravagant home projects are to be expected in Brentwood Park, the ritzy neighborhood to the west . Here, many longtime residents say, the obvious wealth seems out of place.

"It's a very unassuming neighborhood," said Laurie Lehman, who moved to another area of Brentwood in 2006 after selling the ranch house — reluctantly, she said — she had shared with her husband, Ernest. "I don't understand why a billionaire would want to live there," she said. "Why does he have to take over a nice little neighborhood and ruin it?"

Residents have speculated about whether Soon-Shiong is building a family compound, a biotech laboratory or a conference center. Los Angeles city officials cast doubt on any non-residential use, noting that Soon-Shiong has not filed an application for a zoning change. "Somebody can basically buy any amount of land they want," said Charles Rausch, a senior planner for the Westside. "But if he wants to do anything industrial or commercial, he needs a zoning amendment."

Soon-Shiong — who lives amid it all on a 0.6-acre property with his wife, actress Michele B. Chan, and two children — declined an interview request through Michael Sitrick, the prominent publicist who describes himself as a personal friend.

As a condition of sale, some neighbors said, they signed agreements not to discuss the deals. Owners of a number of other adjoining properties say they have turned down offers from real estate agents believed to be representing Soon-Shiong.

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