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New Dodgers executive Steve Soboroff has been there

If saving owner Frank McCourt's image is a tall order, it doesn't faze Steve Soboroff. The developer has been a prime mover in a number of L.A. civic endeavors that looked impossible at the outset, including Staples Center.

April 23, 2011|By Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times
  • Steve Soboroff says that when he took the Dodgers job, he "was looking for something to intuitively say: This is what I was put here to do.... I feel like I am a thoroughbred back in the gate.
Steve Soboroff says that when he took the Dodgers job, he "was looking… (Katie Falkenberg / For the…)

On his second day as Dodgers vice chairman, Steve Soboroff was meeting with a club finance executive and the head of a charitable foundation when he learned that Major League Baseball had seized control of the franchise.

Soboroff was so shaken by the news, he said, that he scarfed down a second lunch, forgetting he'd already eaten.

"I was shocked," he said. "The finance guy looked like he'd had a heart attack."

Instead of clamming up and taking time to absorb the meaning of the takeover, though, Soboroff came out swinging, questioning Commissioner Bud Selig's motives and timing and fiercely defending his new boss, Frank McCourt.

He called the Dodgers owner a flawed but changed man who no longer cares about fancy houses and the trappings of wealth, and now realizes he made a mistake using the Dodgers as his personal ATM. And he wants to make it up to Los Angeles.

This "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" strategy has some questioning Soboroff's judgment, if not his sanity.

"They think, 'My God, this guy has lost his mind,' " Soboroff said in a late-night phone conversation Thursday. "Am I losing my marbles? No."

He did say, however, that he would not have accepted the job had he known Selig was about to take the team: "I'm not stupid."

Soboroff, 63, is used to leading besieged projects. The wealthy Pacific Palisades developer has been a prime mover in a number of civic endeavors that looked impossible at the outset: the Alameda transportation corridor, Staples Center, reconstruction of the Venice boardwalk and the massive Playa Vista project in the environmentally sensitive Ballona Wetlands.

He says McCourt's situation does not faze him.

"I've done this over and over again," Soboroff said. "His popularity, his approval rating are low. If you want to buy stock on something that is low and going to go high, that's it. The smartest people buy when everybody else is selling. That's what I'm doing."

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan tapped Soboroff, a moderate Republican, as his successor in 2001. It was Soboroff's only flirtation with public office. He came in third and returned to the private sector.

"Next to Eli Broad, Steve has done more for the city of Los Angeles than anybody," Riordan said. "The reason we have Staples where it is is because of Steve."

Riordan said Soboroff determined after a helicopter tour that the best place for a sports arena would be next to the Convention Center. "I said, 'Don't waste my time. The politics will kill it.' But he made it happen."

Likewise, Riordan said, the Alameda Corridor — a rail-only cargo route between the port and downtown — was in the planning stages for two decades. "He got all the railroads to agree so their contract could be used as security for bonds," Riordan said. "He came in a year ahead of schedule and 10% below budget."

Soboroff was making a fortune in commercial real estate, with shopping malls in Mar Vista and Malibu, when Riordan named him a senior advisor. Working for no salary, he headed the Recreation and Parks Commission and a group that oversaw school construction funds.

Six months after he lost the mayor's race, he became president and chief executive of Playa Vista, a long-embattled project on the western edge of the city, southeast of Marina del Rey. He said he was able to turn around the financial fortunes of the development, part of which is still bogged down in litigation, before stepping down a year ago in search of a new challenge. He worked on bringing a Whole Foods market to Malibu.

The Dodgers offered something much more fulfilling.

"I was looking for a place, looking for something to intuitively say: This is what I was put here to do," Soboroff said. "Kaboom. This is it. My heart rate has increased; I am ready to do this. I feel like I am a thoroughbred back in the gate."

Soboroff has always stood out for his belief in the righteousness of his missions and the purity of his motive. Also, for his temper.

When he began his doomed mayoral campaign, he was so confident about his lack of baggage that he offered a reporter a binder of opposition research compiled on him by his political consultant, Ace Smith. One of his exploitable weaknesses: "hothead."

"Steve likes to think that his perception of things is the only perception," said Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who won office in 2005 as an opponent of Playa Vista's 2,600-home second phase, which is still in litigation. The project had been approved by the council, but after it became the subject of a lawsuit, a new vote was required. Rosendahl informed Soboroff he would vote no.

"He went bananas," Rosendahl said.

Sabrina Venskus, attorney for the plaintiffs in the Playa Vista case, said Soboroff can turn the charm on and off. "He is one of these guys who seem really nice and professional and jolly good Santa Claus on the outside," Venskus said, "but if he doesn't like what you are doing, he has no bones about speaking to you as rudely as anyone."

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