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Billionaire Charles Munger drops controversial Brentwood project

November 13, 2013|By Martha Groves
  • The Brentwood Dutton's in 2008.
The Brentwood Dutton's in 2008. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

After years of wrestling with Brentwood activists, billionaire investor Charles T. Munger has pulled the plug on plans to redevelop the San Vicente Boulevard site that was the longtime location of Dutton's bookstore.

Brentwood Community Council Chairwoman Nancy Freedman said Munger's insistence on razing the landmarked structure, known as the Barry Building, to install extensive underground parking and a new retail center raised activists' ire.

“We encouraged him to incorporate the landmark,” she said. “[But] Munger did not like the Barry Building and wanted to put parking under. That’s where the whole intrigue with the community came in.”
Freedman said the Brentwood council learned this week that Munger had withdrawn his application for the 77,000-square-foot, two-story Green Hollow Square, with retail shops, restaurants, offices and a sizable open patio.

Munger, who will turn 90 on Jan. 1, had no comment.

A founder of the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, Munger partnered in 1978 with Warren E. Buffett to run Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the legendary holding company. He owned the San Vicente property, just east of Bundy Drive, with his brother-in-law, David Barry, but bought him out several years ago.

Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents the affluent area, said he opposed demolition of the mid-20th century structure.

“I told Mr. Munger what I have told anyone who has ever asked me about the project, that I support development of the property with neighborhood-serving retail, and I would welcome a proposal that gives local residents options to shop and dine without increasing traffic or parking woes in the area,” he said. “I will not support demolition of a building officially deemed culturally and historically significant, and I encourage development that preserves the building that once housed Dutton's bookstore.”

Designed by Milton Caughey, the two-story, flat-roofed structure is built around a leafy courtyard, with curving staircases connecting the first level with second-level walkways.

The protracted battle over a piece of prime Brentwood real estate began in early 2007, when Munger proposed building 60 luxury condos as part of a mixed-use development that would include a small space for Dutton’s Brentwood Books.

The neighborhood rebelled against the proposal, and Munger withdrew it.

In October 2007, the Los Angeles City Council voted to grant landmark status to the building. (Landmark status does not necessarily prevent an owner from developing or even demolishing a property, but it creates an environmental review process when the owner seeks a permit for demolition or substantial alteration.)

Munger vowed to keep Dutton’s in a redeveloped center, but the bookstore, mired in debt and uncertain about its future, closed in 2008.

A florist and Del Mano, a contemporary crafts gallery, also closed.

Consultants for Munger had stated at public meetings that the building was outmoded. It now houses offices, a Caffe Luxxe, gift shops, a Pilates studio and Cisco Home, a furniture store. Other shops have come and gone. Customers park in a surface lot behind the building.

Once a low-key gathering spot, the courtyard now appears forlorn. The staircases are corroding, and a rusted drinking fountain dates from another era. In many storefronts, curtains cover the floor-to-ceiling windows. Some spaces appear empty.

“It’s so underutilized,” said Jay Charles, a Santa Monica architect who stopped by Caffe Luxxe for a snack Wednesday morning.

“Somebody should put some money into it and lease it,” said one shopkeeper, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid incurring her landlord’s wrath. “Can’t we just remodel it a bit?”

Now the big question is: What will happen with the property? “What he’ll probably do,” Freedman said, “is sell it or leave it to his children to do something when he dies.”

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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