In a white tent erected on the parking lot north of the grandstand at Golden Gate Fields, Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso unveiled his preliminary plans for an open air shopping complex he wants to build at the site.
The colorful drawings and carefully scaled plans projected on the screen behind Caruso as he spoke offered up the vision of a development with open spaces and plazas—including a modest amphitheater sculpted into the slope leading up from the shops to the race track grandstand area.
Caruso Affiliated Holdings, a limited liability corporation, has teamed with Canadian auto parts magnate Frank Stronach’s Magna Entertainment, the owner of the race track property, with each putting up half the funding for the project, he said.
A handful of reporters and photographers showed up for the noon press conference, outnumbered by Caruso executives and representatives of former East Bay Democratic Assemblymember Dion Aroner’s AJE Partners, the lobbying firm representing the developers.
“We met with 14 neighborhoods and held hundreds of meetings with officials and representatives of groups,” Caruso told the reporters. “We listened to the community and we have tried to give them what they wanted.”
Among the community’s dislikes, he said, were the expanse of 1.2 million square feet of paved parking lots and the perception that the area around the waterfront is inaccessible, unsafe and filled with litter.
Asked how his project would compare with the Bay Street Emeryville project, Caruso responded, “This is the antithesis of Bay Street in Emeryville. This is everything it isn’t.”
While the square footage of both projects is similar, Caruso said the Emeryville complex is built to the wrong scale and suffers from a variety of other problems, including poorly conceived architecture and complicated traffic ingress and egress.
His project, Caruso said, “is all about outdoor space, about public space, and will feature architecture that reflects the local community,” pointing to Solano Avenue and Berkeley’s Fourth Street shopping areas.
Caruso said the project’s new buildings, currently planned to encompass 344,700 square feet of the surface, combined with the 87,120 square feet of the grandstand, will cover only 11 percent of the 4.6 million-square-foot Magna property within the Albany portion of the Magna property.
The project also includes, among other features:
• A site for a boutique hotel overlooking the bay.
• A farmers’ market in a Victorianesque glass-enclosed arcade.
• 150 to 200 apartments above the retail spaces.
• Restored beaches, featuring a boardwalk trail along the waterfront.
• Completion of the Bay Trail along the waterfront.
• Picnic areas.
• A four-acre park at Fleming Point, complete with a restored pier leading out into the bay.
• Waterfront access for windsurfers and kayakers.
• Restored marshland along the northern and northeastern edges of the race track oval facing the Albany Mid Flats Ecological Reserve.
• 24,000 square feet of community space, including what he hopes will be a facility for the YMCA.
• And, if one of the most popular requests is granted, his Albany project could bring a Nordstrom’s to the shores of the East Bay.
“We want this to reflect what the community has asked for,” he said.
Caruso’s plans call for keeping the development 200 feet from the shoreline, twice the minimum distance set by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
He said he will not be involved in any development on the southern parking lot area that lies over the Berkeley border, which is already scheduled to include the Gilman Play Fields and has also been proposed as the site of a hotel.
Caruso acknowledged some major issues still need to be addressed, including traffic along the heavily traveled bayside corridor.
“We are responsible for the mitigations,” he said, adding that one alternative under consideration was a shuttle to take shoppers to Solano Avenue and to a nearby BART station.
Thursday’s press unveiling preceded three invitation-only presentations for selected members of the Albany public who attended a series of informational meetings and other gatherings Caruso sponsored to solicit input for his plans and win over the community.
Two were held in the tent later in the day, and the third is planned for 3 p.m. today (Friday).
The project still faces considerable opposition from environmental groups, who see extensive development and extensive water sports near the state park land at the Albany Bulb and along the shoreline as a threat both to the margins of the bay and to the habitats of endangered and threatened species like the clapper rail and the burrowing owl.
“We think building a mall on the shoreline is a ridiculously bad idea, and the Sierra Club is in complete opposition,” said Norman LaForce, the organization’s Bay Area spokesperson.
“We have been planning for a park there for the last 25 years,” said Bill Dann, co-chair of Citizens for the Albany Shoreline. “Caruso is just another developer who’s come along wanting to put an unacceptable development on the shore. We want open space.”
“This is a horrible use of the shoreline,” said Robert Cheasty, former Albany Mayor and the spokesperson for Citizens for Eastshore Parks. “We don’t need an L.A. in the East Bay. One hundred years ago, Oregon managed to protect its shoreline and it’s time the East Bay caught up.”
The Albany Chamber of Commerce has also taken a measured response, raising concerns about the project’s impact on the environment and on the existing business community.
Caruso is politically adroit as well as a master of the development process.
He also knows how to work the levers of electoral politics, and he’s hoping to bring his project to Albany voters, who must approve all waterfront development, early next year with a goal of finishing the development and opening by late 2006 or early 2007.
He waged an expensive electoral campaign to win the approval of voters in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale to build the Americana on Grand in the heart of the downtown.
The measure Glendale voters approved authorized the demolition of 22 buildings to build 475,000 square feet of commercial space, including shops and a 3,500-seat cinema complex. The project also includes rentals and condo units—all offered at market rate—constructed over the retail.
All but two of the buildings have been leveled and Caruso said he expects the final legal challenge to be resolved in the coming weeks.
The Golden Gate Fields project, still unnamed—“we like to have our name come from the community,” he said—is one of a pair of joint ventures by Caruso and Magna Entertainment, the Canadian firm that owns the largest chunk of America’s horse-racing venues.
Magna’s racing empire has been hemorrhaging cash, and the shopping complexes are seen as a way to earn more money out of choice land in urban centers.
The two are also paired on a similar project at the famed Santa Anita track in Los Angeles County, which Caruso said is further along in the development stage.
Caruso has deep pockets and powerful friends to help along the way.
He’s one of the heaviest of political players and a major donor to Republican causes and candidates. A friend of and major contributor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, he served on the governor’s transition team after the recall election.
On Aug. 5, 2004, he gave Schwarzenegger’s California Recovery Team $25,000, followed on Oct. 12 by $57,221.66 in non-monetary contributions. On March 11 of this year he gave another $22,300 in cash, followed by $100,000 on Aug. 25.
On March 30, he gave $22,300 to the Schwarzenegger’s reelection campaign, the same month he gave $100,000 to the California Republican Party.
He was also a major contributor to George W. Bush, including a June 21, 2004, gift of $100,000 to the Progress for America Voter Fund, which ran television spots for the Bush campaign. At one fundraising dinner held at his house, he managed to raise a cool $1 million for Bush’s reelection campaign—earning him the rank of a “Bush Ranger,” the ranking bestowed on the president’s hottest fund-raisers.
Caruso’s spouse, Tina, is also a major contributor to Republican causes.
Caruso was born into a wealthy family and grew up in Trousdale Estates, perhaps the poshest section of Beverly Hills. His father, Henry, founded Dollar Rent-A-Car and built it into an empire before selling it to the Chrysler Corporation in 1990.
A graduate of the University of Southern California and Pepperdine University’s law school, he became a developer at the age of 27 when the law firm that employed him went bust, according to a profile in the Pasadena Star News.
Bankrolled in part by his father, he launched into a new career as a developer. For his first ventures, he bought land near airports, then leased it back to car rental agencies. And now he builds shopping centers, or “lifestyle centers,” as he described them to a reporter from the Los Angeles Times.
Unlike the enclosed malls of yore, Caruso’s creations are open-air venues, done in faux period styles, featuring walkways, fountains, stained glass and rococo detail to give them the look and feel of theme parks—where the theme in question is consumption in a conspicuous environment.
His most controversial creation is The Grove, a pleasure plaza writ large directly next to the funkier and more human-scale Los Angeles Farmers’ Market.
Caruso’s projects are popular with city officials and planners, and he’s been sought out by municipalities to create projects to help them raise new tax revenues and restore the luster of fading communities.