Rick J. Caruso: A work in progress

L.A.'s premier developer talks about his projects, his views on the city and his possible political future.

Los Angeles is full of a lot of private moguls and a lot fewer public moguls, and Rick J. Caruso is one of the latter -- an immaculate, slightly Italianate master of his universe, with a bit of a retro vibe. The retail superstar conceived and built the Grove, the Americana at Brand and the Commons at Calabasas and is laboring on projects in Montecito and near the Santa Anita racetrack. But he has also thrown himself into civic life, as head of two of the city's most powerful boards, the DWP and the Police Commission, as a charitable force and as a man in the political mix as a possible candidate for mayor. The Grove and its ilk may not be your cup of tea. Caruso has been slammed for creating a cleaned-up alternative retail reality, but millions disagree with you. In 2006, according to Los Angeles magazine, more people hit the Grove than went to Disneyland.

You were a little kid who wanted to be a developer when you grew up. What put that idea in your head?

The only thing I can say is, I love buildings, I love architecture, I wanted to be successful from a very early age, and I knew I had to make money to get what I wanted. I could walk Madison Avenue all day long. I love the streets of Boston. I like being around things that have energy and life.

Can a development really create that energy?

I think we did in Glendale. I think we did at the Grove. The thing I'm most proud of about our properties is that they get really woven into the fabric of the community. People go jogging through, walking their dogs or their kids, meeting friends. People never buy a thing; that's fine. It's their little downtown.

What about the more colorful elements of urban life? Street characters and the like? For example, were there Salvation Army bell ringers at the Grove?

No. They were on the Farmers Market side, but not the Grove side. We are very charitable, [but] the one year we had [bell ringers], people complained a lot -- a little bit too aggressive.

The Salvation Army?

Some of the people can be. It's not the old Salvation Army you and I remember, nicely dressed, courteous.

Speaking of charity, Eli Broad is the go-to philanthropist of his generation in L.A. What's your philosophy for your generation's philanthropy?

Your business life, your philanthropy and your civic life should all go together. Tina [his wife] and I choose to give quietly, and our focus is on children's needs: healthcare, schools, churches, synagogues, Childrens Hospital, Para los Niños. Younger people have to give back. There's a very small handful who are really active, to be honest.

How do you get ordinary Angelenos more civically engaged?

I don't know the right answer. A big part is who the elected officials are. Maybe they aren't very interesting or engaging.

And yet Arnold Schwarzenegger is undeniably a big personality, and even he couldn't make it happen.

God bless Arnold. He's got this incredible optimistic gene. I think this state's unmanageable. The system is just screwed up. You've got to break it apart and start all over again. It can't keep going on the way it is.

You considered running for mayor last year. Is that still a possibility?

Absolutely it is. I would want to be mayor more than governor because I think you can have more impact on people's daily lives. And I want to come home at night, be with my wife and kids. If there was somebody out there I thought was really good, I would gladly step aside. But I do like the idea and the challenge of doing it. Time will tell.

The city, like the state, has a huge budget problem. Just about every department's taking a big hit.

LAPD shouldn't take a hit. Paramedics and fire don't take a hit. You pay your taxes, you expect good basic services. Cut noncore services. A couple of months ago, our street [was] being paved. Our street in Brentwood doesn't need to be repaved.

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