Activist Throws In His Lot With Developers

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Times Staff Writer

Michael L. Dieden, a ubiquitous community activist and consultant who made his name by acting as a liaison between major Westside development companies and slow-growth advocates, is becoming a developer himself.

Dieden has signed on as a partner with Harlan Lee & Associates, a Marina del Rey firm that specializes in residential and commercial development.

Dieden, 39, will work on governmental relations, group marketing and acquisitions. He said he is also interested in finding new opportunities for construction of affordable housing in Los Angeles.


“Because of the enormous population increase, there’s a tremendous demand for urban housing,” Dieden said. “And that means coming up with very creative plans, so as not to create a negative impact on the community.”

Dieden’s new employer is best known on the Westside for its development of the Venice Renaissance, a $16-million mixed-use project under construction at Main Street and Rose Avenue. Harlan Lee & Associates also has more than $100 million worth of housing development under way in Calabasas.

Lee said Dieden’s experience in dealing with government agencies and community groups will be invaluable to the company. He said he was especially impressed with the way Dieden helped steer the Venice Renaissance project through early bureaucratic obstacles.

“We’ve had a good working relationship, and I really believe that in the future there is going to be an even greater need to work with the community and understand their needs,” Lee said. “And Michael’s understanding and experience in that area brings a very important element to our company.”

The outspoken Dieden, who started his political life as an organizer and campaign manager for Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), has been so active in Westside affairs in recent years that there once were unfounded rumors that he was seeking public office.

Battled Rising Tide

His consulting company has represented dozens of controversial developers as they battled the rising tide of slow-growth sentiment and governmental resistance.


Dieden was also founder and past president of the Venice Action Committee, an ainfluential community organization that favors moderate growth.

As the group’s president, Dieden won accolades for tree plantings and other beautification projects but angered many longtime residents with his declaration that the Bohemian beach community needed sprucing up.

Dieden’s most vocal critics have come from the Venice Town Council, a citizens group dedicated to preserving the community’s character. But its president, Dell Chumley, said she also respects him.

‘Good at What He Does’

“It’s not a dishonorable role,” Chumley said. “He’s a professional public relations person who has been hired by developers to represent their interests. . . . And I think that he’s fairly good at what he does.

“I could criticize his vision for Venice, because we have some very real concerns about the things they (promote). But as our two groups communicate with each other more, we are finding there are some things we can resolve.”

Gregory Thomas, a Mar Vista activist who has worked with Dieden on problems concerning the development of Santa Monica airport, grudgingly conceded that Dieden can be helpful.


“His role is a necessary thing today,” Thomas said. “There needs to be someone who acts as a mediator. It’s unfortunate that he’s getting paid by one of the two parties. But regardless, he’s a link in the process, and that’s becoming more and more necessary.”

Unflappable Advocate

Dieden has been described by friends and foes alike as an unflappable advocate for his clients and as a talented grass-roots organizer. For one developer, he devised a door-to-door promotional campaign. In another instance, he helped a developer organize a barbecue for residents who opposed his project.

“If a developer meets with the community and understands the community and is seen by his neighbors, he will gain their respect,” Dieden said. “And that’s one thing we’ve been successful with: gaining people’s respect.”

Dieden’s clients have included the developer of a 1.4-million-square-foot office-movie studio complex at Santa Monica Airport, which still faces strong community resistance, and the developer of the Water Garden complex, a $250-million retail-office complex slated for Santa Monica’s Olympic corridor.

His company also represented one of the losing bidders in the competition to build a multimillion-dollar development on the 5-acre beachfront site of the Sand and Sea Club in Santa Monica. In a typically hyperbolic performance, Dieden castigated the City Council for giving the nod to a competing luxury hotel developer.

“When I heard the news, I thought I was in a Carlos Castaneda novel of ‘separate realities,’ “he said. “I thought it was La Jolla, not Santa Monica.”


As a partner in Harlan Lee & Associates, which also includes Jeff Lee, Dieden said he will continue his high-profile role as a crusader for projects that meet community opposition. In the face of mounting congestion, traffic and pollution, Dieden said, it’s still possible to construct useful buildings.

His 5-year-old consulting firm, meanwhile, which has represented more than 100 companies, is being taken over by his partner, Mary Kushner.