State Sen. Alan E. Robbins, whose sale of 16 acres of choice land in Venice last year was portrayed as an effort to end a controversy over a massive regional shopping center he had tried to develop there, has in fact retained a limited interest in the project that replaced it--a $400-million complex of offices, condominiums and apartments called Channel Gateway.
The Tarzana Democrat's plan for building a massive regional shopping center, office and residential complex on the prime land near Marina del Rey generated intense opposition in 1987 and 1988 in the congested neighborhoods around Lincoln Boulevard.
But the development dream stalled when slow-growth advocate Ruth Galanter defeated veteran Los Angeles Councilwoman Pat Russell in the district and Culver City approved zoning for a rival shopping center three blocks away. Robbins sold the land in March, 1989.
The veteran lawmaker's involvement in assembling and then selling the once industrial land in the Oxford Triangle neighborhood has become the subject of an array of civil lawsuits filed in Santa Monica Superior Court.
In court papers, a Newport Beach businessman trying to buy and develop property near the marina claims that Robbins warned him that he would never get a crucial government permit because Robbins wanted to acquire the land himself.
Robert Blake also said Robbins boasted that he had Councilwoman Russell "tied up" in connection with his efforts from 1985 to 1987 to buy the 16-acre site. The property is subject to city planning rules.
Blake's allegations are contained in documents filed recently as part of a complex web of civil lawsuits involving Blake, Robbins and a wealthy La Jolla car dealer, Jeremy Simms. The three were partners in a 3,800-acre parcel of Ventura County land that sold last year for $22 million. The profits from the sale also are a subject of the suits.
Robbins said in an interview Thursday that Blake's charges are "absolutely absurd" and his allegations "do not comport with the facts."
But the legal fight has served to focus attention on Robbins' role in the property that lies at the western end of the Marina Expressway, just outside Marina del Rey.
According to court papers, Robbins and another partner bought the land for $12.2 million beginning in 1985 and sold it to Los Angeles developer Jerome Snyder and his associates for $45 million in March, 1989.
But according to the senator's most recent financial disclosure statement, he has retained an interest in the project. On the form, which all legislators must file, Robbins has checked a box indicating that the investment is in an open-ended category of "over $100,000." Robbins and Snyder confirmed the investment last week.
"The only way to make the deal was for him to have a minority interest," Snyder said in an interview Thursday. "From the very beginning, he wanted to stay in the project as a limited partner."
Snyder would not disclose the extent of Robbins' interest in Channel Gateway, a proposed high-rise development with more than 1,000 residential units and an office building, because the lawmaker insisted on confidentiality.
"I'm not allowed to be specific," Snyder said. However, he described Robbins' stake as "a very small minority interest."
Robbins confirmed that his Marina East Holding Partnership has a "minority percentage interest in Channel Gateway. It was part of the deal that was worked out."
Beverly Hills real estate broker Mark Nathanson acted as Robbins' broker in the transaction. Nathanson "was the person who came up with the suggestion--the idea of making a deal with Snyder," Robbins said. Nathanson is also an influential member of the California Coastal Commission, which will have to approve Channel Gateway before construction can begin.
Under terms of the deal, Robbins will share in the profits if the project proves financially successful, but he is not responsible for any losses. In addition to the Coastal Commission, the development also needs final approval from the Los Angeles City Council.
Both Robbins and Snyder said the lawmaker has no active role in Channel Gateway. "I don't use him for anything," Snyder said. "He has never been asked to help with the project."
Robbins' own plans for development of a 2.1-million-square-foot shopping center, office and residential complex called Admiralty Place fell victim to two forces: a political sea change and competition from a rival development.
After Galanter ousted Russell in a 1987 election in which the central issue was the extensive development planned for the area and Russell's ties to the developers involved, the project faced a significant barrier at City Hall.
"Admiralty Place was not a responsible project and was not appropriate for that site," Galanter recalled in an interview last week. After her election, Galanter insisted that the project be dramatically altered to include more residential units and eliminate the traffic-generating shopping center.
At the same time, Culver City was moving ahead with zoning for a $160-million regional shopping mall called Marina Place just three blocks to the northeast.
Faced with twin hurdles of a rival mall and political opposition, Robbins and his partner ultimately decided to sell. "It wasn't worth the hassle and it was better to have a small percentage of something than a large percentage of what might be nothing," he said.
In accordance with Galanter's wishes and those expressed by neighborhood organizations, Channel Gateway is predominantly a residential development, and so far it is encountering a much warmer reception in the community.
Although Robbins sold the property, the litigation surrounding his early role in it continues. No trial dates have been set in the lawsuits.
Robbins denied that he tried to thwart Blake over the land. He said he didn't even meet Blake until after he had signed a deal to purchase the first group of properties he wanted.
Blake said in court papers that Robbins complained that Blake's attempts to buy the land were "messing up" efforts by Robbins' Marina East partnership to acquire it.
Blake said Robbins told him the property could be developed only if the successful buyer "got a left-turn lane authorized for entrance and various other governmental approvals."
"He added that if I got the property, and his group lost it, I would never get the left-hand turn lane and might have a difficult time in obtaining other required approvals," Blake said in court papers. "He told me that if we took the property from him, he would make sure it would not be worth our while."
Robbins said, however, that the property Blake was trying to buy actually was next to parcels Robbins already had signed deals to acquire.
He said Blake wanted to erect a hotel on the land and asked Robbins for permission to build a driveway through Robbins' lots. The lawmaker agreed, but Blake was never able to carry out the hotel deal, Robbins said.
"What we negotiated about him buying was access to private property," Robbins said.
Former City Council President Russell, who was defeated in 1987, laughed when told of Blake's charge as it related to her. She said she talked to Robbins about the land only after he purchased it and that she "would have blown a fuse" if the lawmaker had tried to enlist her political influence to cripple Blake's efforts.
"Most people would laugh at the idea that Robbins had me tied up," she said. "I think I still have a reputation that you can't get me tied up."
Blake said he eventually dropped his bid for the Lincoln Boulevard property, and Robbins offered to provide him with "various profitable business opportunities."
In 1986, Blake became a partner with Robbins and Simms in a company that owned the Ventura County acreage, he said. The land, near Moorpark, was once part of the Strathearn cattle ranch.
In court papers, a lawyer for Simms, the car dealer, said Robbins "brought Blake into the Moorpark deal to get rid of him in the Marina deal."