Developer thinks big to keep pace with growth

Times Staff Writer

Jim Thomas is one of Southern California's most influential developers and civic leaders, helping to build some of the region's most recognizable skyscrapers and co-leading the launch of the ambitious Grand Avenue project in downtown Los Angeles.

Yet he has remained largely unknown.

Now, Los Angeles County's latest large-scale real estate project, a proposed $3-billion addition to Universal City, has thrust Thomas into the spotlight.

Thomas' company, Thomas Properties Group, is the key developer in a team looking for city approval to add nearly 3,000 residences, two large office buildings and numerous other structures, including stores and movie production facilities.

The project at the nation's largest movie studio lot will be a crucial test of increasingly popular urban planning theories that Thomas champions, calling for dense development around mass transit and using ecologically friendly building methods.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the Universal proposal "a transformative project, a city-making project" that should be "the epicenter of smart growth in the 21st century."

Thomas is expected to play a crucial role in building support for the massive development that proponents hope will serve as an example of effective growth to serve the city's expanding housing and business needs.

By building housing close to offices, cutting a new street through the studio's back lot and improving nearby streets, supporters hope to minimize its effect on the surrounding community.

But many neighbors are aghast at the scope of the Universal proposal, alarmed about the potential effect on traffic of such a large project.

Thomas, 70, shares their sense of fear about what is happening on local roadways. Traffic congestion, he says, is going to jump out in the years ahead as the No. 1 issue people want their politicians to address as the region's roads grow ever more unbearable.

He even predicts that on a not-too-distant day, an accident or incident on the Westside is going to cause true gridlock, in which cars won't be able to move. Frustrated drivers will give up and abandon their vehicles.

"I wanted to be the first one to call it," he joked.

But stopping all development is not an option, Thomas said. With more than 100,000 people coming to Los Angeles County every year, growth is an unstoppable force that must be addressed with big measures such as the Universal project, Thomas said.

"This isn't something you can fine-tune," said Thomas, president of his namesake company.

Such bold and decisive approaches have become a trademark for Thomas, who has emerged in recent years as a business and civic leader with a reputation for taking on tough, big-scale projects that change Los Angeles.

Universal Studios President Ron Meyer said he wanted Thomas to handle the office portion of the project because Thomas had a reputation for completing big tasks.

"He is just such a solid guy that you feel very comfortable being in his hands," Meyer said.

To avoid traffic himself, Thomas leaves his Brentwood home at around 6 a.m., when roads are mostly clear, for his trip to company headquarters downtown. He had a driver for a while but found the personal service to be "a nuisance," he said.

"Jim is a Warren Buffett-type," said Stan Ross, chairman of the Lusk Center for Real Estate at USC. "He's fiscally conscious, family oriented and he's not overly aggressive with people."

The comparison with the folksy Nebraska billionaire is a measure of how far Thomas has come since he was born in 1936 in Pembroke, the North Carolina hometown of the Lumbee Indian tribe. Thomas was the oldest of three children.

When Thomas was in high school, the Native American family moved to Cleveland, where his father found a factory job. Thomas briefly returned to North Carolina on a basketball scholarship to Catawba College. After just a year, Thomas had to return to Cleveland to help care for his ailing father.

"Jim really pulled himself up by the bootstraps," said longtime business partner Ned Fox, president of Vantage Investment Properties. "He's been highly motivated" to succeed.

Thomas went back to school in Cleveland and went on to become a federal tax lawyer, trying cases for the Internal Revenue Service. In 1966, he was transferred to Los Angeles, where he later went into private practice.

A young developer with tax problems named Robert F. Maguire was referred to Thomas, and by the early 1970s, the two became partners on some real estate developments. By 1983, Thomas left law to work full time with Maguire.

Together they built housing, shopping centers and some of the city's most recognizable offices, including the U.S. Bank Tower in downtown Los Angeles, the tallest building in the West.

Maguire, who is more flamboyant, got most of the media attention in the partnership that lasted until 1996, when Thomas left to start his own company.

"We had a good run," but "nobody would contend Rob and I have the same personality," Thomas said. The split "was good for both of us." Maguire declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

In 2003, Thomas beat other bidders, including his old partner, to acquire the former Arco Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, a 1970s landmark office and retail complex that had fallen on hard times through its previous owners' neglect.

Thomas invested millions of dollars to make the property competitive with other top office towers again, adding two giant buildings to the market and forcing Maguire and other landlords to hold their rents down to compete with Thomas.

Although the complex, now known as City National Plaza, is still almost 30% vacant, Thomas believes it will be a profitable investment in the long run.

"Arco spared no expense building it," he said. "When Rob and I came downtown, it was the envy of every developer."

Success in real estate enabled Thomas to indulge another longtime desire by buying control of the Sacramento Kings professional basketball franchise, which he held from 1992 to 2000. He enjoyed much of the owner's role -- hanging out with players, talking strategy with coaches and meeting with the league commissioner.

But being the owner also was "very stressful," Thomas said. "My whole outlook depended on whether we won or lost. That was the thing that surprised me the most."

Thomas' competitive instincts are well-known to others, however, who portray him as a tireless, detail-oriented leader with intense focus. Although many others his age might be scaling back, Thomas says he loves what he does and has no plans to retire.

"The one word to describe him is disciplined," said real estate broker John Cushman, chairman of Cushman & Wakefield, who has negotiated with Thomas for decades. "He's a tough guy; thoughtful, careful and precise."

Attention to detail is part of what makes Thomas effective and perhaps occasionally annoying.

Architect Martha Welborne, who worked with Thomas on the Grand Avenue redevelopment, credits Thomas with getting the project off the ground by attacking every obstacle and staying on top of the smallest particulars.

"I had to show him everything, absolutely everything," said Welborne, managing director of the project. "He reviewed every document with a fine-toothed comb. It's amazing how hard he works."

She added, "He's a bit of a micromanager."

His legal training gets the better of him sometimes, keeping him too closely involved in details, Thomas acknowledged.

"For a typical lawyer, it's often easier to just do something yourself," he said. "You are always fighting the shift to being a manager."

Thomas' preferred management style is to let his five top managers run their divisions, meeting with them every morning to keep up and look for consensus. Once a month he hosts a conference call with all 150 employees in nine cities that lasts two or three hours and covers operational details.

"People like to know what's going on," Thomas said. "It puts them in a better position to contribute."

Thomas' 10-year-old company has almost 11 million square feet of properties and more than 5 million square feet in the development pipeline. In Los Angeles, future urban construction should take place in high-density locations near transportation hubs, such as downtown and Universal City, Thomas said.

"You can't just keep spreading out across the basin," he said. "We have a rare opportunity now. Hopefully we have the leadership to get it done."

roger.vincent@latimes.com

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