Skid Row Project Has Big Buzz but Little Detail

Times Staff Writer

Donald Sterling, the L.A. real estate mogul and Clippers owner, is shaking up the downtown establishment with a seemingly ambitious but mysterious plan to build a huge homeless services center in the heart of skid row.

Sterling announced his plans in a splashy ad in The Times three months ago and has been communicating his intentions for the project largely through a series of additional advertisements. The Donald T. Sterling Charitable Foundation, the ads announced, was buying a 65,000-square-foot lot near Wall and 6th streets and spending $50 million to provide homeless housing, a rehabilitation center and medical services on the site.

Sterling declined repeated requests for an interview, but his real estate agent, Brad Luster, said the project is an example of his altruism.

"His interest at this stage of life is to leave a very significant legacy to the city that took care of him," Luster said.

Downtown officials and community activists said they are excited about Sterling's promise to use his considerable resources to help skid row's homeless. But they are also raising concerns about exactly what the mogul is planning.

At first, Sterling's representatives approached the Midnight Mission about a possible partnership on the new facility. But after months of discussions, Midnight Mission's board announced it was halting negotiations with Sterling.

One person whose picture was featured in the ads -- Councilwoman Jan Perry -- said her likeness was used without her permission.

A new series of ads, published in The Times over the last few days, has sparked more questions.

The ads touted the center's first event: cocktails and dinner tonight at Spago Beverly Hills. The evening will honor a Sterling friend, Ramy El-Batrawi, as "Humanitarian of the Year 2006 for his support of the homeless people in Los Angeles."

El-Batrawi was sued earlier this year by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which alleged that he and a partner, Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, orchestrated a $130-million scheme to manipulate the stock of a Van Nuys-based company. The manipulation, the SEC alleges, resulted in the largest bailout in the history of the Securities Investor Protection Corp.

In an interview Friday, El-Batrawi said the federal charges are untrue and have nothing to do with his interest in helping Sterling launch his homeless center. The businessman said he has not donated money to the cause but has introduced Sterling to other potential donors.

"I'm devoting a lot of my time, my efforts, in being available," he said. "I'm making introductions ... trying to figure out the things he needs."

Singer Natalie Cole also has appeared in the Sterling ads. In one, her publicity shot identifies her as a "leader" providing support for the homeless; in another, she appears next to El-Batrawi as a "special guest" for the dinner. Others in the ad include former Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and singer Smokey Robinson.

The event's producer, Tami Bennett, said that Cole is a big supporter of Sterling's project in part because she was once homeless. Cole's publicist, Courtney Barnes, said Thursday that the singer, "a recent acquaintance" of Sterling, had told Sterling she would attend the event.

But he stressed the singer was never homeless. On Friday, Barnes said the singer was on "voice rest" and would not be attending the event at all.

Community activists have long said that downtown's homeless community needs exactly the kind of medical services center that Sterling has proposed. But they're also concerned that their questions reflect a larger pattern of people promising help for skid row but never delivering.

According to the city Planning Department, no one has filed plans for the property. The Building and Safety Department said Friday that no demolition requests or building permits have been requested in conjunction with the project.

"Aside from these ads, no one has seen anything," said Estela Lopez, the head of the Central City East Assn., a business advocacy group representing an area of downtown that includes skid row. "What's the plan? Where's the proposal?"

Sterling and his backers have offered only a limited sketch of what they want to do on skid row. The facility would rise on a block-long property where a warehouse now stands.

Luster, the real estate agent, said the Sterling family trust is now in escrow on the property, purchasing it for a "significant discount" from the $12-million asking price. He would not elaborate.

The facility is "not going to be a homeless center, but a community center for the people who live in the area, whether they be homeless or housed," Luster said.

He said the center would offer job training, rehabilitation services and medical care, as well as a skid row community court where authorities could process homeless people accused of misdemeanors.

Councilwoman Perry, who represents the area, said she likes the concept but complained that Sterling's people have not approached her with a plan or for help in obtaining permits.

In fact, Perry said, "all I know is what's in the paper."

People who have dealt with the enigmatic Sterling in the worlds of real estate and sports say it's not surprising he is doing this his way.

He's a public figure who can often be seen courtside at Clippers home games, but he is intensely private about his business and personal life.

Sterling was born in Chicago in 1936 as Donald Tokowitz, the only son of a produce dealer and his wife. When Donald was 2, his family moved to Boyle Heights, where he grew up.

In 1963, he bought his first apartment building, a 26-unit structure in Beverly Hills. He is now one of the region's top landlords.

Sterling's strategy for real estate investment has been to buy properties, hold on to them until the market moves into a hot cycle, refinance and then pour the equity from those projects into new acquisitions.

(Some downtown watchers wondered whether he wasn't doing the same with the skid row property, waiting out a surge in property prices as downtown gentrifies.)

But as part of that process, Sterling has had his share of tenant complaints and legal action, including claims that he harassed residents in rent-controlled billings. Sterling has denied wrongdoing, but in at least one case he paid a settlement.

Sterling bought the Clippers in 1981 when they still played in San Diego. The team, after years of losing seasons, reached the second round of the NBA playoffs this year.

Besides his ties to the Clippers, Sterling has been a familiar face in the newspaper with ads for charity fundraisers he has sponsored. He has won praise for helping raise money for a variety of causes, including local law enforcement and the Special Olympics.

One of the few downtown organizations from which Sterling has sought counsel is the Midnight Mission. President Larry Adamson said Sterling's representatives at one point talked about doing the project jointly and sought help navigating the regulatory red tape such a facility would need to get through.

But Friday, Adamson sent a hand-delivered letter to Sterling saying that his board had decided not to pursue further negotiations on the project and would focus its resources on current programs.

Still, Adamson encouraged Sterling to continue his work: "Your desire to rally Los Angeles in this honorable calling is to be applauded."

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