Developer Works by Building Consensus
Bill Witte is accustomed to dealing with large egos and massive city bureaucracies. He cut his teeth overseeing public housing projects for the mayors of Philadelphia and San Francisco.
Such experience is coming in handy in Witte’s current gig: handling the large egos and city bureaucracy of Los Angeles.
Witte is point man for one of Southern California’s largest and most high-profile real estate developments: the planned $1.8-billion Grand Avenue project on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles.
As president of the California development group for Related Cos., a major New York-based developer that has the Grand Avenue contract, Witte is responsible for getting the project approved by city and county leaders and launched this year.
He’s already spent countless hours explaining what Related hopes to do while hearing comments from civic leaders, neighborhood representatives and others concerned about what the city’s civic center will be like for decades to come. Already, he’s facing criticism from those who say that the project won’t win consumer acceptance or that it lacks a certain L.A. cachet.
The project is by far the biggest development that Witte, 54, has overseen. He is among an emerging group of builders with government backgrounds and a willingness to adapt their projects to satisfy local critics, at least up to a point.
“Bill is part of a new breed of developer,” said philanthropist Eli Broad, who chairs the Grand Avenue Committee, which is overseeing the development. “He’s very civic-minded, very honest -- but still knows you need to make money.”
As large-scale development becomes an increasingly public process with multiple constituencies to please, demand for such developers is growing around the country.
People who’ve watched Witte in action say the soft-spoken developer is particularly adept at building consensus and pushing forward the project, designed to fulfill the dream of public officials who want the mostly empty blocks around Disney Hall transformed into a thriving urban hub.
Last month, Related executives and famed architect Frank O. Gehry unveiled plans for the $750-million first phase of the project. Included are a 47-story condominium and hotel tower, a 24-story residential tower and several smaller retail buildings.
It would be one of California’s first vertical mixed-use projects, layering such elements as restaurants, a health club and public gardens.
Skepticism still exists about whether Related and Gehry are on the right track in their design.
Critics also wonder whether enough consumers and retailers would support the planned retail stores to make it a financial success. The developers are finding it difficult to lure back the kind of high-end retailers that began abandoning downtown Los Angeles 50 years ago.
“We’ve looked at downtown a lot, and I have not been able to answer the primary question of who is my customer on evenings and weekends,” Rick Caruso, the developer behind the Grove and several other highly successful Southland shopping centers, said recently.
But Witte is getting high marks -- even from critics of the project -- for being forthright and flexible.
“He’s not tricky or slick like some people in development have been over the years,” said Broad, himself a former developer. “He’s very credible and wants everyone’s input.”
The committee of public and private representatives selected Related after a competition among development teams two years ago. Ever since, Witte has been trying to figure out what people want on Bunker Hill and what is financially feasible to give them.
Witte believes that a developer must never lose sight of his or her vision “while simultaneously exercising the art of the possible about what the public wants or is willing to accept.”
“The holy grail,” he said, “is merging those two.”
It helps to be willing to listen, Witte said. A former deputy mayor of housing for San Francisco, he has developed an almost inhuman tolerance for public meetings and lengthy discussions.
“At any given meeting you might learn something,” he said. “The public isn’t stupid, and sometimes it’s not just land use or aesthetic issues that are being discussed; it’s the market speaking.”
Witte intends to keep refining plans for the first phase of the project, with the hope of gaining enough support to receive construction approval from public officials by the end of the year.
Related stands to earn a substantial profit from condo sales and tenant rental payments if the project is successful.
Witte’s interest in development dates to his childhood in New York. His father was a builder, and young Witte enjoyed tramping around construction sites.
“I developed a fascination with cities,” he said.
He went on to earn degrees in urban studies and urban planning from the University of Pennsylvania and broke into the field as a member of the Philadelphia planning staff in the freewheeling administration of Mayor Frank Rizzo in the mid-1970s, when the city had 25,000 abandoned housing units.
“It was very parochial in Philadelphia, part Rust Belt and part ‘Sopranos,’ ” Witte said. “I loved it.”
Later he did a stint as a lobbyist for an affordable-housing development trade group in Washington. He then served briefly as the top assistant to Federal Housing Commissioner Lawrence B. Simons in the waning days of the Carter administration.
When newly elected San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein needed a housing director, she took Simons’ recommendation to interview Witte for the post. He ended up beating out Phil Angelides, now state treasurer, for the job.
Witte went on to serve as San Francisco’s deputy mayor for housing before joining Related Cos. in 1989 to open its San Francisco office. The company was well known in the East as a developer of low-income housing, Witte’s specialty as a public administrator. But being on the actual development side, as opposed to being a public administrator, was a new field for him.
“In each of the career moves I made, I was arguably unqualified on paper when I started,” Witte said.
“I’ve always tried to be action- and results-oriented and put the pieces of what is often a complex puzzle together.”
His first large-scale challenge for Related was the makeover of Normont Terrace in the Harbor City neighborhood of Los Angeles, where 400 apartments built to serve shipyard workers during World War II had descended into a crime-ridden public housing project with some of the heaviest drug dealing in the city.
Witte moved with his wife and son to Orange County to work out of Related’s Irvine office, where he has remained. The $83-million Normont Terrace project, which required nearly a decade of effort, forced Witte to learn the development business on the job.
“It was risky, complicated and difficult,” Witte said, “but remarkably successful.”
The completion of Harbor Village, as the rebuilt housing project is called, freed Witte to work on other developments. Those included the demolition and rebuilding of Aliso Village, a public housing project in East Los Angeles notorious for drug and gang problems.
Related has continued to build affordable housing throughout California, often in partnership with nonprofit groups such as Community Corp. of Santa Monica. The two entities are partners in a planned mixed-income housing and retail project across from City Hall in Santa Monica.
“We have disagreements about policy issues, but I can always count on Bill to have a reasoned explanation about why he thinks a certain policy is good or bad,” said Community Corp. Executive Director Joan Ling. “He earns respect that way.”
She recalled waiting with Witte to hear the City Council discuss their proposal, only to have the council postpone the hearing just before midnight. “I was annoyed, but he took it in stride and good humor. He’s very resilient.”
Witte’s patience has earned him respect from others familiar with the slow pace of public debate, including Brady Westwater, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council.
Westwater had strongly opposed the selection of Related Cos., in part because he didn’t like Related’s enormous Time Warner Center development in New York and didn’t think the company could put together a project that would be appropriate for Los Angeles. Westwater changed his mind after meeting with Witte.
“I’ve never met a developer who will tell you upfront what he can’t do as much as Bill Witte,” Westwater said. “I’ve worked with developers a lot, and he is the straightest shooter I have ever met in my life. He actually listens and responds.”
Witte’s technique also works with high rollers, said economist Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
“He is able to deal with a lot of big egos,” Kyser said. “Eli Broad, [county] Supervisor Gloria Molina, City Councilwoman Jan Perry, the mayor, Frank Gehry. He has been able to deal very well with all of these people.
“If Bill Witte can keep this thing moving, he is going to be the king of the universe.”