Dan Rosenfeld has done well as a developer — and answered the call of public service
The gig: Dan Rosenfeld, 64, is a real estate developer and public servant. He has worked at the upper levels of both the private and public sectors, building prominent structures such as the Del Mar Station apartment complex in Pasadena for profit and managing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of real estate for the state of California Department of General Services, where he led the revival of the historic core of downtown Los Angeles. Rosenfeld has also interrupted his private career to work for both the city and county of Los Angeles.
Formative years: Rosenfeld grew up in Portland, Ore., where he attended public school and became an Eagle Boy Scout. Three external events of his youth shaped him into the activist he became: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and what he calls the “shadow of the Holocaust” on his Jewish family. The Vietnam conflict was particularly galvanizing, inspiring Rosenfeld to participate in many demonstrations against the war and live in an antiwar-themed commune while attending Stanford University.
Luck of the draw: Rosenfeld drew number 300 in the 1972 draft lottery, which was high enough to excuse him from having to decide between joining the military or evading service as many resisters did. Since then he has been committed to serving fellow citizens in other ways. “I do feel that giving something back is a moral obligation we all own,” he said.
Career launch: Rosenfeld was working on a postgraduate architecture degree at Yale when he volunteered to help the school reduce energy costs, which leaped with skyrocketing oil prices in the mid-1970s. He and his colleagues were so successful that they started a business helping other nonprofits reduce their energy costs. Soon he decided to quit architecture classes and go to business school.
Surprise turn: Armed with a Harvard business degree, Rosenfeld went to work for Canada-based Cadillac Fairview Corp., the largest publicly-owned real estate company in North America, because he wanted to work for its top executive in the West, Martin Seaton. “Get a mentor, not a job,” he tells young people today. Rosenfeld was rising through the ranks and planned to spend his entire career at the company until Seaton announced in 1987 that the company was being sold. Soon after the sale, the real estate market tanked. Seaton’s decision to sell proved right and taught Rosenfeld the wisdom of career flexibility.
New trajectory: On impulse but with the support of his family, Rosenfeld accepted a job offer in Germany, where he helped develop what was then the tallest building in Europe. Incidentally, he said, “We were there, back in Berlin, with our ancestors’ ghosts and with hammers and chisels and Champagne and Russian soldiers everywhere … when the Berlin Wall came down.”
Home again: When Rosenfeld returned in 1992, the real estate market was in the dumps and he accepted a management job with the state government. “I had a $400-million annual leasing budget and $1 billion of capital to invest every year,” he said. “I was suddenly the biggest developer in California.”
To improve the government’s real estate situation, Rosenfeld consolidated scattered state offices into new buildings or adapted historic structures in places where their presence could benefit the communities they served. Nowhere was this strategy more significant than it was in downtown L.A.
Legacy project: In the face of consternation and some bitter opposition from his fellow state employees, Rosenfeld opted to replace an obsolete state office building in the Civic Center in the 1990s by renovating an old department store in what was then a dodgy block of Broadway. “People said, ‘Why clean up a dirty old building when we can build a nice new one?’ ”
Planted seeds: The renovation of the Broadway department store built in 1914 cost about a third as much as a new building would have, but just as importantly to Rosenfeld, it demonstrated the viability of reclaiming downtown’s historic core right when city officials were writing a significant ordinance that would make it easier to reuse old buildings. Since then dozens of other historic structures have been renovated and thousands of residents have moved in.
City service: When Richard Riordan was mayor, he asked Rosenfeld to organize L.A.’s real estate holdings. During his three years with the city, he successfully pushed to renovate seismically unsafe City Hall instead of building a new one and led the development of the Marvin Braude Constituent Service Center in Van Nuys.
Private again: Rosenfeld returned to private development, working with Ira Yellin and Paul Keller as Urban Partners. They focused on transit-oriented projects valued at $100 million or more, such as Del Mar Station and Wilshire/Vermont Station, which added apartments and stores to train stations. He sold his interest in the company after hearing an economic forecast in 2006 that predicted housing prices would soon fall. They did.
“In real estate, timing is even more important than location,” he said. “It’s like surfing. If you are between waves, don’t stand up.”
Path forward: Rosenfeld worked on economic development and transportation for L,.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas for four years. Today he works for developer SunCal seeking city approvals for a large mixed-use development downtown. In his spare time he assists nonprofit groups in South and Central Los Angeles with their real estate needs.
Family time: Rosenfeld lives in Beverly Hills and is married to Heidi Duckler, who heads a dance theater group that performs in nontraditional spaces such as a library, subway and L.A. City Hall. They have three grown children.
L.A.-centric: “My mother and three of my grandparents were refugees who found shelter in America, so we’re really kind of new here,” Rosenfeld said. “L.A. is my adopted home and I have come to love its challenges and the talents of its people.”
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