Caruso touts support of Hollywood, while his firm battles studio expansion near the Grove
As a candidate for mayor, real estate developer Rick Caruso has spoken of the need to keep entertainment productions within the city of Los Angeles.
But as a businessman, Caruso is enmeshed in a fight over plans to modernize and expand L.A’s storied CBS Television City studios, located next to the Grove, the flagship retail complex Caruso developed two decades ago.
In a letter to neighbors sent earlier this month, the Grove and the adjacent Original Farmers Market expressed “profound concern” about the plan for overhauling Television City, calling it a “massively scaled, speculative development which, if approved, would overwhelm, disrupt, and forever transform the community.” Both entities urged recipients to visit a website and social media accounts for the Beverly Fairfax Community Alliance, a group that opposes the studio project — and counts the Grove as a member.
The development battle could complicate Caruso’s message as a businessman focused on strengthening the region’s economy. And it raises questions about how Caruso, if elected, would respond to businesses whose activities are potentially at odds with his company’s interests.
A campaign spokesman declined to answer questions about whether Caruso’s eponymous company formed the Beverly Fairfax Community Alliance, referring questions to that organization. But Ilysha Buss, marketing director for A.F. Gilmore Co., owner of the Original Farmers Market, said her company and Caruso’s created the alliance and are funding it.
The project to expand production at Television City comes as shortages keep the region’s existing soundstages booked year-round.
Buss, speaking on behalf of the alliance, said the group opposes the development plan in its current form because it would designate the Television City site as a “regional center,” which she characterized as “very much out of scale and inappropriate for this neighborhood.”
An executive with Hackman Capital Partners, which purchased the Television City site from CBS Corp. in 2018 and is seeking to redevelop it, told The Times that his firm has met repeatedly with representatives of Caruso’s company to discuss the project. During those meetings, Caruso executives focused on the effect the project would have on the Grove Drive, a public street that serves as an entrance to the shopping center’s parking structure and valet area, according to Zach Sokoloff, a senior vice president at Hackman Capital Partners.
Sokoloff said representatives of Caruso’s company threatened to stoke community opposition to the proposal if Hackman Capital “did not capitulate to the demands that they had for our proposed use of the Grove Drive.”
“More recently,” he added, “their legal counsel made that threat directly to our legal counsel, suggesting that if we didn’t dramatically restrict our proposed use of the Grove Drive, they would launch a public and aggressive community campaign, activating hundreds of community members and sowing opposition to our proposed modernization at the studio.”
The Television City proposal, known as the TVC 2050 Specific Plan, would allow for a major expansion of the site’s soundstages and production offices.
The site, located at Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, would be permitted to have nearly 1.9 million square feet of studio, office and retail facilities, about 2½ times what is currently there, according to a draft environmental impact report posted by the city last month. The increase would allow the property to accommodate an additional 5,700 jobs, the report said.
Sokoloff said the most recent set of meetings between Hackman and Caruso’s team began in April and included Caruso’s chief development officer, Corinne Verdery, who is slated to become chief executive of his company on Sept. 1. Caruso previously said Verdery would fill his position as CEO if he is elected as L.A. mayor; the new plan was relayed in an internal announcement Friday, according to Jessica Wong, Caruso’s senior vice president for public relations and marketing.
Wong, in an email, denied allegations that Caruso’s team threatened to wage a community campaign against the Television City proposal. But she confirmed that the company is worried about the impacts of the project — and had engaged in “confidential settlement talks” with Hackman.
“We did not resolve the issues of impact of traffic, parking and construction, and to the best of our knowledge, no other party’s issues were resolved,” she said. “Part of the problem is that we really don’t know what the actual project is because the [environmental impact report] does not have a detailed project description.”
Last month, another Caruso executive appeared before a committee of the Mid City West Neighborhood Council and said the Television City project would create “complex” issues for the neighborhood, including traffic, parking and construction.
The Beverly Fairfax Community Alliance has been more blunt, warning that the expanded site would be twice the height of the Beverly Center and would clog Fairfax, Beverly, La Brea Avenue and 3rd Street with traffic.
“Even those accustomed to living with L.A. traffic and parking nightmares will be shocked at how much worse it can be,” the group said on its website.
The Beverly Fairfax alliance last week posted a job listing on ZipRecruiter saying it was hiring organizers for “community outreach efforts,” with compensation starting at $25 an hour. In a statement, the group said it was formed to “publicly raise and address significant concerns” regarding the impacts of the Television City proposal.
Once completed, the studio expansion is expected to generate an additional 787 vehicle trips during morning rush hour and an additional 855 during afternoon rush hour, according to the project’s environmental documents. The property would offer up to 5,300 parking spaces.
Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homes Assn., said she is worried that traffic would increase significantly, hurting local businesses and residents, if the project goes forward as proposed. Plotkin said her group has joined the alliance but has not contributed financially.
Southern California’s film industry has had to contend with a shortage of studio space amid surging demand. The shortage, among other factors, has spurred some producers to look outside the city, The Times has reported.
The COVID-19 pandemic had little impact on the space crunch for production in Los Angeles.
Caruso has been outspoken during his mayoral campaign about wanting to keep productions in Los Angeles.
“Instead of shipping the greatest industry we have in this city out of this city, I want to bring it back in this city,” Caruso said last week in a podcast interview with Hollywood trade newsletter the Ankler.
Asked about the Television City project, Caruso campaign spokesman Peter Ragone said the candidate supports building more studios in L.A.
“However, we all need to be good neighbors. Both can happen,” Ragone said. “Rick believes that local businesses, including production facilities, should address the community’s concerns about creating additional traffic, pollution and other harmful impacts.”
If elected mayor, Caruso would have the power to hire and fire the top manager at the Department of City Planning. He would also have the authority to replace the nine members of the city’s planning commission, a panel of volunteers that vets large-scale development projects.
The Television City proposal may not come before the commission until next year, after the new mayor has taken office.
Rep. Karen Bass, Caruso’s opponent in the Nov. 8 election, declined to take a position on the Television City project, saying through a spokeswoman that she is reviewing the environmental documents. Bass spokeswoman Sarah Leonard Sheahan criticized Caruso over his prior political donations to the city’s elected officials.
“He has made billions influencing City Hall decisions regarding his business. Now, he is trying to put himself in charge of those decisions as mayor,” Leonard said in a statement.
Caruso has made ending City Hall corruption a key component of his mayoral platform. Asked how Caruso would avoid conflicts of interest as mayor, Ragone referred The Times to earlier comments made by the candidate about placing his company in a blind trust.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.
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