Nelson Rising, who shaped L.A. and oversaw some of California’s biggest projects, dies at 81
Nelson Rising, who oversaw some of the biggest real estate projects in California and ran Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s political campaigns, has died at 81.
Rising’s family said he died Thursday at his Pasadena home of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Rising led the development of such large-scale properties as U.S. Bank Tower, an office skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles that was for many years the tallest building in the West, and Playa Vista, a mixed-use neighborhood created on land near the Los Angeles coast that had been home to business mogul Howard Hughes’ aviation empire.
In San Francisco, he oversaw one of largest mixed-use developments in the city’s history with the revitalization Mission Bay, an abandoned rail yard and brownfield site near downtown.
“From Mission Bay to projects that helped revitalize downtown Los Angeles, Nelson Rising spearheaded iconic developments that transformed neighborhoods across California,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “Nelson cared deeply about California and Californians, and his dynamic leadership and problem-solving brought together stakeholders from across the board to accomplish monumental feats.”
A protege of diplomat and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Rising forged consensus for mammoth urban projects that required backing from multiple government agencies and citizen stakeholders.
“He made stuff happen that was extremely complicated,” said John Cushman, chairman of global transactions at real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield.
In addition to navigating complex government approval processes, Rising was able to defuse passions that inevitably rose around large real estate projects that altered city streets and skylines, Cushman said.
“People get very fired up. Nelson could bring calm,” Cushman said. “He could take confusion and chaos and translate it into common sense and bring people back to the table who were yelling. He was a genius in terms of dealing with people”
Rising was shepherded into behind-the-scenes roles in Democratic politics by Christopher and served as Bradley’s campaign chairman in each of his mayoral victories beginning in 1973, as well as in his gubernatorial defeat in 1982.
Rising worked for Bradley after successfully managing the upstart 1970 campaign of John Tunney, a 36-year-old lawyer who defeated a Republican incumbent in the U.S. Senate. After Tunney’s victory, The Times described campaign manager Rising as an “enthusiastic amateur” who was “pleasant but tough.”
The experience led Rising to becoming a producer on “The Candidate,” a satiric 1972 film with parallels to the Tunney campaign. Robert Redford played an idealistic young lawyer running for the U.S. Senate who grows dependent on the advice of his campaign manager and media consultants.
Recognized as an authority in corporate and public finance, Rising served on the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including a three-year stint as chairman. Other public service included three years in the United States Marine Corps Reserve during college.
Rising was born on Aug. 27, 1941, in the Queens borough of New York, the second of two children. A few years later the family headed west to Glendale. Rising’s father, Henry, worked as chief engineer at the Statler Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. His mother, Mary, was a seamstress.
Rising attended UCLA on a football scholarship and went on to graduate from its law school in 1967. He found work at Los Angeles law firm O’Melveny & Myers, where he was mentored by Christopher, a partner at the firm. The attorney and statesman was a high-profile leader in Democratic politics and served as secretary of State under President Clinton.
“Christopher was a mentor to me all ... through my life,” Rising said in a podcast. Rising named his first son Christopher in honor of their friendship.
Former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley had a decades-long friendship with Rising and tapped him to be “my No. 1 consultant” in O’Malley’s drive to build an NFL stadium next to the Dodgers’ ballpark in the 1990s, he said. At the time, Los Angeles did not have a pro football team.
Rising, then chief executive of Catellus Development Corp., was an “extraordinary communicator” who built support for the project, O’Malley said. The plan had the backing of many city officials and the NFL, but O’Malley withdrew his proposal at the request of then-Mayor Richard Riordan, who supported a plan to get pro football back in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“You can’t fight City Hall,” O’Malley said, but Rising proved his mettle to the team owner in the failed campaign. “He was at my side with brilliance and ideas. He was a very thorough guy — he even brought in an acoustician who could advise us on sound levels.”
O’Malley said he enjoyed brainstorming with Rising. “He was a very forward-thinking realist. I don’t think I have met anyone in L.A. similar.”
Rising was an executive for commercial developer and landlord Maguire Thomas Partners in the 1980s and ’90s and oversaw some of its biggest projects, including Playa Vista, the sprawling and controversial development that sprang from property near Marina del Rey where Hughes built his enormous wooden airplane popularly known as the “Spruce Goose” during the 1940s.
Hughes’ company tried to develop the property after his death, but ran into tenacious opposition over its proposed density and threat to local wetlands. Maguire Thomas took over the stalled project in the 1980s and put Rising in charge of reviving it in a new form. Rising labored for four years to reach compromises with environmental activists and other opponents. He secured city approval for the project in 1993.
Maguire Thomas lost control of Playa Vista in 1997 after defaulting on payments to its lenders, but the project moved forward largely on the vision Rising advanced and is now home to thousands of residents. Its office space is in the heart of the Westside’s “Silicon Beach” favored by technology companies.
Rising was Maguire Thomas’ partner-in-charge for the Library Square development in downtown Los Angeles, which included the 72-story U.S. Bank Tower and the 52-story Gas Co. Tower. The intricate project created by the developer, the city and the Community Redevelopment Agency provided about $125 million toward financing the renovation and expansion of the fire-damaged Central Library and other city benefits.
“Nelson Rising has left a lasting mark on our city’s skyline,” Mayor Karen Bass said. “Nelson’s work is very much a part of L.A.”
Rising was recruited in 1994 to take over Catellus Development, the languishing real estate spin-off of Southern Pacific Railroad that hoped to reinvent itself as a builder. Over the next 11 years he supervised the growing company and its most ambitious project, Mission Bay.
Catellus, which also owned Union Station in Los Angeles, was sold in 2005 and Rising went on to start a private real estate company with his son Christopher.
Rising’s civic roles included serving as chairman of the Grand Avenue Committee, and as real estate advisor to and negotiator for the Joint Powers Authority, which consisted of the city of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency and Los Angeles County. The Joint Powers Authority oversaw the Grand Avenue Project, which includes the Broad museum, expansive Grand Park and the $1-billion Grand LA hotel, apartment and retail complex designed by Frank Gehry.
“To have somebody of his experience and his capacity to understand all sides of an issue to talk with was not only unusual but critical,” said Bill Witte, chief executive of Related California, the primary developer of the Grand Avenue project. “The consistent theme was his ability to deal with both the public and private sectors, to understand all sides of an issue but to be focused on getting things done. I think no one was ultimately better at getting all of those things done than Nelson.”
Rising is survived by his wife of 59 years, Sharon; sons Christopher and Matthew; three grandchildren; and a sister, Charlotte Conway. His daughter, Corinne, died in 2018.
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