There are battles, and then there are battles. Three years ago, billionaire developer Rick Caruso emerged victorious from the latter when Glendale voters narrowly gave him permission to build the 900,000-square-foot Americana at Brand.
A larger-than-life figure whose penchant for flair and promotion has always kept him in the headlines, Caruso’s brand of steady, unrelenting public relations has served him well in Glendale, where opposition can ferment into a citywide issue in half the time it takes in the fragmented metropolis of Los Angeles.
When he was forced in February to defend his choice of Excelsior Lane as the name of a side street off Brand Boulevard to a critical City Council, Caruso left with a stronger endorsement than when he arrived.
After Caruso gave a stylized slide presentation set to Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American,” City Council members practically scrambled to rename the street “Caruso Way” as a “modest tribute” to his vision.
He walked out of the Council Chambers to applause and handshakes from the audience.
Two months later, Caruso was front and center again with the opening of Americana at Brand, the $435-million retail giant that had divided a city years before.
The black tie, invite-only celebration May 1 counted the likes of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the guest list, followed by a public grand opening that employed the services of the USC marching band.
For most of the year, Caruso let the Americana do the talking for him as he considered a run against Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — a move he eventually decided against.
And all appeared to be going well. A string of preliminary financial reports indicated that the Americana was attracting visitors and padding against the punch of an unfolding recession.
But controversy returned in November when a large-scale fireworks display at a holiday tree-lighting event caught elected officials off guard at a time when hundreds of Sylmar residents were fleeing the Sayre fire.
The ensuing controversy exposed many of the lingering divides over the role of the Americana, and Caruso, in Glendale.
“It has certainly been a test of determination over the last couple years, but it has been very rewarding,” Caruso said.
His resolve behind the scenes and in public earned him a certain amount of goodwill and respect among city officials, especially through the rough patches.
“I’ve worked with many fine developers in my career, and I believe there are few, if any, developers who would have endured the costs, frustrations and risks that Rick has in delivering on his commitments to the Glendale community,” City Manager Jim Starbird said.
Now that fears of chaotic downtown traffic and asphyxiation of the Glendale Galleria have so far proven to be unfounded, more people are coming into Caruso’s fold.
“I think it really looks great,” said Adel Luzuriaga, who was part of an action group that in 2004 mounted an aggressive campaign to defeat the Americana concept.
Despite her bemoaning the central location of the project, as a concept, she offered her support “10,000 times” over.
“The guy’s brilliant, what can I say? I hope that they do very, very well,” Luzuriaga said.
Caruso, who won an $89 million judgment against Galleria owner General Growth Properties in 2007 for anti-competitive practices, still has some thorns in his side.
Managers of the Golden Key Hotel Glendale — which stands in a carved-out parcel on Colorado Street, on what would otherwise be an all-Americana block — have long complained about negative impact construction had on business.
Golden Key owner Ray Patel also filed a complaint in court after the Americana’s opening alleging Caruso’s use of Orange Street for Americana operations violated the terms of an agreement.
But for the most part, Caruso said he’s pleased with how his $435-million mixed-use mega-venture turned out.
“Sometimes, I just go out there and walk around and enjoy it,” he said. “It’s actually beyond our expectations in a lot of ways.”
The Americana’s early success has also provided some amount of political capital for those who publicly supported the project in the face of community protest.
“I knew that when this was done, all the naysayers would have to basically eat their words,” said Councilman Bob Yousefian, who was mayor during the height of the battle in 2004. “[Caruso] literally delivered on what he said and more.”
With the Americana up and running, Caruso has been busy pushing his next major project — a 192-room seaside luxury resort in Montecito.
The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors approved the project earlier this month.
But he’s not done with Glendale. Caruso has said repeatedly that he would like to facilitate the continued redevelopment of the mid-Brand corridor, especially areas adjacent to the Americana.
His company, Caruso Affiliated, has already purchased a nearby parcel on Colorado Street.
“We’ll follow the city’s lead on that,” he said.
There are no active negotiations to buy up more land, he added, “but if there was some available . . .”
JASON WELLS covers City Hall. He may be reached at (818) 637-3235 or by e-mail at email@example.com.