Pacific Palisades readies for the Rick Caruso touch

The Grove in Los Angeles - Developed by Caruso Affiliated

The Grove in Los Angeles - Developed by Caruso Affiliated

From the LA Times, by Martha Groves 5:32 PM PDT, March 10, 2014:

Mega-developer known for The Grove says his plans for the wealthy but run-down enclave are more a la San Francisco's Fillmore Street.

Just hours before hoisting his Oscar for best picture for "Argo" in February 2013, actor-director Ben Affleck cheered on his daughter Violet as she won the Pacific Palisades spelling bee.

Geena Davis lunches at Matthew's Garden Cafe, and Dustin Hoffman shops at the local Gelson's on Sunset Boulevard.

The Palisades is that kind of place — where celebrities mingle with regular people, and everybody is well shod.

It's peculiar, then, that Pacific Palisades' shopping village has the beaten-down aura of a Midwestern Main Street where the mom-and-pop shops have been driven out by Wal-Mart, only there's no Wal-Mart.

Half of the storefronts along Swarthmore Avenue, a once bustling commercial drag, sit empty. Restaurants striving to replace the defunct Mort's Deli, a popular hangout, have come and gone. The community fought in vain to save Village Books, with resident Tom Hanks autographing books and CDs in the rain for three hours. In December, even Baskin-Robbins, a village mainstay, closed.

The community of about 23,000 has a median household income of nearly $150,000, yet much of the business district north of Sunset has struggled for years.

Residents cite several factors: fumbles by property owners, hefty rent increases, the allure of more appealing options in Brentwood and Santa Monica, and the village's relatively remote location far from freeways at the Westside's northern tip. A vocal no-growth contingent has also played a role, suggesting that crumbling buildings add to the Palisades' charm.

But change is nigh. Rick Caruso, the prominent developer known for such showy shopping centers as The Grove and the Commons at Calabasas, is poised to take over much of the nearly moribund commercial center. The one-time mayoral prospect's aim is to turn Swarthmore into a vibrant, walkable street akin to Fillmore in San Francisco, Main in Nantucket and King in Charleston, S.C.

Before year end, his company, Caruso Affiliated, expects to complete the purchase of the largest portfolio of commercial properties in this coastal pocket of Los Angeles. The deal, which local real estate experts have valued at $40 million to $50 million, would give him control of most storefronts along Swarthmore, some nearby spaces on Sunset and a one-acre surface parking lot zoned for multifamily housing.

What Caruso should do with the choice sector has been the topic of heated debate, with some Palisadians lobbying for serious growth and others clamoring to maintain the "Mayberry with money" ambience. Most agree that revitalization is necessary, but consensus is likely to prove elusive. Some residents say Swarthmore should be reserved for pedestrians, like Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade; others counter that cars are important. Some crave more night life; others like it quiet.

"They want to keep the scale of a small village but have the amenities of a big city," said Randy Young, a lifelong resident and local historian. "Caruso has a big job. I wouldn't want to be in his Guccis."

And Caruso so far has met with some suspicion from those who think he has loftier designs that could increase congestion.

"He is telling the community what it wants to hear," said Donna Vaccarino, an architect and founding chairwoman of the Community Planning Initiative for Pacific Palisades. "I have no doubt that Mr. Caruso has bigger long-range plans for the Palisades."

For all of its affluence and aspiration, Pacific Palisades is a laid-back place where getting dressed up means donning one's best pair of Lululemons or Levi's.

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