By JOYZELLE DAVIS
When Jeff Dinkin and Doug Brown were in law school together in the early 1980s, they began a lucrative part-time business: fixing up run-down houses and reselling them at a profit.
Now the UCLA School of Law alums head one of the busiest commercial development companies in the county Regent Properties.
Instead of working on homes, though, they're taking on blighted blocks and building projects based on their "urban village" concept, which mixes the compactness of a vertical power center with the ambiance of a pedestrian-friendly project.
"Other people might look at a property and think it's ugly, while we see an opportunity," Dinkin said.
Few vacant sites exist anymore in urban areas, so most development opportunities come from tearing down old projects and putting modern commercial complexes in their place.
Blighted areas often have the cheapest land, and a "town square" retail project is the tool "to bring people to downtowns again, to invigorate an area and give people a sense of place," Brown said.
The Beverly Hills-based development and investment firm has two projects opening this year: a retail complex in Glendale and an office park in the West Hills. It is in negotiations with the cities of Burbank and Corona to build retail redevelopment projects, and it is pursuing a private mixed-use retail and office project in Hollywood and an entertainment-retail project in Westwood Village.
Regent Properties has been around since 1989, when Allen Kohl (a member of the family that owns the Kohl Supermarket and Kohl Department store chains) founded the firm. Kohl oversees the long-term planning, while Dinkin and Brown handle the day-to-day operations.
The pair, both 38, met in Athens, Greece while touring Europe following their graduation from undergraduate school (Dinkins from Washington University, Brown from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania).
By chance, they met up again on the first day of law school at UCLA and became roommates.
The two started their professional real estate careers as transaction attorneys, but law didn't fulfill their "creative and entrepreneurial" ambitions, Brown said.
He was a partner at the retail development firm Albert Glickman & Associates in Beverly Hills when he joined Kohl to form Regent. Dinkin, who was an executive at the Alexander Haagen Co., came on board in 1993.
Regent operated as a venture capital fund during much of the recession, then moved into master-planned developments in Texas and at Kohl Ranch in the Coachella Valley in the early '90s.
At that time, development activity was lackluster in L.A. But Regent started work on a 160,000-square-foot entertainment-retail project with the city of Glendale in 1994. In early 1996, it launched the 600,000-square-foot West Hills Corporate Village office park.
"They were aggressive (in their bid proposal) at a time when other developers were still shy," said Rocky Delgadillo, deputy mayor for economic development. His agency worked with Regent and its financial partner, Shamrock Holdings, to turn the abandoned Hughes Missiles Systems site in the west San Fernando Valley into a new office park.
Delgadillo said that Regent was willing to accommodate all of the parties involved, "which was pretty remarkable for a development company in the midst of a recession."
"(They were) very receptive to our concerns," said Stefani Porter, president of the 197-member Oak Lake Homeowner Association that abuts the West Hills project.
The campus-style complex is scheduled to open in the fall. It has 160,000 square feet leased, though the actual tenant is now up in the air. CareAmerica Health Plans leased the site before its acquisition by Blue Shield of California last year, and is now looking to sublease the space.
When cities and public agencies speak of Regent's "aggression" in seizing projects, they refer to the development company's willingness to spend its own money.
Kirk Pelser, project manager in Glendale's redevelopment department, noted that a city can gauge a developer's commitment to a project during the pre-development phase. That's when developers have to pay up front for street improvements, building permits and other expenses before they have any guarantee their project will be profitable.
"Regent was very aggressive in grabbing hold of the project," he said. "Some developers aren't willing to spend a nickel, but Regent was very financially proactive."
Regent has funded almost all of its projects itself, with the exception of its joint venture on the West Hills office project. The development company has no plans to sell all its projects once they are complete, Brown said.
The Glendale Marketplace project opens in May, and it will be a litmus test for how customers react to the "urban-village"-style prototype. The project is currently 95 percent leased, with four movie theaters, a Linen 'N Things and a WOW multimedia store serving as anchors.
Despite seeing so much of each other at the office, the self-described "brothers" spend much of their free time together. They live within blocks of each other in Santa Monica, their wives are best friends and their families vacation together.
"Our wives call us each other's wives," Dinkin said. "We know what the other one is thinking."
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