Alan I. Casden has become one of the richest people in Los Angeles by building a wide range of housing projects that run the gamut from luxury to low-income

With an estimated net worth of $850 million, developer Alan I. Casden ranked No. 24 on the Business Journal's list of the richest Angelenos published earlier this year.

Indeed, Casden has come a long way. He started out in accounting but made the leap into real estate in 1975 when he joined the Mayer Group. Casden went on to buy Coast Fed Properties in 1990, renaming it Casden Properties and setting about building housing projects luxury to low-income across the country.

Overall, his firm has constructed about 40,000 apartments, one-third of which it still owns, and is involved in ownership or operation of a total of 90,000 units.

Based in the elegant Wilshire Doheny Office Building, Casden plans to build roughly 7,200 housing units in L.A. in the next five years, including 2,000 units in Inglewood and 350 atop retail stores in Westwood Village. Meanwhile, Casden is currently under construction on 1,600 units at Park La Brea and is finishing up the 624-unit Villa Azure complex in the Fox Hills area of Culver City.

Through it all, Casden has remained very active in Jewish causes. He is co-chair of the Board of Trustees of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and was a driving force in the construction of the Museum of Tolerance.

A USC graduate and avid Trojan football fan, Casden recently donated $10.6 million to endow a chair at the USC Leventhal School of Accounting, along with the newly renamed Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. The money will also help support an annual real estate forecast at the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate.

Question: Two years ago, Casden Properties became a private real estate investment trust through a $390 million private stock offering. Do you plan to go public at some point?

Answer: We have no immediate plans. Right now our access to capital markets is better being private than it is public. In that, we're a chameleon and we'll look at the marketplace to see if it becomes advantageous for us to have stock widely held. We do have major institutional shareholders, so it's advantageous to stay where we are.

Q: What are Casden Properties' holdings and how have they changed since the stock offering?

A: We acquired a substantial number of apartment complexes. We have a tremendous development pipeline. We probably increased direct and indirect ownership to around 72,000 (units), from about 56,000. We're in 26 states, with about half (those holdings) in California.

Q: What's you favorite tack, acquiring units outright, acquiring to redevelop, or ground-up development?

A: In Southern California, it's new development, especially in the city of Los Angeles. Development is more economically advantageous than to acquire existing apartments.

Q: We keep hearing it's so difficult to get things built in Los Angeles. Yet you have a lot of things going on. What are you doing right?

A: You have to acquire the site, you have to acquire the land, you have to be able to secure the entitlements. We think we have a sophisticated development organization that is oriented toward that. The company has been one of the primary multi-family housing manufacturers in the city of Los Angeles and Southern California. So where it's hard to get started today, we already have an organization that's been doing that for 20-something years. We do large projects, 200 units and up. We are building 65 percent of (the rental units in large-scale projects) planned in the city of Los Angeles over the next five years.

Q: Do you and Donald Sterling have a rivalry going over who owns the most apartments?

A: We've got much more than Don Sterling. He's got 4,000 units, maybe more. He's bought some highly visible buildings. We're creating. We manufacture them and we have much more.

Q: Do you see a future for downtown apartments? Or is Geoff Palmers' Medici project a fluke?

A: Palmer has got right now a successful project. I think that's a result of the shortage of housing units everywhere, so it overflows to all segments.

Q: Does Casden Properties plan to build downtown?

A: I think downtown presents a very viable housing market.

Q: L.A., as everyone knows, has had an affordable housing crisis for years, and it's getting worse. What housing policy changes need to be made?

A: I think the city of Los Angeles ultimately has to decide what they want to do in the future in terms of housing, because most all available land has been utilized. The only way to create more housing is to create density and more housing units. That has been an unfavorable housing form in metropolitan Los Angeles, except in downtown and certain areas of Westwood. Los Angeles in the early 1980s had a concept where there would be density housing in the major areas. Woodland Hills was one. Westwood was another area. Then they go back and fracture the long-range plans and create a plan in Westwood that says you can't build over 55 feet high. Now you have a million jobs within minutes of Westwood, and you can't build any housing there. The long-range solution is to create density housing where people can work where they live.

Q: But empty lots are all over L.A. There's obviously land here. Why isn't it being developed?

A: The city in the 1980s downzoned a lot of property, and that impacts where the density is. There has been no increase in density in the city of L.A. in the last 45 or 50 years. If you see a small lot, how many housing units can you put on it? Land is very expensive.

Q: Fellow developer Ira Smedra hit a brick wall of opposition on the project he was proposing for Westwood Village. Now, you're proposing a major project on that same site. How is your project different?

A: Our project is smaller, not as dense, less square footage. We've designed a project that fits within the parameters of the Westwood specific plan. We've designed a project that is classical Spanish Revival architecture. We've created, we think, an interesting project that complies with the spirit and intent of the specific plan. We hope we receive the approvals on a timely basis and we'd like the neighborhood and community to look with favor on the project.

Q: I hear you have an incredible train in your backyard. Is that true?

A: I have a live steam locomotive that goes around the house, with train cars attached. It carries about 11 people, children I mean. We have an almost-teenage daughter who just had a big birthday party. All the kids loved the train.

Q: And what about your coin collection? I understand that's pretty impressive.

A: I have probably the finest ancient Jewish coin collection in the world. In ancient history, coins were minted on special occasions, commemorative events. Roman coins were minted to celebrate the rule of emperors. Before that, there was Greek coinage, and each city had its own coinage. In Judea, it was the same. It traces the timeline of ancient history. I was always interested in antiquities and ancient history. I used to go out to the Middle East quite a bit and I got started in ancient coins.

Q: You were the chairman who headed up construction of the Museum of Tolerance for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Can you talk about that project?

A: It took nine years of my life to build that museum. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has a constituency of half a million families and it's one of the largest human rights activist organizations in the world. I think that museum is one of the significant accomplishments of my life because that will be there for a long, long time.

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