For a real estate developer who's done some notable projects and who's gotten into a scrape or two, Richard Weintraub has managed to keep a fairly low profile.
But that may change soon.
He and his Weintraub Financial Services Inc. are taking on several conspicuous and potentially controversial projects at once including a retail project in developer-averse Malibu, a re-do of the iconic Sportsmen's Lodge Hotel in Studio City and what could be a risky condo project next to the old St. Vibiana Cathedral downtown.
Weintraub, who often works at his home in Malibu, where he lives with his wife and two children on an eight-acre, ocean-front estate just off the Pacific Coast Highway, agreed that he's not only busier than ever but that challenges lie ahead for him. Weintraub does not believe the current financing crisis will hurt him. Still, markets can change and communities can revolt against his projects.
"If we have this conversation six months from now, things might be quite different," said Weintraub, 41.
One thing Weintraub has going for him is tenacity, said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who has known Weintraub nearly two decades. His Vibiana Lofts project is in Perry's district.
"Once he pursues a project he is tenacious," said Perry. "He is doggedly determined to complete the projects he starts."
He may need some determination to see him through his forthcoming projects.
His Malibu Lumber Yard project is the furthest along and may be the easiest. Weintraub and Richard Sperber, president of ValleyCrest Cos., have partnered to develop a two-story, high-end retail center on a 2.7-acre parcel that was formerly a lumber yard at Pacific Coast Highway and Cross Creek Road. It will include 15 tenants, mostly high-end clothing stores.
The partners' development entity signed a 54-year ground lease with the city last year. Since Malibu tends to resist development, and to get the project moving along, Weintraub worked with the community. He ensured that local businesses would be tenants at the development, for example.
He said it was important to do a project that the community could be proud of. And it helps that he's a local, saying "there is camaraderie here in Malibu."
"In Malibu I'll go to the movie theater and forget my wallet, and they'll say, 'Just pay us next time,'" Weintraub said. "I wanted to do something that reflects what this community should be and what it is becoming more and more."
The project will break ground this month and open about a year from now.
A bit more of his pluck will be needed for the planned remodel of the Sportsmen's Lodge.
Weintraub bought the Studio City landmark at 12825 Ventura Blvd. this summer for about $50 million. He has hired Gensler Architects for the remodel, which will include the addition of a significant amount of retail space at the nearly 10-acre site. Weintraub said that the hotel will retain its name, will still have about 200 rooms when the renovation is complete and will likely be a moderately priced to high-end hotel.
"We are working closely with (Gensler) to ensure this is not going to feel like Disneyland or a shopping mall," said Weintraub.
Of course, the remodel of the property could face opposition from local homeowners.
Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, said new development will increase traffic in the area near the hotel. He'd like an environmental impact report to be completed if there are changes to the property.
"Traffic keeps getting worse, which means any major project would cause even worse problems," he said. "Given the amount that was paid for the property, in my opinion it only makes economic sense for it to become a massive project."
Weintraub is sanguine, saying that he hopes to be in the ground by the end of next year and open in 2010.
"I feel pretty positive but I'm always optimistic," he said. "I go in optimistically I am trying to do something really special. I am here to stay. I am not here to hit a grand slam on dollars and get out of town."
His other big project, the Vibiana Lofts, may be a good test of his optimism.
The 44-story tower is entitled for 300 units and would likely be a very high-end project in a market that has not yet proven it can sustain such a development.
Weintraub was introduced to his project partner, Tom Gilmore, a downtown real estate developer, by L.A. architecture writer Sam Hall Kaplan several years ago, and the two hit it off. Gilmore has owned the property that includes the development site and the cathedral since 1999 and Weintraub partnered with him on it about four years ago. Since then, the former cathedral at 210 S. Main St. has become a well-used events space, hosting weddings, art functions and fashion shows.
"He did something a lot of Malibu people don't do come downtown and see the vision," Gilmore said.
The condo tower is still in the planning stages and Weintraub said he'd like to monitor the downtown housing market before moving forward.
"I want to see how these other buildings get absorbed over the next year," said Weintraub, who added that he and Gilmore are in talks with an unnamed "world-class" architect for the project. "We want to build something very unique and probably very expensive."
"One of the things I like about him is that he translates his broad big picture ideas into the most minute details," said Gilmore. "He really sweats the details and he's got good taste and knows what the market is."
Weintraub began his real estate career early. The son of controversial Los Angeles Unified School District board member Roberta Weintraub who opposed forced school busing the developer grew up in Sherman Oaks.
As a 14-year-old, Weintraub got his start working for a property-owning uncle in downtown L.A. and then a few years later for state Senator Alan Robbins. Weintraub worked on real estate deals for Robbins, who would later serve time in prison for a bribery conviction in 1991.
Weintraub first attended Pepperdine for an undergraduate degree and then USC, where he got his master's degree in business administration.
There was also a stint in asset management, and after the real estate crash of the early 1990s, Weintraub began buying properties. By the mid 1990s, the developer had worked on several residential projects along Westwood's Wilshire Corridor. After purchasing and fixing up a handful of buildings, in 1996 Weintraub bought land at 10795 Wilshire Blvd. and set out to build the Venezia, a high-end, 25-unit condo building. It was Weintraub's first ground-up condo project and a milestone in his career.
"I was a lot more na & #271;ve then, it was a little bit of a battle," he said. "I don't blame them (opponents of the project). At the time it was, here comes this young guy saying, 'I am going to build this building.' They asked, 'How many have you done before?' The answer was none. But I showed them buildings I liked and showed them how committed I was to the project."
He faced opposition on the project, but by completing it, Weintraub gained his reputation as a developer who would be willing to fight to see projects through.
But development has sometimes been a messy and lawsuit-laden affair. In 2003, while trying to build a Westwood condo tower, which would later become the Californian, Weintraub struck a controversial deal in which he paid the Westwood Homeowners Association more than $500,000 to drop a lawsuit against his proposed development.
"I was presented with the option: 'If you don't pay me I am going to sue you.' There was no merit for the suit except to tie me up," Weintraub said.
Weintraub's deal with the association resulted in the ouster of the group's president. He later sold most of his interest in the development for about $27 million to Fifield Cos.
More recently, Weintraub put the Indio Fashion Mall on the market last month after years of squabbling with the local community and government.
In 2006 Weintraub sued the City of Indio and the developer of a Super Target store planned there because of environmental and infrastructure concerns. The Super Target developer filed a counter suit at the beginning of this year. In August the suits were settled but now Weintraub says he is selling because the project is not in the realm of the company's "core competency" of high-end, urban infill projects.
"I'm a lover not a fighter this is so atypical for me," he said. "It is a great project and someone is going to make a lot of money on it. But it isn't what I do best."
Back at home in Malibu, Weintraub's personal building pursuits mirror his professional plans. He is designing and refining his compound, which features several buildings, formal gardens and an Italianate villa home that overlooks the ocean.
Just last year, Weintraub's Greek temple-style pool house, which overlooks an outdoor infinity pool, was completed. The 3,500-square-foot structure is replete with seashell encrusted fixtures and an indoor swimming pool.
Weintraub's architect, Bel Air-based Robert Shachtman, said that he and the developer have a master plan for the site that includes a yet-to-be built final phase consisting of a tiered pond and a Portuguese-style farm house that would complement the estate's existing organic garden.
"He has a vision; sometimes the vision is costly and there are barriers and you have to work around it," Shachtman said. "But all of his ideas have been put into reality."
Coming up with such ideas is Weintraub's hobby, in a way.
"The easiest way for me to relax after a very stressful day is at night, when I'm going to sleep, to design something in my head," said Weintraub.
"There are so many things I've designed in my head that I haven't gotten the chance to build."
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