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Sunday, May 28, 2023


In a way, the real estate recession was a blessing for Mark Armbruster, an attorney and City Hall lobbyist who specializes in winning approval for major commercial real estate projects.

“In the late 1980s, there was a lot of concern among city officials and homeowners groups with development and it was difficult in terms of processing approvals for projects,” said Armbruster. “After the recession, it became somewhat easier because I think a lot of people realized that you need some real estate development to create jobs and keep the economy rolling.”

In and out of boom times, Armbruster has worked to gain entitlements for some of the largest commercial projects in recent city history, including the expansion of the Park La Brea apartments and the 88-acre Cascades Business Park and Golf Course in Sylmar.

In the city’s most recent lobbying reports, Mark Armbruster Planning Associates Inc. had two of the top-10 spending clients Kajima Engineering & Construction Inc., which wants to build a golf course in Tujunga, and Home Depot, which is seeking approval for new stores in the city.

“It’s difficult getting large development projects approved,” Armbruster said of the need for his services. “It depends on how the local councilman feels, and maybe there are homeowner associations and some very complex approvals needed from various city departments. So you need somebody like myself who has the relationships in the city and has expertise in knowing the process from point ‘A’ to approval.”

The ability to hire lobbyists such as Armbruster gives developers a “distinct advantage” over the resident groups that often rise up to oppose development, said Don Schultz, president of the Van Nuys Homeowners Association.

“Homeowners are not paid lobbyists who can do this eight hours a day, five days a week,” said Schultz, who added that he has found Armbruster “honest and forthright” even when they have been adversaries.

Ed Guthman, a member of the City’s Ethics Commission, sees the services of lobbyists such as Armbruster as valuable as long as they disclose their clients and abide by city regulations.

“It’s helpful for people to have representatives who know their way around City Hall working for them,” Guthman said.

Armbruster is now working on what may be the most difficult assignment of his career winning approval for an 18-hole golf course in the Tujunga Wash.

The project is opposed by environmentalists, the state Department of Fish and Game and nearby homeowner groups. But it cleared a key hurdle last week when it passed out of the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee following an endorsement from Councilman Joel Wachs, who represents Tujunga.

Wachs also happens to be Armbruster’s former boss.

Such relationships, Armbruster said, are important but not decisive.

“I’m friends with most people in the city and I maintain those friendships … but they don’t necessarily win you votes,” Armbruster cautioned. “You’ve got to have the merits of a project and know how to work out the conditions of approval knowing what is important to a particular legislator.”

Armbruster, 47, got his start in city politics managing Wachs’ first successful campaign for a City Council seat in 1971. The job helped develop the kinds of personal and professional relationships that are critical in steering a complex development through City Hall, he said.

Clients say Armbruster’s connections and his specialties of land use and administrative law have made him one of the area’s most sought-after point men for developers.

“I can see why he is considered one of the best lobbyists around,” said Tom Clark, a partner with Royal-Clark Development in Beverly Hills, developer of the Cascades project, which has enlisted Armbruster’s aid for about a decade. “Every government agency has idiosyncrasies and their own way they prefer things done, and he’s got experience with them and knows how to work with their people.”

Noted Council President John Ferraro: “Mark Armbruster has always been honest and truthful in dealing with us. When you’re representing someone and come to the city singing the praises of their project, the individual should understand city government and have the facts straight, which has been the case with Mark.”

Indeed, clients say one of Armbruster’s strengths is that he is candid with them about the realities of the political process.

“When you had to take your medicine, Mark would tell you,” said Tom Buzbee, assistant vice president of Kajima Engineering & Construction Inc., which is seeking approval for the Redtail Golf & Equestrian Club in Tujunga.

While some anti-development sentiment has eased, the process has in other ways become more complicated.

“In the late ’70s and early ’80s, there were various coalitions on City Council and you had a much better idea on a project as to the chances of a project being approved,” Armbruster explained. “Now the City Council is a much more diverse group and in that way it’s more challenging to get approval for projects.”

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