Rick Caruso is very good at building things. The 59-year-old native Angeleno is a longtime real estate developer, whose namesake Caruso company is a behemoth in the Southern California real estate market. It has countless holdings from individual buildings — like the one Jon & Vinny’s is taking over in Brentwood, for example — to entire developments filled with restaurants, retail, and residential units.
Caruso currently operates the Promenade at Westlake, the Commons at Calabasas, and a handful of other shopping plazas, including the Americana at Brand and, most famously, the Grove. That places Caruso among the biggest restaurant landlords anywhere in Southern California, with dozens of dining options and many millions of dollars in annual food sales under its umbrella.
It also makes Caruso himself very wealthy. The Brentwood resident is currently one of the 15 richest people in Los Angeles, with a net worth said to be valued at over $4 billion. He is the chairman of the board of trustees for the private University of Southern California, and has previously held public office in the city. His reach is wide and very powerful, which often allows his vision to be unencumbered by the typical financial and political restraints when he’s defining the look and feel of large swaths of Los Angeles.
His next whimsical money-maker is Palisades Village, Caruso’s vision for an upscale small town business hub set right along Sunset Boulevard in the tony Pacific Palisades. New restaurant tenants include pastel-toned British cafe the Draycott, a casual burger bar called Hank’s, popular healthy-dining storefront SunLife Organics, casual Italian spot Edo Little Bites, and more. To complete the idyllic picture, an upscale cart will soon roam the grounds selling gussied up $8 hot dogs, while celebrated Seattle chef Renee Erickson has opened a branch of her wildly popular General Porpoise, a shop selling “top quality” coffee and pluot jam-filled doughnuts. Across its sprawling 125,000 square feet there is also room for an organic grocery store, a movie theater, high-end shops, and a collection of upscale standalone apartment units tucked discreetly upstairs.
Unlike many of Caruso’s other development holdings, Palisades Village is meant to blend directly into the surrounding community, with matching roofline heights and color tones. The three-acre project purposefully blurs the line between the public sidewalks and streets, and the nominally private built environment that Caruso controls. It envelops a small park and open streets that have been rebuilt with walkers in mind, from the artful brickwork to the shade trees that sway lightly with an ocean breeze.
The building facades each carry one of seven different architectural styles, ranging from East Coast cottage to modern glass. It’s all married together along with the vintage movie theater marquee to create a brand-new-but-looks-lived-in aesthetic, with a cleaned-up pastiche reminiscent of Disneyland or The Truman Show. Singer John Legend welcomed in the property last week with a well-attended black tie soiree that included famous neighbors like Billy Crystal.
But in discussing the recently-opened development, Caruso downplays the inherent wealth of the endeavor. Instead, he and his team love to share an offhand story about a little girl who lives across the street. She was, so the story goes, worried about the loss of a Baskin-Robbins closing up shop in the pre-Caruso days, and — upon hearing of the incoming development — she sent a letter to Caruso to request that room be retained for a new ice cream company of some kind. So in comes McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams, right at the end of the park. She has even dutifully attended some public events on behalf of the project, Caruso and company by her side.
The anecdote is cute and kind, but it also illustrates a larger point: Rick Caruso can make dreams come true, but he gets to decide what does or does not appear in those dreams. So what does it mean for a community when one man — whose father was once the largest single car dealership owner in the world (and the founder of Dollar Rent-a-Car) — gets to decide what a semi-public space does or does not include? And how much should that one man’s vision truly align with the greater city around him?
What happens when billion-dollar development companies or tech behemoths in cities like Atlanta or San Francisco get to define the retail and restaurants that a community does or does not get to interact with? Or even more importantly, who does or does not feel comfortable even showing up?
Caruso’s marquee product, the Grove, is the highest-trafficked tourist destination on the entire West Coast, drawing more annual visitors than Disneyland. Much of that is made up by tourists who come to Los Angeles specifically to see the Grove, with its tireless heralding as the “Main Street” of Los Angeles. That means Caruso, the company, defines and shapes the popular notion of what America is (or, again, isn’t) to millions of people every single year, by choosing which restaurants and shops to include in its plans, and which ones to leave out.
The hulking Grove property is turned inward to face its own augmented version of a 1950’s American “Main Street”, leaving only tall, largely blank exterior walls to be seen from the street. It’s an insular standalone development in the middle of the city, whereas Palisades Village is meant to connect directly with the public. Just step off the city-owned sidewalk and onto Caruso’s built wonderland, where thriving bookstores (albeit Amazon-owned) and ice cream shops and coffee bars still feel commonplace, and have not fallen victim to ambitious developers and rising rents like so many other less-wealthy communities in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
And that’s precisely the point with Palisades Village. Caruso spent somewhere between $40 and $50 million just purchasing the buildings atop the three acres he wanted, then tore them down and rebuilt a portion of the public city to his liking, all in anticipation of millions of annual visitors from the neighborhood and beyond.
“I want people to come to this project and think, of course this is here,” says Caruso from the staging office of his entire Palisades Village operation. “We’re a part of the community.”
There has been plenty of input from the locals, of course. The project is actually popular with most Pacific Palisades residents, who say Caruso employees have been accepting information, asking questions, and showing up to neighborhood meetings for years. But this is still largely a Caruso vision.
As a community, Pacific Palisades is undeniably white, and wealthy. It’s one of the five richest neighborhoods in greater LA, with a median home price close to $3 million, and a median family income well above the Los Angeles average. A 2011 demographic report for the Grove conducted by the Caruso company says the average consumer there may not be far behind, at least in terms of bank account. Palisades Village is also something the insular community is asking for, having given Caruso the company years of public feedback on the process.
What has continued to make Rick Caruso money is his ability to give millions of people a year exactly what they think they want, an often sanitized dining and retail experience that can feel at home for some, but not all. And in wealthy, homogenous corners of Los Angeles like Pacific Palisades, that does not often mean lower-income people, or people of color.
“We’re not trying to be homogenous, or be limited to just the people we are serving,” says Caruso. “One of the wonderful things about our properties is that there’s no admission fee. You don’t have to buy a thing, you just show up. And everybody’s welcome.”
None of the restaurants currently open at Palisades Village are majority owned by people of color. When asked directly, Caruso seems genuinely surprised at the thought that race might matter at all in the discussion.
“I don’t ever think about it, the color of the skin of people who own businesses on our properties,” Caruso says. “If you’re asking the question: Does the ownership of a particular restaurant or retailer drive diversity of a particular customer? I don’t think that’s the case. I think the diversity will be driven by the experience we create for people, in making them feel welcome.”
Despite the Caruso company’s claims that they create and curate the “center of town”, Los Angeles does already have a Main Street — a rather long and historic one in fact. In Downtown, Main Street has long abutted the sprawl of Skid Row, currently home to America’s largest homeless crisis. Further down it cuts a north-south route through South Los Angeles, edging historically black communities like Watts before ending in Harbor City, a mixed demographic South Bay neighborhood that is half Latino. How many of Los Angeles’s actual Main Street community members would feel comfortable in Palisades Village, stepping off the public sidewalk and into Rick Caruso’s vision?
“I think about it every day,” Caruso says. “We have to have an experience that is unqualified. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, your socioeconomic status.”
To make everyone truly feel welcome requires thinking about inclusion in design and in ownership, to give hesitant non-wealthy, non-white Angelenos a reason to feel like they can comfortably visit Palisades Village and use the freely available park or enjoy the ice cream shop.
This is far from just a Caruso or a Palisades problem, of course. Entire cities like Seattle and San Francisco are battling large income inequalities and demographic shifts, and are struggling to define how tech, architecture, retail, and dining all work together to create public and private spaces, and to decide who may, by fault of design and demand, feel like they’re being left out. New York City is struggling with its own massive development question with the incoming opening of Hudson Yards — and some people are very, very unhappy with how things are shaping up.
In Los Angeles communities like Inglewood, some of the most important questions about retaining diversity and including longstanding residents of color aren’t even being asked. Speculation is driving rents and home costs to impossibly high levels, and locals and restaurants are being left in the lurch about their own futures.
There are few easy answers and even fewer inexpensive fixes to issues like gentrification, redlining, and demands for equal access, whether perceived or codified. The answers get even murkier when residents in places like Pacific Palisades actively support the developments to their neighborhood.
Rick Caruso, the billionaire, and Caruso, the company, are not singularly to blame for the stratification of major urban centers — and Caruso himself has pledged millions of dollars to a variety of local non-profits over the years, even sponsoring educations for children from South LA. But they do have a role to play in shaping the vision of Los Angeles to locals and outsiders alike, especially when retail centers like the Westfield Century City or the Grove or the Americana, home to more diverse restaurants like Din Tai Fung and Tsujita, draw in tens of millions of annual visitors. The same is true for the backers of projects like the Row in Downtown or the At Mateo property, which just landed an LA outpost of Chicago’s famed Girl & the Goat restaurant.
So with the official arrival of Palisades Village in place, the question is: What obligations do billionaires like Rick Caruso or Jeff Bezos (or companies like CIM Group) have to inclusively define and shape the cities they live in and curate?
“Having everybody from Los Angeles feel welcome?” Caruso says, “Of course we want that.” But to design and build it, is something else entirely.
Update, September 27: In a follow-up email, reps for Caruso say that one of the partners (NYC-based Bowie Fu) of one of the Palisades Village restaurants — the Bromberg Brothers’ Blue Ribbon — is a person of color.
Palisades Village. 15225 Palisades Village Lane, Los Angeles, CA.