This second-gen developer’s campaign for LA mayor built around end to commercial zoning

Luzzatto also lays out big ideas on Crenshaw Plaza, homelessness in bid for traction in field of political pros

Los Angeles /
Nov.November 15, 2021 09:25 AM
Asher Luzzatto (Asher for Mayor)

A local real estate investor and developer who has focused on the increasingly vibrant West Adams district of Los Angeles now has his sights set on City Hall.

His platform so far puts an emphasis on creativity, with a call to get rid of all commercial zoning, for starters.

Asher Luzzatto, president of Fairfax-based development and investment firm Luzzatto Company, starts his recently announced campaign nearly from scratch on name recognition. Voters in the nation’s second-largest city will narrow the race to two candidates in a primary election that’s less than seven months away, with a final runoff set for next November.

Luzzatto is using his real estate experience –– he’s a lawyer with a specialty in the industry as well as a second-generation developer –– as a proxy of sorts as his stump speech takes shape.

Luzzatto Company “has been ahead of the curve with creative office space, and I have a pretty good sense of where things are going,” Luzzatto told The Real Deal.

He plans to fund his campaign largely on his own, likely able to make significant personal contributions as a key executive in the family business. Luzzatto Company is a 14-year-old family investment firm that has worked on a number of major creative office and mixed-use developments, including the 80,000-square-foot Expo Station in Santa Monica that is fully leased to University of Southern California’s cancer treatment center. The company currently is working on a 94,100-square-foot office in West Adams, which is set to be the future headquarters of fast casual salad chain Sweetgreen.

Insider cred

Whatever money he raises–whether from himself, friends and family or the general public–will go toward getting attention for his unorthodox and ambitious ideas for changing Los Angeles through redevelopment.

Dubbing himself a political outsider, Luzzatto says he has a different and crucial perspective of Los Angeles. It’s a point of view that has come into focus through his work with industry insiders, including fellow developers, architects, project managers, and construction workers whose skills and trades shape the cityscape.

Luzzatto Company, which he runs with his father, Marc Luzzato, recently secured $54.7 million in financing from Bank OZK to build a 1.5-acre creative office campus in West Adams. Bank OZK’s head of originations, Aram Zakian, in a statement, called Luzzatto Company a “dominant force in the development of the West Adams micro market.”

Outsider perspective

It wasn’t a straight line to West Adams for Luzzatto, who attended elite Holmby Hills private school Harvard-Westlake and went on to study communications and political science at UCLA. Another elite diploma followed–a law degree from the University of Chicago, where he was president of the school’s environmental law society.

He then secured a spot as an attorney at Pircher, Nichols & Meeks in Century City — a real estate-focused law firm that works on acquisitions, lending, leasing and other investment fund issues.

One thing that’s not on Luzzato’s resume — prior political office — is a point he’s emphasizing.

It will take “somebody from the outside” to change the way the city operates, Luzzatto said.

That part of his pitch holds the potential to appeal to voters’ frustrations with the status quo in Los Angeles, which includes homelessness that has reached the level of public health crisis against the backdrop of an FBI investigation of corruption at City Hall. Luzzatto’s outsider persona also doubles up as an effort to stake ground outside the Los Angeles’ political establishment, which has offered up a roster of incumbent politicians, including recently announced Rep. Karen Bass, seen by many as the favorite to win the primary and general election at this point.

Most of his policy proposals are related to housing and development, which points back to his experience outside politics as usual.

If elected, he wants to use his power as mayor to eliminate all commercial zoning — “you want to turn an office building into a production studio?” he said. “Fine.”

By getting rid of zoning, some of the red tape around redevelopment will be cleared, he said.

Professional and populist

Luzzatto is obviously comfortable pitching big ideas about zoning and codes to fellow real estate pro, who know the terms like a second language.

“I know people in every part of the industry — that’s our world, that’s our network,” he said.

He sounds more like a populist when it comes to proposals that resonate in everyday terms and a sense of immediacy.

Luzzatto also wants to pump millions into redeveloping areas of South Los Angeles around Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. It’s a plank in his platform that may strike a chord with the Black community, where political activists have been fighting over the redevelopment of the mall, arguing a developer’s takeover will lead to unwanted gentrification and force local businesses out of the area.

Luzzatto’s solution? The city should take ownership of the retail center through eminent domain and invest $588 million — the same amount that’s been dedicated to the 6th Street Bridge that’s nearing completion to replace an aging span over the Los Angeles River –in programs to aid Black and Hispanic-owned businesses and art along a portion of Crenshaw Boulevard.

The construction of the new 6th Street Bridge — which connects Downtown Los Angeles to the city’s largely Latino-American Eastside — was the central point of a project that grew to include various public art, park space and additions and improvements to infrastructure in the area.

If the city could make it work for a bridge they can do it for Crenshaw Boulevard, he said.

Flashpoint

The Crenshaw district, southwest of Downtown, has been roiled by various plans for its namesake mall. Earlier this year, local developer Harridge Development Group bought the 42-acre center and an adjacent Macy’s department store for around $141 million.

The deal came after criticism from the community scrapped two other deals seen as squelching the voices of local and longtime stakeholders on the future of a keystone of the area’s future.

Luzzato hopes to win over votes with his plan to turn the Macy’s building next to the mall into the first Black owned and operated film studio on the West Coast–a notion that dovetails with a recent red-hot market for production space throughout the city and in various suburban markets. He also wants to build schools and libraries for Black communities and invest in Black-owned businesses to allow them to open up stores along the street. Luzzatto has already thought of funding — “we want to reduce the police budget by around 5 percent.” Some of that will also go towards rent control of units in the neighborhood.

Luzzatto’s plan isn’t all that different from activist group Downtown Crenshaw, which put in a $100 million bid to buy the 40-acre mall site, and has pushed for redevelopment. Luzzatto’s plan differs at a basic level, with an eye on putting the property under city control while Downtown Crenshaw’s wants ownership by a Black-led community group.

Representatives of Downtown Crenshaw could not be reached for comment on Luzzatto’s plan or his candidacy.

Industrious approach on homelessness

To address California’s housing crisis, Luzzatto also has a couple of ideas that draw on the market more than wonkish white papers. He wants to start off building more homeless shelters by converting vacant or underutilized industrial space. He said he’s already drawn up spec plans, noting that sticking to industrial areas will let development “avoid the NIMBYs” who often scuttle proposals for emergency shelter and permanent housing projects to address homelessness.

The notion of converting space in the red-hot industrial market into homeless shelters might sound out of whack from a supply-and-demand perspective, but there’s more to it when viewed granularly. Los Angeles does have many industrial buildings that are outdated, with ceilings too low and loading docks insufficient for the sort of efficiencies manufacturers and distributors seek these days.

Luzzatto also said the city should legalize co-living and allow any person with an empty room to rent it out. He also wants to require state pension funds to invest in affordable housing in Los Angeles, although that idea–like the proposal to do away with commercial zoning–has been offered with few specifics on how he would make it happen.

Putting some meat on the bone of his big ideas will likely take a back seat to the need for Luzzatto to become known amid a pool of already-known challengers.

The roster of political pros includes Bass, Los Angeles City Council members Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León, and Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, the only candidate who has already won a citywide office. Mall developer, billionaire and perennial possibility Rick Caruso has expressed interest in running. Jessica Lall, the CEO of the Downtown-based nonprofit Central City Association, is likely to challenge Luzzatto in the real estate lane of the campaign, although as an advocate rather than an industry executive. San Fernando Valley businessman and realtor Mel Wilson and Encino-based entrepreneur Ramit Varma have also announced their candidacies.





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