The player: in the game of land rights, attorney George Mihlsten knows how to roll the dice—and win

The player: in the game of land rights, attorney George Mihlsten knows how to roll the dice—and win

Lewis MacAdams

PEOPLE ALWAYS WONDER WHAT IT IS EXACTLY that George Mihlsten does. He’s smart, but a lot of lawyers are smart. You wouldn’t call him a legal scholar. He rarely argues a case in court. He does everything he can to keep his cases from going to court. “I asked him when was the last time he wrote a brief, and he just laughed,” Steve Fleischli, the environmental attorney who directs the Santa Monica Bay Keeper, told me. George, as he’s almost universally known, is a land-use attorney at Latham & Watkins. Some people call him “the Facilitator,” because he’s so good at resolving conflicts that keep his clients’ projects from being built. “I always say he must’ve ranked number one in his law class in persuasiveness,” chuckles Ruth Lansford of Friends of the Ballona Wetlands.

Occasionally you see George outside the rope that separates the L.A. City Council from the pack of lobbyists waiting to buttonhole them when they come off the council floor. Most of the time he’ll be leaning against the back wall at a commission meeting or out in the lobby, a slender, cheerful 49-year-old with a beard going white and pale gray eyes that seem to change color with the light, wearing a charcoal pin-striped suit and tasseled loafers, greeting people in a faint Texas drawl: “What can I do for you, captain?”

Land is the essence of local politics. There’s only a handful of land-use attorneys in Los Angeles with major juice–that is, the persistence, the intelligence, the experience, and the connections it takes to navigate a megaproject through the maze of agencies and activists and regulators that stand in its way. Lisa Specht at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips; Ken Bley at Cox, Castle & Nicholson; and John Whitaker at Pillsbury Winthrop are three of the best known. But when you want to restore civic monuments like Union Station or the L.A. Coliseum, or get approval for the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center master plan, or develop the Staples Center or the Getty Center or Playa Vista in the Ballona Wetlands, you ring Latham & Watkins. And when you ring Latham & Watkins, you ask for George Mihlsten.

“If you want to shape policy in L.A. County and especially in the city, you hire Latham,” says veteran L.A. political consultant Rick Taylor. “They’re big and they’re bad,” agrees Fleischli. “Their litigation strategy is that they take no prisoners.” Among the nearly 50 lawyers at Latham who specialize in land use are real estate attorneys, finance attorneys, and litigators. A Latham land-use team typically consists of architects, civil engineers, planners (Latham keeps four on staff), media experts, and consultants with ties to every community within miles. Senior attorneys at Latham & Watkins bill $650 an hour–“and they always bring three other lawyers with them,” says one L.A. political operative who begged not to be named because of his company’s financial connections to the firm.

If the land-use group at Latham & Watkins were a football team, Mihlsten would be the quarterback. He can “take very complex ideas and tell a very understandable story,” says Bill Delvac, a Latham land-use attorney whom Mihlsten recruited. In other words, Mihlsten shapes a narrative that will be told again and again, at community meetings and public hearings, to the press, to everybody involved in the process of gathering support for a project.

Success, says Cindy Starrett, a former Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals clerk who now heads Latham’s land-use group, is not just a matter of knowing who to call. “We don’t persuade because we know how to dial the phone. We persuade because we’ve done our homework on the legal issues.” Even so, Latham attorneys permeate L.A.’s nonprofit and agency boards. Starrett, another Mihlsten protege, is a past president of the Central City Association, the most powerful downtown corporate voice. Delvac, who used to codirect the Historic Resources Group, which specializes in large-scale restoration projects on the order of the Rose Bowl and Gamble House, is president of the Hollywood Community Housing Corporation. Mihlsten himself is on the boards of Cedars-Sinai and Phoenix House, the large drug-treatment nonprofit. It goes without saying that Latham lawyers are workaholics. “If you weren’t smart and you weren’t driven,” Starrett shrugs, “you wouldn’t be at Latham.”

The hardest part of Mihlsten’s job, he says, is “the amount of time I don’t get to spend with my family.” He usually gets back to his home in Manhattan Beach between 9 and 10 p.m., hits the computer for an hour or two, then runs by the shore. By 6:45 a.m. he is back in his silver Lexus 400 for the drive downtown. “The reason George is visible,” Delvac points out, “is because he works hard at being visible. George will tell you: Information is power. You have to work to get that information.”

THE FROSTED GLASS, THE MUTED GRAYS, AND the burnished maples of the sleek 40th-floor Library Tower reception area at Latham & Watkins practically exhale understated power. From the floor-to-ceiling windows, downtown seems to recline at the firm’s feet. Latham & Watkins is the Johnny-come-lately of L.A.’s major law firms. In 1934, when founding partners Dana Latham and Paul Watkins flipped a coin to see whose name would go first, the history of the city and the law firms O’Melveny & Myers and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher had already long been intertwined.

When Mihlsten joined Latham & Watkins in 1980, the firm’s roster of 175 attorneys was dwarfed by O’Melveny’s and Gibson, Dunn’s platoons. Today with 1,500 lawyers in 21 offices from Moscow to Silicon Valley Latham is close to twice as large as either competitor and is one of the ten largest law firms in the country specializing in intellectual property, antitrust, and international mergers and acquisitions. Though the land-use group is only a small part of the firm’s business, it boasts one of Latham’s highest-profile lawyers, Clinton administration interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, who is “of counsel” to the firm.

Every time I’ve been in Mihlsten’s 45th-floor office it has been in a state of disarray all part of what he calls “massaging the process.” He works on the pile theory Each of his 25 or so projects has its own pile on the floor or his desk. The only hints of his status are a shelf of baseball caps with the names of nearly every major TV and movie studio in L.A., Glendale, and Burbank. Mihlsten has represented every one.

Mihlsten unfailingly downplays his own accomplishments, though he will admit–far too modestly I would say–that he has about a 70 percent success rate: “Ain’t nothin’ romantic about me. I’m just a poor Texas boy out here trying to get by.” He insists his success is simply “the manifestation of thousands of hours of work that other people put in.” Many people, however, will tell you that in the deal to build the Staples Center–a pact involving developers, the L.A. City Council, the Community Redevelopment Agency, dozens of landlords, tenant organizations, and neighborhood groups, the owners of the Lakers and the Clippers and necessitating buying the L.A. Kings out of bankruptcy–the one indispensable person was Mihlsten. In L.A., says Dan Rosenfeld of Urban Partners, the company developing the new Caltrans headquarters across from City Hall, “George is the go-to guy in deal making.”

Though they’ve probably never heard of him, Mihlsten is who people mean when they’re railing against the downtown power structure. Yet the only place where his contribution has been recognized is on a matchbook-sized plaque IN HONOR OF GEORGE MIHLSTEN that is screwed into the back of a stool at the Veranda Bar in the Casa del Mar hotel, which overlooks Santa Monica Beach. Mihlsten helped the bar get its liquor license. Generally speaking, Mihlsten doesn’t leave fingerprints. By the time a planning commission or a city council makes its decision, he long since left the room. “The best presentation a land-use lawyer can possibly make is `I agree with the staff report,'” Randy Stoke chuckles. Stoke, Mihlsten’s mentor at Latham & Watkins, is the dean of L.A. land-use attorneys, now retired to Del Mar to breed racehorses. “If you see something that works out and you don’t see George, well then, George has done a good job.”

Mihlsten and I have known each other for a decade, but we didn’t see each other for more than a year, because we were on opposite sides of a pair of lawsuits. In September 2000, Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), an organization I’ve long been involved with, and an alliance of 35 urban environmental, neighborhood, and social justice groups sued Majestic Realty to stop the company from putting up a million square feet of warehouses in the Cornfields, an old railroad yard between Chinatown and the river. Latham & Watkins represented Majestic, the largest industrial real estate developer in Southern California. In the case of the Taylor Railroad Yard a little ways upstream, FoLAR’s lawyers, Jan Chatten-Brown & Associates, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Anahuak Youth Soccer Association (represented by the Center for Law in the Public Interest), sued a Florida-based developer, Lennar Partners, to stop another warehouse project. After Lennar lost in court, it replaced its legal team with Latham & Watkins.

The way these lawsuits were settled is a perfect example of how Latham & Watkins works. First, attorneys for the Chinatown Yard Alliance blocked $i2 million in federal brownfield cleanup money from going to the developer to buy the land. Then we filed a state lawsuit demanding an environmental impact report. Finally we threatened them with legal weapons of mass destruction–a lawsuit based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act charging the developers and the city with discrimination in siting an industrial development in a neighborhood of color and poverty.

Latham & Watkins is well known for its conservative approach to its clients’ exposure. It doesn’t consider ending up in court a victory The firm has plenty of lawyers who can litigate an EIR lawsuit, but nobody knew how long it might take to argue this use of the Civil Rights Act up through the courts.

In all California history there has never been a park bond put on the ballot by a Republican governor. But with a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature, in 2000 California voters passed Proposition 12, which set aside funds for urban parkland for the first time. With Majestic Realty a now-willing seller, the state brought in the privately funded, San Francisco-based nonprofit the Trust for Public Land to appraise, negotiate, and buy the Cornfields, then flip it to the state. Mihlsten was then on a statewide advisory board of the Trust for Public Land. Latham’s client ended up with a fat profit for doing little but serve as the people’s punching bag, and the denizens of California gained 30 precious acres of almost-riverfront land in the heart of the city. Though the per-acre price was somewhat lower for 32 acres of the Taylor Yard, once the developers brought in Latham & Watkins, the process of getting the land into public hands was approximately the same.

To me, these were excellent outcomes, but they also confirmed Latham’s power. In the Cornfields and Taylor Yard, Mayor Richard Riordan and his business team (then headed by current city attorney Rocky Delgadillo) wanted the warehouses built, so the city’s environmental affairs and planning departments (and in the Cornfields case, its cultural heritage commission) rubber-stamped the projects. None of the negotiations that led to the settlements of the lawsuits went through the city of L.A. or any of its departments. It was as if Latham & Watkins had become an alternative form of city government.

One of the last conversations Mihlsten and I had before the alliance filed its lawsuit took place outside the regional planning commission hearing on the Cornfields. I ankled up to him and said, “Why don’t we just settle this now and save a lot of money for Majestic Realty and Friends of the Los Angeles River?” Mihlsten shrugged. “To you it’s a lot of money. To me it’s an annuity.” One of the reasons we’ve been able to stay friendly is that it’s never personal with Mihlsten. I’ve never seen him lose his temper, and I’ve never heard him say a mean word about anyone.

When we get together, we talk about power–who’s got it, how they got it, how it’s used. Usually he tries to keep his work and his life with his wife of 25 years, Nola, a psychologist who helped establish a child abuse program that was adopted by the LAUSD, and his three teenagers as separate as he can. “Most of my friends have nothing to do with what I do for a living,” he says. This is the first time he’s ever told me about his family His mother was a Jewish immigrant from Hitler’s Germany who got married soon after she landed in New York. She divorced not long after George, the youngest of her three children, was born, and moved to Houston with her kids. She got a job as a hairdresser at Mister John’s Beauty Parlor, and George never saw his father again. George grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Estella Link, an industrial suburb near where they later built the Astrodome. “I took my kids back there seven years ago to show ’em where I lived,” Mihlsten says, “and everything had been tom down.”

Though they were poor-“we lived on her 25-cent tips”–he says he had a very happy childhood. When he was in the sixth grade, he went to work racking bottles in a convenience store. His first car was a ’59 VW Bug that he bought for $300 and in the mid 1960s steered west, because “California was a pretty exotic place growing up.” After putting himself through USC business school, he hit the road for a couple of years, cooking on freighters, making doughnuts, pumping gas. In the early ’70s he was back in L.A., living in an old house in Rampart with about 30 other people, when it dawned on him that “making no money made no sense,” so he enrolled in USC law school. He’s had only one job since he graduated, at Latham & Watkins.

The firm’s original specialty was tax law. (Cofounder Dana Latham would go on to become the commissioner of internal revenue in both Eisenhower administrations.) When Randy Stoke went to work for Latham as a tax attorney in the mid 1950s, the label “land-use attorney” didn’t even exist. As a young lawyer, Stoke did the legal work that created the city of Irwindale out of ten square miles of rubble at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. After it was incorporated, Stoke stayed on as the city attorney He became active in the League of California Cities, where he attended to the fine points of politics and real estate. A land-use practice, as the field became known in the ’60s, was born, and Stoke would become Latham’s point person on some of the biggest deals of his time–the creation of Century City, the Warner Center, and the Getty Center. Mihlsten came to Latham intending to specialize in tax law; then he met Stoke.

In Stoke’s day land-use practice was mostly just a matter of lining up votes at the planning commission. Things changed dramatically, however, in 1987 with the “Friends of Westwood” decision, which essentially ended “by-right development,” that is to say, the inherent right to develop your property in any way you want. Almost overnight in L.A., the number of developments thrown into the political arena increased exponentially. “Ten years ago an environmental impact report might have been a hundred pages long. Today it’s 1,500,” says Mihlsten. “We’ve had EIRs that are 10,000 pages long.” I personally have never seen one remotely that long. Even the EIR for the bitterly contested Ahmanson Ranch just north of the Ventura–L.A. County line is only 4,000 pages–but the fear of a 10,000-page EIR continues to play right into Latham’s hands.

UNTIL THE FIRST HALTING efforts to channelize the Los Angeles River were made in the mid 1800s, major floods every century or so shifted the river’s course, sweeping across a vast floodplain between what is now Long Beach and Marina del Rey. The Ballona Wetlands was once a lush estuary at the confluence of the Los Angeles River, the Ballona, Walnut, and Centinela Creeks, and–when the winter tides breached the dunes of what is now Playa del Rey–Santa Monica Bay.

In 1900, sheep and cattle grazed on the 2,100 acres of wetlands, salt marsh, and prairie scrub. Howard Hughes bought the property in the 1930s to tinker with his experimental aircraft. You can still see the furrows where Japanese American farmers grew fava beans and ryegrass. When the L.A. River was paved in the late ’30s and ’40s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers channelized Ballona Creek, which deprived the wetlands of steady saltwater. The construction of Marina del Rey later reduced the wetlands by half. Including the Westchester bluffs on the south side of Ballona (owned by Catellus, another Latham & Watkins client), the drained and filled Ballona Wetlands of today consists of approximately 1,087 acres, 475 of them west of Lincoln Boulevard.

For many, the primal fact of the Ballona Wetlands is space. You feel like you can breathe there, contemplating the weather patterns as they slide east across the sky. The tidal gates that long kept Ballona Creek out of the wetlands have fallen into disrepair; a little water flows in and out, hinting at a wetlands rhythm absent for decades. A growing population of endangered Belding’s savanna sparrows nests in the salt marsh each April. California least terns commute by the thousands from Central and South America in the spring. Black-bellied plovers from the arctic winter here, alongside hundreds of willet from the plains of eastern Idaho and central Canada and hundreds of monarch butterflies. Yet as rich an ecology as Ballona is, it has proved to be a wasteland for would be developers, thanks in no small part to two very stubborn ladies.

Playa del Rey activists started hearing rumors that the Summa Corporation, heirs to Hughes’s estate, had big plans for the wetlands in the mid ’70s. By the time Summa announced, a few months after Hughes’s death in 1976, that it was going to develop the property, Ruth Lansford and her husband had already brought a few friends together in their living room to organize against the project. Summa’s dreams were enormous: a development stretching all the way from the San Diego Freeway to the ocean, with malls and high-rises, an 18-hole golf course, and a Marina causeway that would bisect the 72 acres of salt marsh that Summa promised to preserve.

For Lansford’s Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, it was an uphill struggle. Mayor Tom Bradley and Westside city councilperson Pat Russell both wanted the project built. Summa brought in Latham & Watkins, which convinced Republican governor George Deukmejian’s California Coastal Commission to green-light the development. In 1984, Friends of the Ballona Wetlands sued the coastal commission, stalling it long enough for project foe Ruth Galanter to take Russell’s city council seat. Summa saw the writing on the wall and in 1989 sold the land to Maguire Thomas Partners.

At the end of the ’80s, Maguire Thomas was riding high. Developers of the Library Tower and the beautiful Maguire Gardens on the west lawn of the Central Library, it had a reputation as one of L.A.’s most successful and progressive companies, and it came to Ballona as saviors. In 1990, Maguire Thomas agreed to preserve 341 acres of salt marsh, freshwater, riparian, and native terrestrial habitats and promised $13.5 million to help restore the salt marsh. In exchange, Friends of the Ballona Wetlands agreed to settle its lawsuit.

Marcia Hanscom first got involved with Ballona in 1995, when a private detective and environmental activist named Bruce Robert gave her a map of Maguire’s proposed project. “Once he showed me,” Hanscom remembers,” I was stunned.” There were plans for 13,000 residential units and 6 million square feet of commercial space, one of the largest developments in the history of Los Angeles. Hanscom, Robert, and a few friends formed the Wetlands Action Network, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to the protection and restoration of wetlands along the Pacific migratory pathways.” In 1996, the Wetlands Action Network and its allies filed their first lawsuits.

In the early 1990s, the Japanese business bubble, which had financed a string of downtown high-rises, burst. By 1997, the banks were threatening to bring Maguire Thomas down. Playa Capital, a partnership between investment bankers Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs and Westside deal maker Gary Winnick, stepped in and picked up Maguire Thomas’s notes. Though the partners labored mightily to build Playa Vista, the Wetlands Action Network beat back every attempt, filing at least a half-dozen lawsuits against the city, the state, and the federal government and even bringing an unfair business practices suit against Playa Capital itself.

Two years ago Playa Capital hired a new president, Steve Soboroff, a commercial real estate developer and landlord who chaired Mayor Riordan’s Recreation and Parks Commission before running for mayor in 2001. A bearlike optimist who sees himself as a problem solver, Soboroff claims Playa Capital hired him because of his training as a parks person. “I told them I wanted to do everything I could to work out a deal.” He quickly brought in Mihlsten as his chief negotiator.

Soboroff is effusive about Mihlsten. “Everything I ever worked with him on has worked! At the end of a meeting with most lawyers, they give you a list of problems. George gives you solutions and a battle plan. I don’t look at George as an attorney I look at him as a strategist.” “My job,” Mihlsten says, “is to get Playa Vista built, and to create a great park in Ballona Wetlands–to make a state purchase of the wetlands a reality.”

The first–and I believe the most important–thing Mihlsten did was provide a fresh narrative: Playa Vista and the Ballona Wetlands would become different places with different futures. The 539 acres between Lincoln Boulevard and the San Diego Freeway would become Playa Vista, 3.4 million square feet of office buildings and 5,846 new apartments and town houses, plus a library, community center, fire station, K-8 school, and a string of residential mini parks designed by Ed Schlossberg, Caroline Kennedy’s husband.

The 475 acres west of Lincoln Boulevard and east of Playa del Rey, along with 73 acres east of Lincoln along Ballona Creek already in state hands, would become the Ballona Wetlands, the property of all Californians. As people bought into his narrative, Mihlsten convened discussions between Latham & Watkins, representing Playa Capital, and the Trust for Public Land, representing the state of California. “George was out there talking to everybody, being proactive, keeping the lines of communication open,” says Reed Holderman, the Trust for Public Land’s western region director. As with the Cornfields, all lines of communication ran through the switchboard at Latham & Watkins.

Though neither party will confirm it, they settled on a price estimated to be between $100 million and $150 million for the first 193 acres west of Lincoln. How would the state of California pay for it? “As soon as Soboroff came on board,” Mihlsten explains, “we started planning Props. 40, 50, and 51.”

Mihlsten is no ideologue, but his politics veer sharply to the right. Nevertheless, he has “a lot of friends in office, obviously, on both sides of the aisle.” Former L.A. state assemblyman Richard Katz had already made sure there was $25 million in 2000’s Prop. 12 earmarked to buy land in Ballona. According to Mihlsten, Latham & Watkins worked closely with legislative staff to make sure last year’s Prop. 40 would provide even more money. During its latter stages, the Prop. 40 campaign was run out of the Sacramento-based offices of the Planning & Conservation League. In the last days of the campaign, Playa Capital and other developers came in with substantial donations that helped ensure its passage.

What had been a trickle of developer support for Prop. 40 became a flood with 2002’s Prop. 50, the largest water bond in the history of California. By far the most generous donor to the Prop. 50 campaign was Playa Capital, which threw in more than $800,000–and those were early dollars, which bankrolled the signature-gathering operation that got the proposition on the ballot. Proposition 50 passed by a mile. Between Props. 12, 40, and 50, Mihlsten says, there is now enough money for the state to buy all of the Ballona Wetlands and for Playa Capital to build its project. All of this has occurred, as far as I can tell, without the oversight or active leadership of a single elected city official or agency, just as happened with the Cornfields and Taylor Yard. Still, for greater L.A., indeed for all of Southern California, for the two-legged beings and the four-legged beings, the swimming ones and the flying ones, a prospective deal to buy the Ballona Wetlands seems like wonderful news.

LATHAM & WATKINS IS WORKing in a city that has a very thin civic culture. The tight white web of boosters and decision makers who ran L.A. for most of the 20th century is gone, and nothing has yet taken its place. I asked one of the most astute political observers I know what he thought of the situation, and he requested anonymity because of his own business dealings with the firm.

“We’ve diminished and underfunded the planning department,” he told me. “The best people have left for private practice. In fact, many of them are on retainer to Latham. Latham & Watkins say to the developer, `Here’s this unfathomable city, and I can get you through it. Get on my back and ride.'”

Not surprisingly, Mihlsten rejects that argument. “We’re not afraid of being adverse to the city,” he says. “It depends on what our clients need.” Latham sued the city on behalf of the House of Blues when it was trying to wrest the contract to run the Greek Theater from the Nederlander Organization, and the House of Blues lost. He says he’s in the middle of a pro bono suit against the city on behalf of “a little group of Jews that want to pray in Hancock Park” and need more space to do it in. “We sued the city when they refused to allow Phil Anschutz’s [oil] pipeline to proceed.”

I asked Reed Holderman of the Trust for Public Land if he’d run into any other situations in which a private law firm played such a prominent role in directing a city’s future. “In some places, the city itself does it,” Holderman said, sounding bemused. “In some places, planning departments do it. In L.A., I guess George does it.”

So what could be wrong with that?

Lewis MacAdams (“The Player,” page 70) is a poet, a journalist, and the founder of the environmental group Friends of the Los Angeles River. MacAdams’s book Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde was named one of the best nonfiction books of 2001 by the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He is currently working on a biography of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, to be published by Knopf.

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