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USC trustee cites the importance of creating connections in LA

Rick Caruso reflects on building a ‘sense of place’ throughout the city

USC Trustee Rick Caruso with Price Dean Jack Knott.
USC Trustee Rick Caruso with USC Price Dean Jack H.Knott. (Photo/Tom Queally)

Rick Caruso ’80 creates commercial venues with a sense of community. His iconic Southern California institutions, The Grove and The Americana at Brand, are mini-neighborhoods complete with outdoor play areas, trolleys, shopping, restaurants, entertainment and residential properties.

These accomplishments made him an ideal candidate to open the USC Price School of Public Policy’s 2014-15 Dean’s Speaker Series, which focuses on the future of Los Angeles as the Great American City.

USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott opened the event, held at The Grove, by explaining the objective of the series and noting the school’s expertise in the many diverse interconnected areas important to a city, including governance, health care, transportation, nonprofits and urban development.

“By exploring the challenges and opportunities facing American cities today, we hope to facilitate discussions about the development, sustainability and growth of what makes cities great,” Knott said. “We seek to influence the development of more livable and dynamic metropolitan areas that have economic growth and opportunity, culture and creation, healthy living and a distinct sense of community for the residents.”

Community first and foremost

Caruso, the founder and CEO of Caruso Affiliated, one of the largest privately held real-estate companies in the United States, earned a bachelor’s degree from USC. He serves on the Board of Trustees for the university and USC Price’s Board of Councilors. His oldest son, Alex Caruso, graduated from USC Price.

Caruso built The Grove and The Americana as community gathering places first and foremost. His development philosophy centers on creating an environment that fosters connection.

“As you go through and look at the projects I built as I started building the company,” Caruso said, “you’ll see the evolution of the thinking of the size of the plazas, the landscaping and the fountain, and all of that. But it was all around the sense of creating community, the sense of creating connection.

“We [didn’t] want to build a shopping center,” he added. “We [wanted] to build a great place … a place where people just want to come and hang out. And then, we believe strongly that when they do that, they’re going to end up shopping with us, dining with us and catching a movie. So it’s all about creating this sense of place.”

The Grove opened only a few months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which Caruso said he believed created a fundamental shift in the way people wanted to live. For decades, people were sprawling out to the suburbs, wanting to have their own space. The attacks brought people closer together, he noted.

“We were attacked on our soil,” Caruso said. “It shook us to the core, that all of a sudden knowing your neighbor, a sense of community and being around people became important. I think here’s this internal urge to reconnect, so neighborhoods become more important, and there’s a vibrancy to them.”

Vibrant neighborhoods

With The Grove, Caruso showed that shopping malls could be a central part of these new vibrant neighborhoods as walkable, outdoor gathering places. His newest idea to improve The Grove is to extend the property’s currently self-contained trolley to connect to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art less than a mile away.

The city has got to start celebrating and supporting neighborhoods because that’s the way people want to live.

Rick Caruso

“Every great city has a street car,” he said, pointing out how LA enjoys “the best weather in the United States.”

Given how Los Angeles is composed of many diverse parts, Caruso felt it would be beneficial for the city’s development to relax the standardization of regulations.

“The city has got to start celebrating and supporting neighborhoods because that’s the way people want to live,” Caruso said. “I think people want to live, shop, work, socialize and raise their family relatively close to home.”

Knott explained that in the past 15 years, the amount of people living in Los Angeles has increased by more than a million, yet there are 50,000 fewer jobs.

“We’ve got to create jobs and encourage businesses to come here,” Caruso said.

After graduating from USC and the Pepperdine School of Law, Caruso worked for the city of Los Angeles as the youngest commissioner of the LA Department of Water and Power. He advised today’s college students to get that public sector experience even if they ultimately want to venture into the private field.

“I got to see how the government worked,” Caruso said. “It broadens your world and makes you not only a better person but a better business person because you have better perspective and balance.

“As a business person you’re only going to get better if you get involved in civic affairs from a government standpoint,” he added, “so you learn how the government thinks, which is completely different from the way you’re going to think, and also to be involved in parts of the city that really need help.”

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USC trustee cites the importance of creating connections in LA

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