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By Gustavo Arellano
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Bisno As Usual
Controversial developer brings his grease-a-palm politics to Santa Ana
It takes quite the developer to provoke a march on City Hall, but that's exactly what happened last month in Baldwin Park. On a crisp Saturday morning, about a dozen activists fanned across the downtown of this working-class, largely Latino city in the San Gabriel Valley. They visited businesses and talked to pedestrians, warning everyone who'd listen about Los Angeles businessman Robert Bisno, who's trying to convince city officials and residents—through breakfasts and campaign donations—to help him redevelop approximately 125 acres of Baldwin Park through eminent domain.
Those Baldwin Park residents have the same message for Santa Ana residents: Beware of Bisno.
The self-proclaimed "Downtown Orange County" faces its own development controversies, as lofts, condo towers and offices sprout across the city and planners seek to launch an ambitious redevelopment project in Santa Ana's core later this year. Far from those battles stands City Place, a nearly completed Bisno project across the street from Santa Ana MainPlace Mall that includes live/work lofts and chain businesses such as Pinkberry and Corner Bakery. If Bisno has his way, construction of a 27-story residential tower next to City Place will begin at the end of 2008.
The proposed City Place Sky Lofts hasn't even reached the city's Planning Commission for discussion, but Bisno already notched a Santa Ana victory this year. On Feb. 5, Santa Ana voters passed Measure D, an initiative that sought to extend term limits for the city's council members from two four-year terms to three. Supporters (among them mayor Miguel Pulido and council member Sal Tinajero) pitched the measure to Santa Ana voters via robo-calls, mailers and ballot statements as seeking to keep away "developers" and "special interests" from the city's political process.
Measure D's largest single backer? Bisno, to the tune of $40,000.
Tossing around money to politicians is old sport for Bisno, whose website boasts he "specializes in entitling and developing locations where others either will not or cannot." Last year alone, according to public records, Bisno Development LLC paid lobbyists $270,000 to butter up Los Angeles council members about projects in San Pedro and Sherman Oaks; one of those lobbyists is former Los Angeles council member Rudy Svorinich, who represented the San Pedro area earlier this decade. Bisno also donated heavily to last year's Baldwin Park City Council race, giving $5,000 to current council member Robert Pacheco and forming Friends of Baldwin Park, a PAC launched to print negative mailers about anti-Bisno candidates.
In Dallas, Bisno convinced that city council in 2006 to give him a $15 million subsidy to turn a historic building into apartments. "I don't believe the project can go forward without the subsidy," Bisno told the Dallas Morning News at the time. And in 2003, Bisno and his business partners donated $10,000 to Fresno-area George Radanovich's congressional campaign after he allowed Bisno to testify before the Subcommittee on National Parks (which Radanovich then chaired). Bisno's business before the committee? He wanted them to change the nomination process for listing a building in the National Register of Historic Places—after tenants of a Venice apartment complex Bisno owned attempted such a move so he couldn't tear it down.
Bisno has yet to stir as much controversy in Santa Ana, but only because he keeps a lower profile. Nevertheless, he has a friend in City Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez. She was the main beneficiary of Measure D, since Alvarez was the only current council member who would have been termed out under Santa Ana's old rules. In addition to his Measure D contributions, Bisno, his employees and their spouses donated nearly $83,000 to Alvarez's unsuccessful 2006 California Assembly race in the form of individual contributions and donations to PACs that published pro-Alvarez campaign material. And two years before that, Bisno and pals donated almost $28,000 to another failed Alvarez-for-Assembly campaign. (Alvarez didn't respond to an interview request by press time.)
The timing of the earlier donations stopped Alvarez in 2005 from voting on Bisno's City Place development (see "A Questionable Transaction," Jan. 20, 2005), but Santa Ana activists fear Bisno will use his Measure D support to press for city favors—like approval of the City Place Sky Lofts. "One has to wonder what Bisno is getting in return for his generous donations to Santa Ana City Council candidates and to the recent Measure D campaign," says Art Pedroza, a longtime Santa Ana politico who runs the popular Orange Juice! blog and was involved in the No on Measure D campaign.
Bisno did not return phone and e-mail requests for an interview for this story.