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Michael F. Harrah, the shrewd Newport Beach real-estate developer who is attempting to construct Orange County’s tallest building, was probably kicking himself when he awoke on July 20. The night before, Harrah had arrived at Santa Ana City Hall hoping to win City Council concessions that would allow him to begin construction of One Broadway Plaza, a proposed 37-story, 500,000-square-foot office building that could, if built, overtake Disneyland as the county’s most recognizable landmark.
City voters approved Harrah’s concept in a contentious 2005 election, but he was never able to meet the terms of the development agreement and now, to the immense frustration of community activists, wanted to delete five restrictions he claims kill the project. As it turned out, Harrah could have probably doubled his demands—even sought an official name change to Harrah’s Santa Ana City Hall—and won. In this lousy economy, do not underestimate the power of a wealthy businessman who is promising to produce 2,900 local construction jobs.
Harrah—a tall, hefty man with a long, triangular gray beard and small eyes on a ruddy face—didn’t come alone. Working in conjunction with Los Angeles and Orange County union bosses, he stood outside (no expensive suit, just jeans and a simple button-down shirt) before the council’s public hearing. He was surrounded by more than 60 dying-for-jobs union workers who’d come to hail him and his project as something close to a miracle. It quickly turned into a pep rally, with a jovial Harrah providing his mostly post-middle-aged, T-shirt-wearing disciples pre-session instructions.
“Tell them you want this project here!” he said. “Tell them you need a job!”
The crowd cheered when Harrah predicted that construction on his project would begin in November and take 30 months to complete.
With the perfect timing of a veteran comedian, he then declared in a rising voice, “The jobs on it will be all union, of course!”
Thunderous applause erupted.
Imagine that. The wealthy developer known to abhor labor-union participation in previous projects was suddenly the male version of Sally Field in Norma Rae. Perhaps even more remarkable: This scene was taking place in the heart of ultra-conservative, rabidly anti-union Orange County.
Of course, for many OC Republicans, Santa Ana is an embarrassment, a place continuously derided for its massive Mexican-immigrant population. In all of the county’s 34 cities, real-estate developers assume superhuman status. But Santa Ana is the only one with an all-Democrat, all-Latino, all-pro-union city council, a fact that didn’t escape Harrah’s notice.
One Broadway Plaza opponents—alarmed about future traffic jams the building will no doubt cause; the jumbo scale of the project in a quaint, historic area; and the possibility of Harrah eventually grabbing public subsidies—didn’t have a chance.
Even Art Pedroza, owner of Orange Juice blog and one of the project’s most vociferous original critics, switched sides. At the meeting, Pedroza called Harrah’s wishes “reasonable” and said his old allies were spewing “bogus BS.” He called on the council to make more concessions.
When Catherine Cate, a longtime unswerving critic of the project, mocked Harrah’s newfound pro-union stance, union members hissed. A stern Cate then lectured the four of seven council members present on the absurdity of Harrah thinking he can fill his building with tenants when similar luxury buildings in downtown LA are “25 percent empty” because “the days of high-flying corporate expenses are over.”
The council members stared blankly at her as if they were already dreaming of occupying a prized table in Harrah’s future top-floor restaurant or enjoying a ride in the multimillionaire’s private jet.
Sure enough, when it was time for the council members to speak, they accomplished a Herculean task: They made the affections of 30-some union speakers appear tepid.
A watery-eyed Sal Tinajero compared Harrah to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Depression-era construction of the Hoover Dam in Nevada. “Mike Harrah has the guts to never give up on his dream,” he said.
Union workers erupted with applause again.
Vincent F. Sarmiento said he feared being part of a city council that history recorded as failing to cooperate with Harrah.
Perhaps sensing the need for a bit of restraint, Claudia Alvarez, a prosecutor by day, called the project’s opponents “naysayers” before tersely reassuring everyone that “Mr. Harrah doesn’t always get what he wants.”
If anyone had a bigger smile on his face than Harrah, it was Mayor Miguel Pulido, the developer’s longtime pal—some would say glorified gofer. “It’s going to be a gorgeous, gorgeous building,” Pulido said. “Other developers are going to look at the city differently.”
Pulido is right. Except it won’t just be developers looking at Santa Ana differently. If Harrah succeeds, the county’s landscape will change for everyone. In an area devoid of even a tiny hill, a giant, shiny, 500-foot glass-and-steel edifice will climb to the sky about 20 stories taller than anything else this side of downtown LA.
That thought delights Harrah.
“Hey, I’ve put a lot of work into this project,” he told me. “I think it’s about time we got it built.”
Now, Harrah—who also owns Original Mike’s restaurant in Santa Ana and is already landlord to numerous government agencies, including the district attorney—is free to build. He is no longer restrained by the need to lease 50 percent of the building before beginning construction. He can bring on silent financial partners without city interference. He can be tardy reimbursing taxpayers for collateral public costs his projects will cause.
But Harrah doesn’t have a cutthroat reputation among his office tenants for nothing. Another city concession could loom large. To help win in 2005, Harrah championed the idea that no tax dollars would be used for this project. The point was even written into the developer agreement. Now, he is no longer banned from seeking public assistance from a city in the midst of a massive budget crisis.
Pulido—the most pro-corporate Democrat you’ll ever meet—and his council colleagues approved of the change but pretended it was meaningless.
With all the sincerity he could muster, the mayor declared, “It doesn’t make sense to use public money for [the project]” before voting to allow Harrah to seek taxpayer funding from the city.
Toward the back of the public-seating section sat Harrah, still surrounded by union workers, who obviously didn’t care who funds the project. Pulido’s assurances put a smile on his face, and he nodded in agreement. Perhaps better than anyone, he knows the mayor’s words don’t trump their bond.
This column appeared in print as "Boss Harrah: Santa Ana sends a message to One Broadway Plaza’s developer: Anything you say, sir."