Meet Shaheen Sadeghi, the LAB Man

In his his quest to hipsterize OC retail, Shaheen Sadeghi has built quirkily beautiful properties and gained more than a few critics

Meet Shaheen Sadeghi, the LAB Man

*This article was altered on Dec. 20, 2011.

Shaheen Sadeghi is a retail developer, though a more accurate job title might be Curator of Cool.

He sits on a plush, lime chair in his glass-encased office at Costa Mesa's LAB Holding headquarters, an incubator of urban-mod eye candy that would have Jonathan Adler taking notes. In the front lobby, a glossy bubble swing hangs from the ceiling, hovering over an AstroTurf rug, upon which sprouts a pair of cheery, floral-patterned pouf cubes. The stylishly dressed woman answering the phones is not the receptionist, but, as her nameplate indicates, the "sociologist." Above her, a red-and-fuschsia Pop Art portrait of John Lennon reminds you to imagine.

Shaheen Sadeghi at the Lab Anti-Mall in Costa Mesa
Brandon Showers
Shaheen Sadeghi at the Lab Anti-Mall in Costa Mesa
The Lab was designed by Sadeghi, with help from New York-based architecture firm Pompei A.D.
Brandon Showers
The Lab was designed by Sadeghi, with help from New York-based architecture firm Pompei A.D.

Wearing a catalog-crisp navy sweater, dark cuffed jeans and a bright-orange watch, Sadeghi leans over a coffee table that brims with art and photography books and flips though images of vintage storefronts. Exposed red brick. Hand-painted window promotions. Straightforward signage. "Look at this," he says, grinning. "It's called 'Good Stores.' I love the simplicity."

All of it sets the vibe for his latest extreme building makeover: the overhaul of Center Street in downtown Anaheim. In the coming months, the palm-tree-lined, marble-and-teal shopping plaza recently vacated by a jewelry-repair shop, discount-clothing boutique and travel agency promoting cruise vacations will be transformed into a 1940s-themed destination hub, packed with meticulously conceptualized shops that nod to the city's past.

"I call it 'hip blue-collar,'" says the round-faced, gray-haired chief executive, his voice serene, his manner mild. "We want to recapture some of the essence that made downtown Anaheim what it was. Bring back the old-fashioned coffee shop. Put in a bakery, a florist. We want to get a men's barbershop in there. If we can't find one, we'll build one."

The facelift accompanies another project just a few blocks down. Sadeghi's team is turning the city's long-downtrodden, 92-year-old, 42,000-square-foot Sunkist Packing House at Anaheim Boulevard and Santa Ana Street into a gourmet food hall. When doors open sometime next summer, the cavernous, sunlit space will house 25 stations serving everything from wood-fired pizza to gelato. There'll be communal tables, patio seating in the form of railroad cars, movie screenings and live music, as well as an adjacent farmers' market featuring food trucks, locally grown produce, and artisanal breads and cheeses. "Everybody is absolutely out of their minds," says Kevin Kidney, vice president of the Anaheim Historical Society. "The other night, we were drinking beers over at the Anaheim Brewery across the way, and the lights turned on. It looked like a big cruise ship out in the ocean."

While he may lack the notoriety of Segerstrom, Harrah or Bren, 57-year-old Sadeghi is often described as a "visionary" in developers' circles, a maverick who is making Orange County less Orange County with ideas that snarl in the face of the ubiquitous beige-stucco shopping center. His original "anti-malls," the Lab and the Camp in Costa Mesa, reign as hipster meccas, drawing flocks of young urbanites who recycle and eat vegan and refuse to buy sweaters in bulk at the Gap. He's an evangelist for retail localization, dubbing his projects "love centers" and giving public talks titled "Culture Is the New Currency."

"It's no longer about taking the shopping cart and throwing stuff in it," he declared from a stage as a speaker at TEDxFullerton last year. "People are looking for content in their lives." His mantra for today's consumer: "I'm not a demographic. I'm not a number. I'm not a statistic. I'm not a bar code. I am a human being."

But in the business of consumer connection, Sadeghi has built a legion of foes, including current, former and prospective tenants and even city leaders—some of whom he has battled in court. "Shaheen is not out to enhance the community—he's out for Shaheen, period," says Joe Liburdi, whose Liburdi's Scuba Center occupied a space in the Camp from its grand opening in 2002 to 2008. "He's the most terrible landlord I've ever encountered."

Sadeghi has been accused of luring inexperienced entrepreneurs into his retail centers, then pushing them out with outlandish fees and climbing rent. "People want to believe in his mission, but it's all a façade," says one anonymous tenant. "He'll make your business cool, but at what expense?"

One woman claims Sadeghi modeled the concept for a new store after her own when she decided to not sign a lease.

Statements from business owners who've worked with him, when interviewed for this story, were cautiously peppered with "off the record" in fear of retaliation or were purposely vague. "He is a savvy and a tough businessman if he wants to be," says Joe Ongie, one of the original owners of the Gypsy Den, a café and reading room that has been a Lab staple since 1994. Ongie breaks into laughter. "How diplomatic am I?"

For LAB Holding, the two Anaheim centers are the first projects to break ground since the Camp was unveiled. The past decade has been fraught with legal drama and disappointment for the development company, which has had a string of proposals and ventures squashed in Orange County and beyond. Sadeghi is currently suing San Clemente and Oregon's Portland Development Commission after his plans for revitalizing parts of those cities fell apart.

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