Photo by David KawashimaIrvine City Councilman and outspoken El Toro International Airport opponent Dave Christensen has a troubling relationship with Dallas-based Trammell Crow, one of the nation's largest developers and property managers. Troubling because he has accepted a gift, a campaign contribution and a personal loan from Trammell Crow's Irvine office chief, all while discussing and voting to approve two projects that would profoundly affect the company's Irvine holdings.
The trouble centers on Christensen's financial involvement with William H. Lane, managing director of Trammell Crow's Irvine office. Lane is one of Irvine's most powerful behind-the-scenes figures. A regular in the OC social scene, Lane has also contributed thousands of dollars to the GOP's right-wing Lincoln Club. Most recently, he has been part of Irvine's committee of business executives studying the possibility of building a "privately financed" football stadium on the city's portion of the now-closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
In December 1999, Christensen attended a Trammell Crow "Christmas Boat Party." Trammell Crow gave Christensen an invitation valued at $300. Two months later, Christensen, currently running for re-election to the City Council, accepted a $320 campaign contribution from Lane.
There's nothing illegal about Christensen accepting Lane's party invitation and campaign check. Had those two items been the extent of Christensen's personal financial involvement with Lane, Christensen would simply be another one of Orange County's numerous city council members who cozy up to the developers and business leaders that routinely do business with them.
But there was also the loan.
Christensen and Lane didn't return repeated phone calls for this story, but Christensen's state-mandated personal-disclosure forms filed in 1999 and 2000 illuminate a curious new aspect. According to the forms, sometime in 1998 Christensen took out a one-year loan from Lane for more than $10,000 at 20 percent interest. Christensen listed "automobile" as his security for the loan.
The state Political Reform Act clearly states that a personal loan constitutes an economic interest. The act also states that because of this relationship, an elected official cannot vote on any of a loaner's business within a year of paying off the loan.
But he seems to have done so on two occasions. The first occurred on Aug. 18, 1999, while Christensen's loan with Lane was still outstanding, according to the councilman's disclosure forms. On that day, Christensen and the 13-member Irvine Transportation Authority, in which he is also a member, voted unanimously to approve the Demonstration Guideway Project—a light rail line running through the Irvine Business Complex (IBC). That idea has since been scrapped, but the IBC is largely owned and managed by Trammell Crow.
The second vote occurred on June 13 of this year, and it concerned Trammell Crow's plans to build a 16-story, 308-room "super-luxury" Ritz-Carlton Hotel at its Park Place business and entertainment complex. Right now, the site is nothing more than a fenced-off dirt pile, but Trammell Crow hopes to open a $95 million hotel there in the fall of 2002, although initial schedules called for the opening a year earlier.
Touted by the company as "90 acres of prime real estate in the heart of Orange County," Park Place is actually the most badly designed parcel in Irvine. Getting in and out of the center is difficult and time consuming, as it's squeezed into a corner between Jamboree Road and the 405 freeway, next to the old Fluor Corp. headquarters. Access in and out of the complex is restricted to adjacent Michelson Drive. Already a natural bottleneck, the area's traffic will no doubt get worse once the Ritz-Carlton goes in.
And that was the issue before the Irvine City Council in June. A decade ago, Trammell Crow agreed to a city-imposed conditional-use permit concerning the construction of a hotel at the Park Place site. That permit, based on a traffic study done at the time, requires the company to pay for an additional two lanes on Michelson to handle increased traffic from the hotel. Jim Eldridge, Irvine's public works director, said the additional lanes would cost $800,000 to $1 million. Other officials close to the hotel issue say the figure is closer to $2 million.
But in the spring, Trammell Crow, represented by Lane, began lobbying the city to have the conditional-use permit tossed, arguing that the original traffic study was obsolete. While it's critical for companies to abide by such permits, Trammell Crow's argument that the original permit is out of date has some merit. Last year, Fluor Corp. pulled out of Park Place and moved to Aliso Viejo. Although other tenants have since moved in, 100,000 square feet remain vacant.
One of the company's biggest defenders has been Christensen. Regardless of the validity of their claims, however, his involvement in the dispute raises serious questions.
"Christensen started carrying Trammell Crow's water for them big time," said one city official close to the issue. "He was pressuring city staff, telling them there was no condition on the company. To their credit, staff insisted that the city can't simply go back and change conditional-use permits."
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The June 13 vote was over a new traffic study to determine if any additional lanes on Michelson were necessary. Council meeting minutes show the vote, moved by Christensen, passed unanimously. The new study may conclude that Trammell Crow won't have to fund new lanes.
The Trammell Crow connection isn't the only potential conflict plaguing Christensen. A compelling Aug. 10 Irvine World News article on Christensen detailed the councilman's tardy disclosure of tens of thousands of dollars' worth of corporate sponsorships for his car-racing team. Although Irvine companies such as Medix Ambulance, Travelland U.S.A. and the now-bankrupt Irvine Ice Arena bought the sponsorships from Christensen in 1998, he didn't disclose them on his Statements of Economic Interests forms until July 19, 2000.
"These race-team sponsors were mistakingly [sic] not included with my original filing," wrote Christensen on an amended form. "Please include them with the 1998 filing, as advised by the Irvine city attorney."
This controversy doesn't bode well for opponents of the county's plan to build an international airport at El Toro. For years, Christensen has been one of their most vocal friends. Like Huntington Beach Mayor Dave Garofalo, an outspoken airport proponent now hobbled by investigations of alleged conflicts of interest, Christensen risks tarnishing his political allies.