Donald Bren's Highway Robbery
You might guess that a person worth $12 billion or $15 billion and approaching his 80th birthday would have already bought everything he wanted: mansions, jets, cars, child-bearing women. But Donald Bren, Southern California's richest man and a person who is accustomed to getting his way even when he's wrong, so far hasn't been able to purchase his place in history. There is evidence this failure is annoying the real-estate-development baron.
In the past year, Bren summoned the Los Angeles Times to write a ridiculously superficial hagiography. Being the billionaire's historically most subservient newspaper, the Times dutifully complied with a Sunday spread more suited to the comics section, as I've previously opined (see "The Real Bren Legacy," Feb. 25).
And there is this: Who could doubt Bren's self-declared generous philanthropy—the man has made a movie touting his own generosity—after he was kind enough to supply the world with the exact words that should be used to describe his life?
Google "Donald Bren," and you'll see his PR handiwork appear on your computer screen. Most businessmen want to sell a product. Bren's advertisements sell him as a powerfully rich genius.
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"Donald Bren," the Google ad states in bold, underlined lettering. His name is followed by this list: "Chairman of the Irvine Co. Innovator. Entrepreneur. Investor."
The list is missing one important description, but it's not "Environmentalist." For two decades, the billionaire's PR department has tried to apply that label, too. Never mind that Bren has poured more concrete over Orange County than any person dead or alive.
Yet, at least in the Google realm, Bren uncharacteristically pared down his greatness.
Thomas Jefferson wasn't greedy, super-rich, cocky or the head of a corporation as Bren is. On Jefferson's tombstone are just three accomplishments: author of the Declaration of Independence, creator of this nation's first statute for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.
Jefferson must have felt his other deeds didn't need forced, cheap publicity. He didn't mention he was elected governor of Virginia, launched the world's best library, served as the nation's first secretary of state and twice won the presidency of the United States. Hell, he also skipped over a fact sure to excite Bren's real-estate-developer sensibilities: He doubled the size of the U.S.
There is one similarity between Bren and Jefferson. Both men used forms of slavery to build their fortunes while simultaneously espousing noble concepts. The nation's third president talked about liberty for all mankind but owned slaves who were forced to work on his plantation.
A few centuries later, the slaves Bren chooses aren't based on race, but rather occupation. He owns countless California politicians of both major political parties (and more than a handful of journalists). These slaves don't live on Bren's estate, but they are readily available whenever the baron wants the public entities to bow to his commands.
Do you recall when onetime California Attorney General Dan Lungren, long a Bren pawn, used his power to sanctify Bren's desire to bulldoze a key portion of a public road, Newport Coast Drive, so that the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) could build (without public compensation) a private thoroughfare, the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road?
Besides Bren, how many people do you know who can steal a road in broad daylight and have not just two of the state's biggest daily newspapers, but also every single politician in the region remain mum?
The altered road keeps out the riffraff with expensive tolls and feeds directly into Bren's crown jewel: the gated, guarded Newport Coast housing development, which at one point had a median home price of $2.7 million.
Indeed, the entire San Joaquin Hills Toll Road was one of the greatest public subsidies to a private individual in the history of California. The tale of Jack Nicholson's classic Chinatown has nothing on this buried crime story.
Surely, you're not going to tell me it was coincidence the toll road was built next to Bren's properties, a move with an impact that can only be summed up by a deafening cha-ching sound.
The billionaire got the politicians to sell the public on the notion the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road was being built for them—ostensibly to reduce traffic congestion on nearby OC freeways. In fact, the congestion is worse than ever, even though the road is now 16 years old. The road was also sold as the "world's model" for future transportation projects, though it was actually a financial sham involving Wall Street complicity from the outset. You wouldn't know it from all the glossy press releases from the TCA, but the road is a disaster.
Consider this indisputable fact: Revenue projections for the privatized road, deemed unassailable by local politicians when they were issued, are off by a whopping $347 million and getting worse by the day. Every year, the actual revenue gap increases, forcing continual bankruptcy worries from the inability to pay off its $2 billion debt.
Meanwhile, somebody made out like the cat that swallowed the canary. The road didn't just dramatically increase the value of Bren's adjacent land, but it also gave him the ability to launch new housing and commercial developments. New developments brought new traffic—also stuffing Bren's bank account.
In 1995, before the road opened, Forbes estimated Bren's net worth at $2 billion, which made him the 44th-richest American.
Today, with the toll road feeding his Newport Coast developments and his other relatively new businesses along the 73 corridor, his minimum personal net worth is now $12 billion. That's a massive $10 billion increase. Only 25 people in the nation have more money.
Bren certainly builds eye-pleasing properties. But he isn't a business genius such as Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos. His awesome skill is manipulating the government to quietly serve his whims, a dark talent that doesn't jibe with his conservative Republican stances.
In recent weeks, a spat emerged involving toll-road funding, John Wayne Airport, the TCA and Supervisor John Moorlach. Bureaucrats at the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road slapped huge, onerous developer fees on certain airport businesses. According to a news report, one business received a $100,000 bill. Moorlach suggested the TCA eat the fees because they are unfair.
Thomas Morgro, a TCA official, didn't appreciate that. Morgro suggested county taxpayers might want to pay the controversial developer fees for the private road.
I have a suggestion. Why doesn't Bren pay the money—estimated to be less than $2 million? He can easily afford it. He wanted the road more than anyone on the planet. He got it, and he profited mightily from it.
But if our richest billionaire continues to leave for the restroom when the bill arrives, he'll need to amend his four-point legacy to include a fifth description: ungrateful cheapskate.
This column appeared in print as "Highway Robbery: Donald Bren's role in creating the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road is the county's most embarrassing un-prosecuted crime."
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