Viewpoints

To get things done in California, listen more than you talk

You can credit developer Nelson Rising for Los Angeles’ Library Tower, which had been the the tallest building in California until last year. It has now been surpassed by the new Wilshire Grand Center.
You can credit developer Nelson Rising for Los Angeles’ Library Tower, which had been the the tallest building in California until last year. It has now been surpassed by the new Wilshire Grand Center. Sun-Sentinel file

What do we do now, Nelson Rising?

I pose that question not just because no Californian is better than Nelson Rising – developer, lawyer, civic leader – at navigating our state’s complexities.

“What do we do now?” is also the question that concludes the 1972 film “The Candidate,” in which Robert Redford plays an idealistic U.S. Senate candidate corrupted by the campaign. Rising, who ran John Tunney’s 1970 U.S. Senate campaign, was a producer. When Redford wins unexpectedly, he plaintively asks his campaign manager, “What do we do now?” The manager has no answer.

Fortunately, Rising, 75, has some reassuring answers about today’s California. And if you don’t know the name Nelson Rising, don’t worry – that’s the point.

Rising’s story is about all the big things you can get done in California if you’re willing to listen more than you talk, and don’t care much about credit.

Rising has done more big things than can fit in a short column. You could start with downtown L.A.’s Library Tower, long the tallest building in the state (it’s now being surpassed by the new Wilshire Grand Center). You could throw in Playa Vista (the heart of L.A.’s Silicon Beach), and add San Francisco’s Mission Bay, the largest mixed-use development in that city’s history.

But you’d be leaving out major developments like the mixed-use Santa Fe towers in San Diego and Orange County’s planned community, Coto de Caza. (“He is to blame for The Real Housewives of Orange County,” says Rising’s son Chris.) And buildings are only part of the legacy. Rising managed the campaign of Tom Bradley, L.A.’s transformational mayor, and during a Northern California stint, chaired the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Bay Area Council.

Rising’s career stands as a rejoinder to the maddening conventional wisdom of today’s California: That you can’t do big things because our state is too complicated and expensive. Any big project requires dealing with too many different constituencies. Who has time to talk with everyone, much less accommodate all the stakeholders?

Rising makes time.

Rising says that if you’re willing to talk with everybody and to accommodate every opponent, you can still accomplish great things. That’s not conventional wisdom today, when contests are often about rallying one’s base of supporters while discouraging one’s opponents.

“I enjoy communication, and the best part of communication is listening,” says Rising, adding: “I always start the conversation by asking, ‘What’s your concern? Why don’t you want me to do this development? And if I can figure out a way to solve your concern, will you be supportive of it?’ 

Such modesty makes Rising the polar opposite of the real estate developer in the White House. Rising’s parents never attended college; he went from Glendale to UCLA on scholarship. He’s been married to the same woman for 53 years.

Embracing conversation and complexity explain Rising’s other successes. He made the Library Tower happen via a complicated swap of air rights between the project and L.A.’s Central Library. To win support for Playa Vista, he met with skeptical Westchester homeowners in their living rooms.

In San Francisco’s Mission Bay, Rising, then CEO of Catellus, took over a troubled development and satisfied local concerns with affordable housing and a 43-acre donation to UC San Francisco. The development was ultimately approved without opposition or environmental litigation. San Francisco even named a Mission Bay street after the L.A. developer – Nelson Rising Lane.

Today, Rising and his son focus on remaking older buildings so they produce less carbon and incorporate technology. The firm is working in L.A., San Diego and San Francisco (and eyeing Sacramento). He’s bullish on California.

“The state’s economy is poised to keep exceeding the country,” he says.

So what do we do now, California? We follow Rising’s singular example: Listen to each other – and recommit to doing big things that endure.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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