The hardest part of Mihlsten's job, he says, is "the amount of time I don't get to spend with my family." He usually gets
back to his home in Manhattan Beach between 9 and 10 p.m., hits the computer for and hour or two, then runs by the
shore. By 6:45 a.m. he is back in his silver Lexus 400 for the drive downtown. "The reason George is visible," Delvac
points out, "is because he works hard at being visible. George will tell you: Information is power. You have to work to get
The frosted glass, the muted grays, and the burnished maples of the sleek 40th-floor Library Tower reception area at
Latham & Watkins practically exhale understated power. From the floor-to-ceiling windows, downtown seems to recline at
the firm's feet. Latham & Watkins is the Johnny-come-lately of L.A.'s major law firms. In 1934, when founding partners
Dana Latham and Paul Watkins flipped a coin to see whose name would go first, the history of the city and the law firms
O'Melveny & Myers and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher had already long been intertwined.
When Mihlsten joined Latham & Watkins in 1980, the firm's roster of 175 attorneys was dwarfed by O'Melveny's and Gibson
Dunn's platoons. Today, with 1,500 lawyers in 21 offices from Moscow to Silicon Valley, Latham is close to twice as large
as either competitor and is one of the ten largest law firms in the country specializing in intellectual property, anti-trust and
international mergers and acquisitions. Though the land-use group is only a small part of the firm's business, it boasts
one of Latham's highest-profile lawyers, Clinton administration interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, who is "of counsel" to the
Every time I've been in Mihlsten's 45th-floor office it has been in a state of disarray, all part of what he calls "massaging
the process." He works on the pile theory. Each of his 25 or so projects has its own pile on the floor or desk. The only
hints of his status are a shelf of baseball caps with the names of nearly very major TV and movie studio in L.A., Glendale,
and Burbank. Mihlsten has represented every one.
|Mihlsten unfailingly downplays his own accomplishments, though he will admit - far too modestly, I would say - that he has
about a 70 percent success rate: "Ain't nothing romantic about me. I'm just a poor Texas boy out here trying to get by." He
insists his success is simply "the manifestation of thousands of hours of work that other people put in." Many people,
however, will tell you that in the deal to build the Staples Center - a pact involving developers, the L.A. City Council, the
Community Redevelopment Agency, dozens of landlords, tenant organizations, and neighborhood groups, the owners of
the Lakers and the Clippers and necessitating buying the L.A. Kings out of bankruptcy - the one indispensable person was
Mihlsten. In L.A., says Dan Rosenfeld of Urban Partners, the company developing the new Caltrans headquarters across
from City Hall, "George is the go-to guy in deal making."
Though they've probably never heard of him, Mihlsten is who people mean when they're railing against the downtown
power structure. Yet the only place where his contribution has been recognized is on a matchbook-sized plaque,
IN HONOR OF GEORGE MIHLSTEN, that is screwed into the back of a stool at the Veranda Bar in the Casa del Mar hotel,
which overlooks Santa Monica Beach. Mihlsten helped the bar gets its liquor license. Generally speaking, Mihlsten
doesn't leave fingerprints. By the time a planning commission or a city council makes its decision, he's long since left the
room. "The best presentation a land-use lawyer can possibly make is 'I agree with the staff report,'" Randy Stoke chuckles.
Stoke, Mihlsten's mentor at Latham & Watkins, is the dean of L.A. land-use attorneys, now retired to Del Mar to breed
racehorses. "If you see something that works out and you don't see George, well then, George has done a good job."
Mihlsten and I have known each other for a decade, but we didn't see each other for more than a year, because we were on
opposite sides of a pair of lawsuits. In September, 2000, Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), an organization I've
long been involved with, and an alliance of 35 urban environmental, neighborhood, and social justice groups sued Majestic
Realty to stop the company from putting up a million square feet of warehouses in the Cornfields, an old railroad yard
between Chinatown and the river. Latham & Watkins represented Majestic, the largest industrial real estate developer in
Southern California. In the case of the Taylor Railroad Yard a little ways upstream, FoLAR's lawyers, Jan Chatten-Brown &
Associates, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Anahuak Youth Soccer Association (represented by
the Center for Law in the Public Interest), sued a Florida-based developer, Lennar Partners, to stop another warehouse
project. After Lennar lost in court, it replaced its legal team with Latham & Watkins.
The way these lawsuits were settled is a perfect example of how Latham & Watkins works. First, attorneys for the
Chinatown Yard Alliance blocked $12 million in federal brownfield cleanup money from going to the developer to buy the
land. Then we filed a state lawsuit demanding an environmental impact report. Finally, we threatened them with legal
weapons of mass destruction - a lawsuit based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act charging the developers and the city with
discrimination in siting an industrial development in a neighborhood of color and poverty.
Latham & Watkins is well known for its conservative approach to its clients' exposure. It doesn't consider ending up in
court a victory. The firm has plenty of lawyers who can litigate an EIR lawsuit, but nobody knew how long it might take to
argue this use of the Civil Rights Act up through the courts.
In all California history there has never been a park bond put on the ballot by a Republican governor. But with a Demo-
cratic legislature, in 2000 California voters passed Proposition 12, which set aside funds for urban parkland for the first
time. With Majestic Realty a now-willing seller, the state brought in the privately funded, San Francisco-based Trust for
Public Land to appraise, negotiate, and buy the Cornfields, then flip it to the state. Mihlsten was then on a statewide
advisory board of the Trust for Public Land. Latham's client ended up a with a fat profit for doing little but serve as the
people's punching bag, and the denizens of California gained 30 precious acres of almost-riverfront and in the heart of
the city. Though the per-acre price was somewhat lower for 32 acres of the Taylor Yard, once the developers brought in
Latham & Watkins, the process of getting the land into public hands was approximately the same.
To me, these were excellent outcomes, but they also confirmed Latham's power. In the Cornfields and Taylor Yard, Mayor
Richard Riordan and his business team (then headed by current city attorney Rocky Delgadillo) wanted the warehouses
built, so the city's environmental affairs and planning departments (and in the Cornfields case, its cultural heritage
commission) rubber-stamped the projects. None of the negotiations that led to the settlements of the lawsuits went
through the city of L.A. or any of its departments. It was as if Latham & Watkins has become an alternative form of city
Next - Part 2 (See below.)
Return to Top
LOS ANGELES MAGAZINE - April 2003
The Player - PART 2 (Continued)
by Lewis MacAdams
In the Game of Land Rights, Attorney George Mihlsten Knows How to Roll the Dice - and Win
One of the last conversations Mihlsten and I had before the Alliance filed its lawsuit took place outside the regional
planning commission hearing on the Cornfields. I ankled up to him and said, "Why don't we just settle this now and save a
lot of money for Majestic Realty and Friends of the Los Angeles River?" Mihlsten shrugged. "To you it's a lot of money.
To me it's an annuity." One of the reasons we've been able to stay friendly is that it's never personal with Mihlsten. I've
never seen him lose his temper, and I've never heard him say a mean word about anyone.
When we get together, we talk about power - who's got it, how they got it, how it's used. Usually he tries to keep his work
and his life with his wife of 25 years, Nola, a psychologist who helped establish a child abuse program that was adopted by
LAUSD, and his three teenagers, as separate as he can. "Most of my friends have nothing to do with what I do for a living,"
he says. His mother was a Jewish immigrant from Hitler's Germany who got married soon after she landed in New York.
She divorced not long after George, the youngest of her three children, was born, and moved to Houston with her kids. She
got a job as a hairdresser at Mister John's Beauty Parlor, and George never saw his father again. George grew up in a
two-bedroom apartment in Estella Link, an industrial suburb near where they later built the Astrodome. "I took my kids
back there seven years ago to show them where I lived," Mihlsten says, "and everything had been torn down."
Though they were poor - "we lived on her 25-cent tips" - he says he had a very happy childhood. When he was in the sixth
grade, he went to work racking bottles in a convenience store. His first car was a '59 VW bug that he bought for $300 and
in the mid 1960s steered west, because "California was a pretty exotic place growing up." After putting himself through
USC business school, he hit the road for a couple of years, cooking on freighters, making doughnuts, pumping gas. In the
early '70s he was back in L.A., living in an old house in Rampart with about 30 other people, when it dawned on him that
"making no money made no sense," so he enrolled in USC law school. He's had only one job since he graduated, at
Latham & Watkins.
The firm's original specialty was tax law. (Cofounder Dana Latham would go on to become the commissioner of internal
revenue in both Eisenhower administrations.) When Randy Stoke went to work for Latham as a tax attorney in the mid
1950s, the label "land-use attorney" didn't even exist. As a young lawyer, Stoke did the legal work that created the city of
Irwindale out of ten square miles of rubble at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. After it was incorporated, Stoke stayed
on as the city attorney. He became active in the League of California Cities, where he attended to the fine points of politics
and real estate. A land-use practice, as the field became known in the '60s was born, and Stoke would become Latham's
point person on some of the biggest deals of his time - the creation of Century City, the Warner Center, and the Getty
Center. Mihlsten came to Latham intending to specialize in tax law; then he met Stoke.
In Stoke's day, land-use practice was mostly just a matter of lining up votes at the planning commission. Things changed
dramatically, however, in 1987 with the "Friends of Westwood" decision, which essentially ended "by-right development,"
that is to say, the inherent right to develop your property in any way you want. Almost overnight in L.A., the number of
developments thrown into the political arena increased exponentially. "Ten years ago an environmental impact report
might have been a hundred pages long. Today it's 1,500," says Mihlsten.
"We've had EIRs that are 10,000 pages long." I personally have never seen one remotely that long. Even the EIR for the
bitterly contested Ahmanson Ranch just north of the Ventura-L.A. County line is only 4,000 pages - but the fear of a
10,000-page EIR continues to play right into Latham's hands.
Until the first halting efforts to channelize the Los Angles River were made in the mid 1800s, major floods every century or
so shifted the river's course, sweeping across a vast floodplain between what is now Long Beach and Marina del Rey. The
Ballona Wetlands was once a lush estuary at the confluence of the Los Angeles River, the Ballona, Walnut and Centinela
Creeks, and - when the tides breached the dunes of what is now Playa del Rey - Santa Monica Bay. In 1900, sheep and
cattle grazed on the 2,100 acres of wetlands, salt marsh, and prairie scrub. Howard Hughes bought the property in the
1930s to tinker with his experimental aircraft. You can still see the furrows where Japanese American farmers grew fava
beans and ryegrass. When the L.A. River was paved in the late '30s and '40s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
channelized Ballona Creek, which deprived the wetlands of steady saltwater. The construction of Marina del Rey later
reduced the wetlands by half. Including the Westchester bluffs on the south side of Ballona (owned by Catellus, another
Latham & Watkins client), the drained and filled Ballona Wetlands of today consists of approximately 1,087 acres, 475 of
them west of Lincoln Boulevard.
For many, the primal fact of the Ballona Wetlands is space. You feel like you can breathe there, contemplating the weather
patterns as they slide across the sky. The tidal gates that long kept Ballona Creek out of the wetlands have fallen into
disrepair; a little water flows in and out, hinting at a wetlands rhythm absent for decades. A growing population of
endangered Belding's Savannah Sparrows nests in the salt marsh each April. California least terns commute by the
thousands from Central and South America in the spring. Black-bellied plovers from the arctic winter here, alongside
hundreds of Willet from the plains of eastern Idaho and central Canada and hundreds of Monarch butterflies. Yet as rich
an ecology as Ballona is, it has proved to be a wasteland for would-be developers, thanks in no small part to two very
Playa del Rey activists started hearing rumors that the Summa Corporation, heirs to Hughes's estate, had big plans for the
wetlands in the mid '70s. By the time Summa announced, a few months after Hughes's death in 1976, that is was going to
develop the property, Ruth Lansford and her husband had already brought a few friends together in their living room to
organize against the project. Summa's dreams were enormous: a development stretching all the was from the San Diego
Freeway to the ocean, with malls and high-rises, and 18-hole golf course, and a Marina causeway that would bisect the 72
acres of salt marsh that Summa promised to preserve.
For Lansford's Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, it was an uphill struggle. Mayor Tom Bradley and Westside city
councilperson Pat Russell both wanted the project built. Summa brought in Latham & Watkins, which convinced
Republican governor George Deukmejian's California Coastal Commission to green-light the development. In 1984,
Friends of the Ballona Wetlands sued the coastal commission, stalling it long enough for project foe Ruth Galanter to take
Russell's city council seat. Summa saw the writing on the wall and in 1989 sold the land to Maguire Thomas Partners.
At the end of the '80s, Maguire Thomas was riding high. Developers of the Library Tower and the beautiful Maguire
Gardens on the west lawn of the Central Library, it had a reputation as one of L.A.'s most successful and progressive
companies, and it came to Ballona as saviors. In 1990, Maguire Thomas agreed to preserve 341 acres of salt marsh,
freshwater, riparian, and native terrestrial habitats and promised $13.5 million to help restore the salt marsh. In exchange,
Friends of the Ballona Wetlands agreed to settle its suit.
|Marcia Hanscom first got involved with Ballona in 1995, when a private detective and environmental activist named Bruce
Robertson gave her a map of Maguire's proposed project. "Once he showed me," Hanscom remembers, "I was stunned."
There were plans for 13,000 residential units and 6 million square feet of commercial space, one of the largest
developments in the history of Los Angeles. Hanscom, Robertson and a few friends formed the Wetlands Action Network,
a nonprofit organization "dedicated to the protection and restoration of wetlands along thePacific migratory pathways." In
1996, the Wetlands Action Network and its allies filed their first lawsuits.
In the early 1990s, the Japanese business bubble, which had financed a string of downtown high-rises, burst. By 1997,
the banks were threatening to bring Maguire Thomas down. Playa Capital, a partnership between investment bankers
Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs and Westside deal maker Gary Winnick, stepped in and picked up Maguire Thomas's
notes. Though the partners labored mightily to build Play Vista, the Wetlands Action Network bat back every attempt, filing
at least a half dozen lawsuits against the city, the state, and the federal government and even bringing an unfair business
practices suit against Playa Capital itself.
Two years ago Playa Capital hired a new president, Steve Soboroff, a commercial real estate developer and landlord who
chaired Mayor Riordan's Recreation and Parks Commission before running for mayor in 2001. A bearlike optimist who
sees himself as a problem solver, Soboroff claims Playa Capital hired him because of his training as a parks person. "I
told them I wanted to do everything I could to work out a deal." He quickly brought in Mihlsten as his chief negotiator.
Soboroff is effusive about Mihlsten. "Everything I ever worked with him on has worked! At the end of a meeting with most
lawyers, they give you a list of problems. George gives you solutions and a battle plan. I don't look at George as an
attorney. I look at him as a strategist." "My job," Mihlsten says, "is to get Playa Vista built, and to create a great park in
Ballona Wetlands - to make a state purchase of the wetlands a reality." The first - and I believe the most important - thing
Mihlsten did was provide a fresh narrative: Playa Vista and the Ballona Wetlands would become different places with
different futures. The 539 acres between Lincoln Boulevard and the San Diego Freeway would become Playa Vista, 3.4
million square feet of office buildings and 5,846 new apartments and town houses, plus a library, community center, fire
station, K-8 school, and a string of residential mini parks designed by Ed Schlossberg, Caroline Kennedy's husband.
The 475 acres west of Lincoln Boulevard and east of Playa del Rey, along with 73 acres east of Lincoln along Ballona
Creek already in state hands, would become the Ballona Wetlands, the property of all Californians. As people bought into
his narrative, Mihlsten convened discussions between Latham & Watkins, representing Playa Capital, and the Trust for
Public Land, representing the state of California. "George was out there talking to everybody, being proactive, keeping the
lines of communication open," says Reed Holderman, the Trust for Public Land's western regional director. As with the
Cornfields, all lines of communication ran through the switchboard of Latham & Watkins.
Though neither party will confirm it, they settled on a price estimated to be between $100 million and $150 million for the
first 193 acres west of Lincoln. How would the state of California pay for it? "As soon as Soboroff came on board,"
Mihlsten explains, "we started planning Props. 40, 50, and 51."
Mihlsten is no ideologue, but his politics veer sharply to the right. Nevertheless, he has "a lot of friends in office,
obviously, on both sides of the aisle." Former L.A. state assemblyman Richard Katz had already made sure there was $25
million in 2000's Prop. 12 earmarked to buy land in Ballona. According to Mihlsten, Latham & Watkins worked closely
with legislative staff to make sure last year's Prop. 40 would provide even more money. During its latter stages, the Prop.
40 campaign was run out of the Sacramento-based offices of the Planning & Conservation League. In the last days of the
campaign, Playa Capital and other developers came in with substantial donations that helped ensure its passage.
What had been a trickle of developer support for Prop. 40 became a flood with 2002's Prop. 50, the largest water bond in
the history of California. By far the most generous donor to the Prop. 50 campaign was Playa Capital, which threw in more
than $800,000 - and those were early dollars, which bankrolled the signature-gathering operation that got the proposition
on the ballot. Proposition 50 passed by a mile. Between Props. 12, 40, and 50, Mihlsten says, there is now enough
money for the state to buy all of the Ballona Wetlands and for Playa Capital to build its project. All of this has occurred, as
far as I can tell, without the oversight or active leadership of a single elected city official or agency, just as happened with
the Cornfields and Taylor Yard. Still, for greater L.A., indeed for all of Southern California, for the two-legged beings and
the four-legged beings, the swimming ones and the flying ones, a prospective deal to buy the Ballona Wetlands seems like
wonderful news. Latham & Watkins is working in a city that has a very thin civic culture. The tight white web of boosters
and decision makers who ran L.A. for most of the 20th century is gone, and nothing has yet taken its place. I asked one of
the most astute political observers I know what he thought of the situation, and he requested anonymity because of his
own business dealings with the firm.
"We've diminished and underfunded the planning department," he told me. "The best people have left for private practice.
In fact, many of them are on retainer to Latham. Latham & Watkins say to the developer, 'Here's this unfathomable city,
and I can get you through it. Get on my back and ride.'" Not surprisingly, Mihlsten rejects that argument. "We're not
afraid of being adverse to the city," he says. "It depends on what our clients need." Latham sued the city on behalf of the
House of Blues when it was trying to wrest the contract to run the Greek Theater from the Nederlander Organization, and
the House of Blues lost. He says he's in the middle of a pro bono suit against the city on behalf of "a little group of Jews
that want to pray in Hancock Park" and need more space to do it in. "We sued the city when they refused to allow Phil
Anschutz's [oil] pipeline to proceed." I asked Reed Holderman of the Trust for Public Land if he'd run into any other
situations in which a private law firm played such a prominent role in directing a city's future. "In some places, the city
itself does it," Holderman said, sounding bemused. "In some places, planning departments do it. In L.A., I guess George
So what could be wrong with that?
End of Article
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is
offered without profit for research and educational purposes.)
|Wildflowers from the Pribilof Islands