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Jerry B. Epstein: Developer, philanthropist, irrepressible adviser

by Jonah Lowenfeld

November 10, 2010 | 7:15 am

Jerry and Pat Epstein. <i>Photo: Marc Elliott Photography</i>

Jerry and Pat Epstein. Photo: Marc Elliott Photography

Jerry B. Epstein is probably best-known as the developer of two apartment complexes in Marina del Rey. He and his wife also have long been very generous supporters of Saint John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica. But as much money as Epstein has donated to his favored causes, which also include AIPAC and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, some of his most notable contributions can’t be totaled up in dollars and cents.

That’s because Epstein, 87, has made something of a second, unpaid career out of offering advice on every topic under the sun, even when some of it is unwelcome.

First, a bit of background. Forty-five years ago, Epstein was one of the original developers of the “400 acres of water and 400 acres of land” — as he put it — that make up Marina del Rey. “It is the largest income-producing asset owned by the County of Los Angeles,” Epstein said of the unincorporated part of L.A. County that sits on the ocean’s edge, just south of Venice. “I’m the only one of the original developers who’s still above ground,” Epstein said.

That’s something of an understatement: Epstein comes into the office every day — after starting his day at 5:30 a.m. with a three-mile walk on the treadmill.

Born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Epstein had never been west of the Allegheny Mountains before coming to California in May 1942, on his way to bombardier school. He flew in B-17 and B-29 bombers during World War II and remembers how his time in the service helped him mature. “It was amazing how much my parents had learned while I was away,” Epstein said, adding that he believes the United States should institute two years of mandatory service in the armed forces for all citizens. To “get your butt kicked a little bit,” Epstein said.

Epstein sneaks suggestions like this into every conversation. “The best way to be a sailor is to be invited aboard,” the accomplished seaman said at one point during lunch at the California Yacht Club. How had he and his wife, Pat, stayed happily married for over 60 years? “Two words: ‘Yes, dear,’ ” Epstein said. “And that goes for both the husband and the wife.” Even his reflective comments often feel like gentle nudges. If he were starting his career over again today, he said, he’d go to law school. “It prepares you for any profession. It teaches you to take nothing for granted, and to research everything.”

Epstein has held a number of powerful public advisory positions, and he doesn’t seem to care about flying below the radar or worry about ruffling feathers. Until earlier this year, he served as president of the Los Angeles State Building Authority, the three-person body charged with planning, financing and overseeing construction and management of state office buildings downtown. When, in the summer of 2009, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California legislature announced — without consulting Epstein or his colleagues — that they planned to sell 11 state-owned office buildings across the state, including two in Los Angeles, Epstein requested a review of the decision.

He made the request in February 2010. In March, after nearly 30 years serving on the building authority, Epstein was fired.

“At 86 years old, I am not personally concerned about having been fired,” Epstein wrote in a blunt opinion piece published in the Los Angeles Times in early April. By selling off these buildings, he argued, the governor and legislature might balance the 2009-10 state budget, but at a significant cost — namely, the rent state agencies located downtown would have to pay to the buildings’ new owners.

“Short-term solutions and accounting gimmicks like the proposed sale of state buildings have long-term consequences,” Epstein wrote in the Times. Nevertheless, last month, downtown L.A.’s Ronald Reagan and Junipero Serra state buildings were sold, along with nine other office buildings across the state, for a combined $2.33 billion.

It wasn’t the first time Epstein saw his advice go unheeded. From 1985 to 1990, Epstein served on the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners, where he learned much about the inadequacy of airport security at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and around the country. In January 1999, when The New York Times reported that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) agents disguised as passengers had repeatedly been able to smuggle guns, hand grenades and bombs past security guards, Epstein, in an op-ed in the L.A. Times, urged the FAA to improve the baggage screening process at airports, hire better-trained and better-paid security personnel, install new perimeter security fencing around runways and to tack on a “modest user fee” to every airline ticket to pay for security improvements.

Jane F. Garvey, then the FAA administrator, responded by calling Epstein’s account “outdated.” “Security today is better than it was two years ago, but more can and will be done,” Garvey said.

The deadliest airport security failure in history — 9/11 — was only two years away.

After the terror attacks, Epstein testified before the House Subcommittee on Aviation, repeating some of the suggestions he had made two years earlier, including the idea that “a trained special force” had to be established to help secure the country’s airports. Their members, Epstein said, needed to be “identified, trained and managed by one accountable agency.” Today, such an agency exists — the Transportation Security Administration.

Epstein has brought his advice-giving habit to his philanthropy as well. When Saint John’s had to completely rebuild its health center, which was badly damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Epstein’s developer expertise was invaluable. “He has built so many things in his life and been through, as he calls it, the drill,” Saint John’s Foundation Vice President Robert O. Klein said of Epstein. “When things did arise, he’d been down this path before so he was great counsel to the hospital leadership.”

It’s as if he can’t help but offer suggestions. In his testimony before the Congressional subcommittee on airport security in 2001, Epstein, who served on both the California Transportation Commission and the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said what the country needed most was a good high-speed railway network.

“While it is not the subject of this hearing,” Epstein told the committee, “I want to take this opportunity to urge you to consider what the rest of the world already knows, and what we in America are only just beginning to grasp: That high-speed rail can be the most effective mode of transportation for trips of 400 miles or less.”

Epstein made a similar comment over lunch recently. He said he still misses the Yellow Car and Red Car trolleys that once plied the streets of Los Angeles, and he hopes that someone will find a way to build a high-speed rail connection between the Palmdale airport and LAX.

“What we need is a czar like Robert Moses,” Epstein said. 

This comment earned Epstein a look of warning from his longtime chief of staff, David Levine, who was sitting next to him. Moses transformed New York City in the early decades of the 20th century by building parkways, bridges and other public works. He was also known for his ruthless dismissal of neighborhood opposition to his projects.

But Epstein would not be deterred. “Two thousand years ago, there was a perfect person,” Epstein said. “Since then, there hasn’t been one. Everyone’s record is mixed. My record is mixed.”

And who might that czar be?

“It would be me if I was 30 years younger,” Epstein said. Then he remembered his age. “Forty years younger.”

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