When it comes to Southern California real estate, Trump has been outbid, outhustled and outmuscled

On Jan. 13, 1990, Donald Trump arrived at the once-glamorous Ambassador Hotel for a major announcement: Here on Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard, Trump said, he would build the tallest building in the world.

It was the New York developer’s first major deal on the West Coast and a potentially skyline-redefining project for L.A. The 125-story, $1-billion-plus residential and commercial complex would overshadow everything else in the neighborhood, a towering testament to Trump’s ambition.

At the time, long before his 2016 run for president, Trump seemed to be everywhere. He was already a household name with Trump Tower and the Plaza Hotel in New York, plus his casinos in Atlantic City and his lavish Mar-a-Lago estate  in Florida, which led then-City Council President John Ferraro to joke, “Why did it take you so long to get to Los Angeles?”

Twenty-six years later, Trump still hasn’t really arrived in L.A. — at least not as a builder of skyscrapers.

In the world of real estate, the Trump name is a symbol of opulence and daring, stamped on buildings in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas in the U.S. and in cities around the world, including Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul and Mumbai, where Trump has licensed his brand to other developers.

But there is no Trump Tower on the old Ambassador Hotel site or anywhere else in L.A., for that matter.

Trump’s biggest land holding here is a shoreline Rancho Palos Verdes golf course, which bankrupted its previous owners when the 18th hole slid into the ocean in 1999.

“If there was a great deal and he could get it at a great price and if we could make it a phenomenal place … he was interested,” Sprague said. “But at the time, we weren’t seeing anything special. It’s not that there weren’t very special things in L.A., it’s just we weren’t seeing them for sale.”

Trump wanted properties that suited his particular tastes. “He’s not just looking for a spot to build another tower, just another of the same,” Sprague said. “He wants to do things that are special. … He likes trophy properties, he likes the best. And he likes things that somehow he feels nobody else could have gotten.”

In 1988, Trump dabbled with another potential entry into Southern California, by way of a power play on the stock market.

He filed notice with federal regulators that he was considering buying up to 24.9% of the entertainment giant MCA, whose vast holdings included Universal Pictures, Universal Television and the sprawling 420-acre Universal Studios lot in the San Fernando Valley. MCA’s stock soared on Trump’s interest, and some close watchers of the company speculated that Trump, who had bought about 1% of MCA’s stock, was after the company’s real estate.

But the company itself didn’t seem to take Trump’s acquisition threat too seriously. When news of Trump’s interest broke, MCA’s top managers responded by decamping for their weekend homes in Palm Springs and Malibu, The Times reported.

Trump ultimately didn’t make a play for the company, and his once market-moving interest has since become a little-remembered historical footnote. “I have no personal recollection of any contact or any dealings with him,” former MCA President Sidney Sheinberg said this summer when asked about Trump’s interest. “I doubt that I would forget such a thing.”

Trump himself had an odd explanation in 1988 when a Times reporter asked him if or when he planned to make a serious move on L.A.

“I’m really concerned with the whole earthquake situation in L.A.,” Trump said. “I am a tremendous believer that someday Las Vegas may be the West Coast.”


As it turned out, Trump’s tremor concerns melted away almost immediately.

In 1989, one of the Southland’s once-great hotels, the Ambassador, shut down. Trump proposed building a world-record skyscraper over the site after joining a syndicate that bought the 23.5-acre lot for $64 million.

Wasn’t Trump worried about earthquakes? “It’s no problem,” Trump told a reporter.

Trump, who reportedly held a 20% stake in the syndicate, said the hotel was too run-down to bring back to life. He suggested the tower complex might hold a mix of apartments, condos, a hotel, offices, retail stores and a ballroom in a densely populated stretch of Mid-Wilshire.

Not quite. Although the casino soon grew more successful and revenue grew, the tribe wasn’t satisfied and grew tired of Trump’s involvement, which was pricey: Trump’s deal secured him 30% of the casino’s revenue, the legal maximum normally allowed for such contracts with tribes.


Apart from a Beverly Hills mansion he bought for $7 million on Rodeo Drive, the golf course has remained Trump’s jewel in Southern California as other projects in the region have fallen through.

In 2003, Trump put in a proposal to spearhead the Grand Avenue project for a residential and commercial development that would revitalize downtown L.A., which would have given him a hand in reshaping one of the nation’s hottest neighborhoods. He was passed over for a team later joined by superstar architect Frank Gehry.

In 2006, Trump made another major swing, and this time he fell into a 52-round bidding war for an empty lot at 10000 Santa Monica Blvd. between Century City and Beverly Hills. The site once held Jimmy’s restaurant, a famed hangout for celebrities and power-brokers.

Trump’s adversary, the Orange County developer SunCal Cos., beat Trump with a bid of $110.2 million for a lot slightly larger than two acres, one of the highest prices ever paid per acre in this part of the country.

“Every bid has its limit and we felt this had reached its limit,” Trump’s partner on the deal, Bill Witte, president of the California development group for Related, told The Times in 2006.

SunCal’s victory over Trump was short-lived. The project lapsed into bankruptcy two years later when SunCal’s financier, Lehman Bros., imploded in the nation’s financial crisis.

One of Trump’s more unusual episodes in Southern California came when he offered to buy TV host Ed McMahon’s mansion in Beverly Hills in 2008.

McMahon was ailing, unable to work, and had defaulted on $4.8 million in mortgages with Countrywide Financial Corp. Framing it as an act of benevolence, Trump publicly offered to buy the property and allow McMahon to keep living on it, telling the Los Angeles Times in 2008, “I don’t know the man, but I grew up watching him on TV.”

The gesture, coming in the thick of the housing crisis, earned numerous headlines. But Trump’s attempts to buy the house fell through.

“We contacted the institution that had the mortgage on this house, and it was unfortunately wrapped with many other mortgages, and they were unable to get out of their own way,” Trump later told the Wall Street Journal.

Dan Schryer, a low-profile tech investor from northern California, had no such problem.

Doing what Trump couldn’t or wouldn’t do, Schryer swooped in, anonymously bought the house for an unlisted amount, allowed McMahon to stay there until his death in 2009.

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