The secret to a Rising California? Listen to each other and do big things

By Joe Mathews
SF Gate
Sacramento Bee 
Fresno Bee

What do we do now, Nelson Rising?

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

“What do we do now?” is the question that concludes the 1972 film “The Candidate,” in which Robert Redford plays an idealistic U.S. Senate candidate corrupted by the political process. Rising, who ran John Tunney’s successful 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.

Nelson 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 much care about taking credit.

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

But then you’d still be leaving out dozens of major developments like the mixed-use Santa Fe towers next to San Diego’s train station or Orange County’s planned community, Coto de Caza. “He is to blame for ‘The Real Housewives of Orange County,’ ” says Rising’s son, Chris.

Beyond buildings, 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.

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

Nelson Rising makes the 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 civic 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 suits the man, the polar opposite of the real estate developer in the White House. Rising’s parents never attended college; he went from Glendale High to UCLA on scholarship. He’s married to the same woman, former Fresnan Sharon Lynne Sanders, for 53 years. They were married in Fresno in 1963.

And he’s succeeded by embracing conversation and complexity. He made the Library Tower happen by arranging a complicated swap of air rights between the project and L.A.’s Central Library. To win approval for the Playa Vista project, he met with Westchester homeowners in their living rooms to address anger about multiunit housing in his plan.

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, having flunked retirement, remains in business with his son. They focus on transforming older buildings so they produce less carbon, are healthier, and incorporate technology. The firm is working in L.A., San Diego, and San Francisco. 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.