Megabank plans to turn property into 3,000-home mini-city

When Washington Mutual recently revealed that it may sell its sprawling, 2,800-acre cattle ranch in east Ventura County, Chris Albrecht considered it a victory.

For years, in his off time from HBO, he’d fought to save the land of oak woodlands and grassy vistas in the Santa Monica Mountains — on the border of his house in Hidden Hills. The megabank planned to turn the property into a 3,000-home mini-city; that it was talking about a sale to the state for parkland meant they may be giving up.

“If it happens, which I hope it will, it is an amazing thing that shows how this country really can work when people band together and can get their voices heard and work the system,” Albrecht says, sounding every bit the Mr. Smith. “It was tough because you have one of the largest banks in the world sitting on the other side of the issue.”

His work as co-chair of Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch, along with director Rob Reiner, put Albrecht in the new role of environmental activist, leading a campaign against a corporation of the same intimidating might as an AOL Time Warner. At one point the bank hired former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as a consultant.

“There are a lot of industry executives who simply lend their names to a cause,” says Chad Griffin, campaign director for the group. “Chris was very involved. Without that commitment, we would not be where we are today.”

Up until several years ago, Albrecht had just assumed that the sprawling land around his home — one of the largest privately owned, undeveloped parcels in the Santa Monica Mountains — would always remain relatively pristine. He rode horses there, and believed that any building plans were far from being realized. Several years ago, to his surprise, he got a flier from an opponents’ group that outlined the developer’s plans.

“The stuff I started to hear just made me angry and I realized that this was really a bad thing to happen,” Albrecht says. “We had Malibu Creek and traffic and pollution.”

So, on the advice of environmental activist Laurie David, wife of Larry David, Albrecht gathered industry friends at a Malibu dinner. It was then, in 2001, that he and Reiner agreed to lead the effort.

Washington Mutual officials have not said exactly why, after long insisting the project would go forward, they are now willing to sell.

But the housing project has been stalled by more than a dozen lawsuits, as well as discoveries of rare species. Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn has expressed his opposition, along with officials from neighboring communities in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

While it is difficult to gauge what impact Albrecht and Reiner have had, Griffin says they helped take the anti-Ahmanson campaign to a new level.

Griffin says Albrecht was especially adept at strategy. Opponents had been focusing much of their fight on the vaguely named Ahmanson Land Co. but Albrecht said they should start speaking out against Ahmanson’s parent company, Washington Mutual. “We have got to speak to them and their customers,” Griffin recalls Albrecht as saying. “It’s an issue of branding.”

Celebrities gave the opposition more publicity. Among other things, Martin Sheen narrated a series of radio spots against the bank. Other efforts were crafty. One protest targeted Phillip D. Matthews, CEO of the company that owns Sizzler Restaurants, because he is on the Washington Mutual board of directors.

“I think Chris understands his position of power and influence,” Griffin says. “He’s sought after by so many charities and causes. He’s very smart and strategic about his time.”

Albrecht’s next big effort: Co-chairing a $500-million capital campaign for Children’s Hospital. He became aware of their care when one of his daughters was seriously injured in an auto accident. She has fully recovered.

“They already have raised 300 million, we need to raise the last 200,” Albrecht says. “So people will be hearing from me.”

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