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Interview with Shaheen Sadeghi

Coast talks to the developer of the Anaheim Packing District, a project that restored two historic buildings, created a park and just might give Anaheim its soul back.

RALPH PALUMBO

Shaheen Sadeghi, the developer behind the famous LAB and CAMP projects in Costa Mesa, as well as the new Anaheim Packing District, began his career about as far from the role of OC developer as you could get: as a couture designer in New York City.

Sadeghi worked under famous, eccentric designer Charles James, in the infamous Chelsea Hotel. “I went to work at 7 p.m. and worked till 2 a.m.. Those were his working hours. At 2 a.m. I would take the train home to Brooklyn,” says Sadeghi. With people like Bianca Jagger and Richard Avedon stopping by, it was far from good preparation for the stiff-collared OC development scene.

Or was it? From NYC, Sadeghi moved to California to join surfwear company Gotcha, then became president of surfwear giant Quiksilver. There, Sadeghi fell in tune with a new, younger generation, one that the malls of the ‘90s were actively rejecting as worthless loiterers.

“I was just blown away by that characterization, knowing that we (Quik and Gotcha) had just sold billions of dollars worth of surf goods to this consumer. I knew that this was a sophisticated, emerging new generation of consumer. They were into clean oceans, politics, and technology. I also knew that this generation was looking for a place of gathering that was different than what was offered,” says Sadeghi.

The LAB Anti-Mall was born. That was 1992 and Sadeghi never looked back, developing half a dozen other projects around the county since, all with a uniqueness and sense of cool that speaks to his years in couture and surf.

Now, Sadeghi is tackling one of his biggest challenges to date: the Anaheim Packing District. It’s a restoration of two historic buildings and an addition of a community park. The first of three phases, the restoration of the Packard Building, has been open for nine months, and is now home to the Anaheim Brewery and Umami Burger. Just this month, Farmers Park, designed by OC Great Park’s designer Ken Smith, opened. And coming this October will be more than 22 restaurants in the historic Anaheim Packing House building.

Sadeghi says the development and restoration was as much an art project as it was financial venture. That’s because of the intrinsic, if intangible, value of the site, as well as the responsibility he felt in restoring it. “You can’t buy soul, or authenticity. You have to earn it,” he says of the landmark buildings.

We spoke to Sadeghi to find out about his new project and ended up talking about everything from big box retailers to great markets of the world.

You could probably surf for the rest of your life at this point. Why keep building?
Growing up I played music, and the best analogy I can give you is it’s like being a musician. You do one album that captures the essence of where you are in your life and that reflects the things that are important to you. And five or 10 years later you cut another album that sounds different.

Then let’s reflect and go through each of your albums.
Back in ‘92 when we did the LAB I was very much involved in the surfing industry and the youth culture and that was my passion. The LAB really was for that generation. Ten years later, we were very much interested in sustainability. And I know the whole green thing has become very generic, but back then green didn’t exist. So we were really thinking sustainability and I think the CAMP project is a reflection of the fact that my kids were younger and we did a lot of outdoor activities and felt we wanted a place that was about health, and quality of life.       

In San Clemente, your Casino building restoration had a lot of historical significance. now comes the Anaheim Packing District project with both a historical and community focus.
That’s right. And I think the opportunity to restore vintage buildings on this scale is an opportunity of a lifetime. For instance, the Packing House building was a 1919 Spanish Colonial Revival, which is really a huge part of California’s history. The fact that this building was not torn down as a result of any of the cultural shifts as a country since 1919 is truly a miracle in and to itself, because we’ve wiped out so much of our history.

Is this a restaurant project?
It was really an art project for us. The fact that it was a food facility fed the idea of making it a modern food facility. This was a huge part of Anaheim, and Orange County; it was a very successful, dynamic business in its time, and the question was How do we bring all that back? How do we use our past to grow our future?

Wouldn’t it be easier to tear it down and build from scratch?
The question then becomes, do you want it to be Las Vegas, or do you want it to be real? I think there is a true value for things that are real. In addition to these buildings having an authenticity that can’t be reproduced, they also have a lot of soul. When you walk into these structures, you can feel the energy. That’s something you can’t do from scratch. You can try really hard; you can do faux painting, you can distress wood and brick, but at the end of the day, so much of what we do is storytelling, and people are interested in content and authenticity.

Like the Packing House?
Yes. The communities all want to be coauthors with developers. So the days when you show up and develop something as the imposer, that’s very difficult. With the Packing House for example, we have people walking in with a photograph of their grandma who used to work here, and they just want to stand inside of this building. That just floors me. I can bring the best architect and the most talented craftsman to reproduce this, but I wouldn’t get that.

You’ve mentioned that one of the things you try to avoid is the formulaic aspect of your business. Can you elaborate?
Developers go through these waves of formulas. For instance, big box centers became fashionable a while back and they were built all across the country. You had a Home Depot next to a Costco next to a Petco, etcetera. But they didn’t really build community did they? It was just about consumption at its max. Then we went through this time when we had entertainment centers. The idea was that if we built massive movie theaters with 50 screens it would bring people and then they would shop and dine. Many, many of those across the country failed.

Some survived, though, like the Irvine Spectrum. The Spectrum started that way, but Donald Bren had enough control and money to navigate the changing market.

You envision a community market like those in South America or Europe. Did you visit any?
Yes. We take our research pretty seriously, so we have traveled most of South America. We visited great marketplaces in Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. And we’ve gone to Spain and visited the great markets in Barcelona, and then the grand old market in Canada. We’ve done Pike Place Market in Seattle, the Chelsea Market in New York, the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. So we’ve really spent the time to understand the dynamics.

Barcelona is interesting because it has two markets, one that has been there for literally 1,000 years. Napoleon went through there, the Arabs went through there; it’s historic. Then they built a new market about eight years ago. The new market from an architectural standpoint is beautiful. But when you go into these spaces, it just feels like a fake supermarket. By contrast, the old one is dirty, and nothing is in the right place; it’s a logistical nightmare. But it was packed, and soulful. And I think its authenticity and history is what drew people. Even though they hired a rockstar architect to recreate it in the new space, it doesn’t work.

So how are you going to do it here?
Well, I think that the fact that our building is real helps us a lot. A lot. And the fact that we restored it to its original state is key. With today’s technology, I could have probably reproduced this building from scratch, but it would have been soulless. You can’t produce soul.

What will be there?
We call it a food hall. We’ve learned that the city of Anaheim has this amazingly eclectic demographic. There are large Spanish, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, and other communities. And a mile down the street there is 20 million visitors on an annual basis for the convention center and Disneyland. And these people are looking for localization. So we’ve ended up with a great Indian restaurant, a great Japanese restaurant, a great Chinese restaurant and a great American hamburger place. We’re really bringing the local food artisans together.

And there’s more to come with the Packing House, right?
Yes. October is our grand opening for the Packing House, which will have about 22 restaurants.

You also built a park. Why?
We want this area to become a real community gathering spot. There’s live music, there’s educational programs – how do you grow your own food or vegetables – and on Saturdays there’s farmers markets and craft markets. There are a couple of footprints for buildings in the park, too, because eventually there will be food places. Like Europe, you go to the park and you can always stop somewhere within the park and have food or coffee, and we wanted to recreate that experience.


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